Dishonouring disabled vets

While politicians heap praise on our troops, Canadian soldiers disabled in Afghanistan will receive far less than those who fought in World War II

by Robert Smol and Sean Bruyea-THE TORONTO STAR-June 19, 2006-pg. A.17

Young Canadian men and women are at war in Afghanistan. Over here, many immigrants from strife-torn regions understand all too well what war is – just as do the thousands of veterans who have served in areas such as Yugoslavia, Cyprus, Korea, and France to name only a few.

But what is difficult for many Canadians, and especially young Canadian veterans, to comprehend are the reasons for what amounts to the single biggest retreat by the Canadian government in its commitment to provide benefits to disabled Canadian Forces’ veterans.

This change was implemented by the Harper government on April 1 and represents the most regressive step taken by any Canadian government in dishonouring our men and women in uniform. Under this new legislation, Canadian soldiers disabled in Afghanistan will receive far less than their fathers and grandfathers received when they returned from the battlefields of World War II.

Gone, forever, are the pensions that older disabled veterans were once entitled to receive.

As of April 2006, the disabled soldier limping back from Afghanistan or some future military operation will, instead of a pension, receive a lump sum payment up to a maximum of $250,000, something many in the veteran community fiercely oppose.

Why do so many veterans oppose such a “buyout?”

First, the $250,000 figure only applies to the former soldier who is classified as 100 per cent disabled, which, in lay terms, means that he or she must be totally incapacitated and in no way able to actively continue with his or her life in any meaningful way.

However, the bureaucracy expects and plans to pay at an average rate of only 14 per cent, or $35,000 per disabled soldier.

To add insult to injury, for today’s veterans to receive family health care and income support, they are forced to work in a government-controlled work placement or lose all benefits.

Little wonder that the new veterans’ program is quickly earning the nickname “Canadian Forces workfare.”

Added to this burden is the fact that the new veterans’ “benefits” no longer provide for a lifetime monthly disability award payable to the widows of veterans once disabled.

Also gone is income support for disabled veterans and their survivors after they have reached age 65 – an indignity older generations of Canadian veterans did not have to endure.

What income support is available in the new legislation pays out less than $1,200 a month and claws back all other income. Since most people and all Canadian Forces veterans qualify for CPP after 65, this program is nothing more than an empty decoration.

Also gone with this new legislation are programs that would allow disabled veterans to qualify for mortgage and insurance benefits that average Canadians regard as essential.

Indeed, prior generations of veterans from the two world wars and Korea could rely on such assistance merely because they were veterans – they did not have to be disabled.

If veterans of the two world wars, who served in Canada for as little as six months – and never heard a shot fired in anger – qualified for education, mortgage and insurance benefits merely because they wore a uniform, surely CF members who were wounded while serving in the hostile environments of the Persian Gulf, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan are equally deserving of such support? How could the veteran community have stood by and allowed the government to pass such draconian legislation?

Simply put we, like the rest of the Canadian public, were deliberately kept in the dark on the details of the legislation. In a perversion of parliamentary custom and convention, the new veterans’ bill was fast-tracked through the House of Commons with absolutely no debate.

In addition, the former government refused to have this new bill reviewed by committee in the Commons where its potential impact could have been scrutinized and stakeholders, including veterans, their families and the medical doctors who treat them, would have had a chance to address their concerns.

In its defence, Veterans Affairs boasted that there was adequate consultation with the veteran community on the new legislation.

What actually happened was that a carefully selected representative from each of only six veterans’ organizations were given a car salesman version of the bill – essentially a press release – after which they were sworn to secrecy. They were not able to discuss the new legislation with their membership.

Is this consultation? Do six individuals from only six veterans’ organizations who could not consult their membership have the authority to represent the wishes of the majority of veterans?

Even if these six organizations had consulted their entire membership, they represent fewer than 20 per cent of the almost 837,000 veterans and serving members, and approximately 7 per cent of the total Canadian Forces veteran and serving member population of almost 580,000.

Furthermore, the largest of these six organizations which supported the bill, the Royal Canadian Legion, today consists mainly of people who have never served in the military. Only approximately one-third of legion membership ever wore a Canadian uniform and the new benefits do not apply to them.

Perhaps, if a veterans’ ombudsman existed, such injustice could have been avoided. The current government has promised the “immediate” creation of such an office.

However, in a bizarre twist, the bureaucracy at Veterans Affairs has been given the task of writing up the plans for a veterans’ Bill of Rights and an ombudsman.

As the saying goes, justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done. Giving this job to the very bureaucracy that requires oversight is unjust and wrong.

The inmates are running the asylum and the foxes are in charge of the hen house.

Robert Smol is a former member of the Canadian Forces. Capt (ret’d) Sean Bruyea is a disabled veteran who advocates for disabled veterans.

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