June 1, 2005-Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs of the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs-Veterans Ombudsman

For complete testimony, questions and answers, please click here.

Mr. Sean Bruyea (As an Individual):

Honourable members, my name is Sean Bruyea. I’m a retired captain and intelligence officer who proudly served in Canada’s air force for 14 years. I was disabled as a result of my service in the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91.

We are pleased that Canada’s government has declared 2005 to be the Year of the Veteran and is honouring almost 700,000 veterans and 80,000 presently serving CF members.

Roughly seven years ago, on June 15, 1998, the Office of the Ombudsman National Defence and Canadian Forces was established to make sure none of the 80,000 CF members is unfairly treated. The position serves the men and women of our forces well. However, once CF members leave the forces, they become veterans. The ombudsman has no mandate to represent veterans in matters concerning veterans affairs.

The irony is that whereas healthy and for the most part employable soldiers in DND do have an independent ombudsman, disabled and often unemployable veterans do not. This very obvious oversight was addressed just three months ago, on March 31 of this year, by André Marin, the departing ombudsman for the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces. In his white paper “Overhauling Oversight”, he wrote the following:

“Denying to veterans access to the Ombudsman to address…their issues makes little practical sense. The door should not close on them once the scope of their problem reaches into the realm of Veterans Affairs Canada. The stereotype of a veteran may well be the wizened, elderly gentleman giving a shaky but dignified salute beside a memorial–someone who is far removed in time and life-experience from his military days–but the reality is that Veterans Affairs Canada administers benefits for those who only hours or days before were members of the Canadian Forces. All former members, even those who have been discharged for decades, maintain a close connection to the institution, not only because their military experiences are etched in their character but also because their personal welfare remains tethered to the government they served. Their financial security, their mental and physical health, and their sense of belonging are all inextricably linked to the military….It was inevitable that veterans would call, as they have, for the creation of an ombudsman’s office or an inspector general to assist them. It is a call that must be answered.”

The call was echoed earlier this month by a confidential Senate analysis of Bill C-45, which stated, “While this legislation will provide veterans with much-needed job assistance, it does not provide them with an ombudsman.” Indeed, the eight-year process that recently culminated in Bill C-45, the so-called Veterans Charter, only serves to further underscore the pressing need for an ombudsman for Veterans Affairs Canada.

Ironically, while the Veterans Charter was motivated in part by the neglect and mistreatment of the 45,000 veterans pensioned for disability since the Korean conflict, VAC did not engage in meaningful consultation or feedback with the very veterans the legislation was intended to assist. Believe it or not, VAC carried out consultations with the leadership of six veterans’ organizations only on condition that the leadership was forbidden to discuss any details of the proposed charter with their membership. Thus, the so-called consensus of veterans’ organizations in support of Bill C-45 could have been based on the views of as few as six individuals.

Then, because of the unprecedented way the charter was expedited through the House of Commons, in under five minutes on May 10, veterans were denied any meaningful opportunity to provide input on the charter’s potential impact on them. The fact is, VAC was so interested in the public perception of being seen as client-focused in this Year of the Veteran, they actually completely forgot about meaningful consultation.

In this regard, they’re a little bit like the zealous volunteer who sees an immobile victim who moments earlier dived into shallow water. The eager volunteer rushes to move the victim and then administer mouth-to-mouth without checking to see if the victim’s neck is broken. Some help that is not carefully and thoughtfully applied does more harm than good.

When someone has been disabled as a result of his or her service to Canada while serving in the Canadian Forces, he or she has a right to assistance. In order for that assistance to be meaningful, VAC must learn to listen; however, VAC’s track record does not inspire confidence. In this regard, an ombudsman would be a neutral and objective sounding board for veterans and a strong proof that the government’s new commitment to veterans goes far beyond lip service.

The ombudsman would also be a place to turn to for information about existing channels of assistance and redress within VAC that are presently poorly publicized, if at all. The office would have the authority to investigate complaints where other mechanisms are not available and cut through much of the bureaucracy, not just for the sake of one individual but for the benefit of hundreds if not thousands of veterans to follow.

In the early 1990s, processing times for favourable decisions were approaching 18 months. This sparked a public scandal, resulting in the complete overhaul of Veterans Affairs Canada in 1995. Although the department has since accelerated claim processing times, the real story isn’t quite that simple. The modern disabled veteran often suffers from complex medical conditions with which VAC is unfamiliar. As a result, initial pension awards are often far below what is needed according to the reality of the disabilities suffered. For example, awards of 20%, or $400 per month, have been quite common for disabilities that make the veteran totally unemployable.

As a result of such inadequate decisions, the psychologically and/or physically disabled veteran is forced to enter an indescribably demoralizing review and appeal process. Our investigations and personal experiences indicate that the processing times for an adequate decision for a disability claim can take three to five years and that a number of claims remain outstanding even after five years.

In spite of Auditor General reports on VAC in 1998 and 2000, many veterans who receive unfavourable decisions from the department are still being forced to appeal to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board when other more efficient, less costly, and less traumatic avenues such as departmental reviews are available. Worse, despite the Prime Minister’s promise to the contrary, the VRAB board members are still politically appointed. Out of the 22 members, only one has a prior military background, and none are or have been medical practitioners.

The entire process is rife with apparent conflicts of interest. The veteran is represented at the board hearings by a lawyer working for and responsible to VAC, consulting files maintained by National Defence, and defending the case to a board whose members, according to the Prime Minister’s Office, are recommended by VAC itself. Perhaps even more bizarre is the fact that both the Prime Minister’s Office and the Minister of Veterans Affairs claim the other is responsible for the Veterans Review and Appeal Board. The bottom line is that the board that is deciding on veterans’ lives and spending Canadian tax dollars is accountable to no one.

It is in this environment that an ombudsman’s office would excel. An ombudsman’s office at Veterans Affairs would be the perfect organization for investigating the long-standing criticisms of how the Bureau of Pensions Advocates, Veterans Affairs Canada, and the Veterans Review and Appeal Board interact. Furthermore, a VAC ombudsman would ensure that systemic problems would not be filtered by middle managers. Instead, senior departmental officials would have the tools to manage more efficiently and ensure mission statements and service values are actually upheld.

Ironically, the main obstacles to the creation of an ombudsman are the Royal Canadian Legion and Veterans Affairs itself. The Minister of VAC even points to the legion as a reason to not have an ombudsman for her department. In his white paper, “Overhauling Oversight”, André Marin made a distinction between the strong advocacy in the legion and the legal mandate of the ombudsman, stating the following:

“To be sure, the Canadian Legion is a magnificent organization that has done its best to establish committees and to liaise with government administrators, often with great effect, but it is not an institutionalized ombudsman. It does not have the powers of proactive investigation, the resources, nor the professional staff, nor does it have the power to report officially to the government and the public.”

The Minister of Veterans Affairs has also stated there is no need for an ombudsman because the department offers the services of the Bureau of Pensions Advocates and the Veterans Review and Appeal Board itself. I had the honour of attending the testimony to this committee of Victor Marchand, the chairman of VRAB, wherein he stated proudly that VRAB heard 6,500 cases last year, approximately 3,400 of which received favourable decisions.
Impressive numbers, but I would like to focus on the more than 3,000 that did not receive a favourable decision. Three thousand is almost three times the number of cases the DND ombudsman investigated last year. Something is dramatically wrong with a system that has 6,500 individuals who must appeal their decisions annually and where almost 50% of those are left unsatisfied.

A VAC ombudsman would not replace VRAB but would track and report on systemic problems, which are causing such large numbers of unsatisfied clients in the first place. A VAC ombudsman would likely be able to pinpoint the problems in the department itself that resulted in the veteran being forced into the difficult VRAB process in the first place.

The DND ombudsman does not replace existing mechanisms of organization and control. It exists alongside. It has enhanced the command structure, the public service union, and it has validated many observations and advocacy work done by special interest groups, such as universities, the Conference of Defence Associates, as well as serving member and retired-member organizations such as VPP, the Volunteer Patricia Program. A VAC ombudsman will likewise not replace the directors general, the Veterans Review and Appeal Board, nor the legion or the dozens of other veterans organizations. A VAC ombudsman would co-exist alongside such organizations, likely enhancing the value of all and undoubtedly increasing the efficiency of Veterans Affairs Canada and the Veterans Review and Appeal Board.

The time for a VAC ombudsman is now. The new Veterans Charter will add yet another category of veteran and create inevitable uncertainly and confusion, both in the veterans being served as well as the VAC staff implementing new and untried programs and policies. This is a perfect atmosphere to introduce the ombudsman to objectively monitor and report on systemic glitches and malfunctions.

The change in VAC has been ponderous and stubborn, at best, over the past five decades. The present legislation is the consequence of 15 years of inadequate care for the modern CF veteran. VAC initiated studies to this effect over eight years ago. An ombudsman can investigate and report on systemic problems, as well as make real and lasting recommendations in a much shorter timeframe.

Now I would like to bring this to a personal note for all the veterans present. Our mere action of defending the interests of modern veterans in the past has resulted in threatening letters and phone calls from the Department of Veterans Affairs. This compounds a general unwillingness of veterans to speak openly, not only for their own problems with Veterans Affairs Canada, but it often prevents whistle-blowing on systemic problems with this complex and difficult to reach department. The creation of a CF ombudsman, above all else, has allowed CF members to speak out without fear of retaliation and backlash.

We disabled veterans are dependent on VAC for our financial security and health care, which often allows us to go on living. A VAC ombudsman would allow us to speak out, without threats to our health, our family, or our future.
One of the main reasons I went off to war, honourable members, is that I love Canada. Excuse me if I get a bit emotional here. I love the freedom of our nature, the wide expanse of responsible liberties throughout society. In the midst of such hope and limitless possibilities, Canada takes care of those who cannot take care of themselves. The overwhelming majority of Canadians do not require wheelchairs, and yet what I love about Canada is that we ensure all public buildings and many corporate structures provide wheelchair-accessible entrances and services. The majority of veterans may not need an ombudsman, but an ombudsman’s most valuable role is in defending the little guy, the terrified, the marginalized, those who cannot defend themselves–usually the minorities. An ombudsman is to disabled veterans as wheelchair ramps are to all Canadians: both allow each and every Canadian and Canadian veteran to be treated equally.

Thank you. That concludes the presentation.