Disabled CF veterans proceed with class action suit against government

By Robert Smol-THE HILL TIMES-June 18, 2007

The Conservative government is forcing a group of disabled Canadian Forces veterans to proceed with their class action lawsuit involving disability pension clawbacks, despite a promise by Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor to resolve the issue.

Filed last March in Halifax, N.S., the class action lawsuit involves deductions from compensation awarded to injured members of the Canadian Forces. Unlike other NATO countries, the first payer for injured Canadian Forces soldiers is a privately-administered insurance plan called Service Income Security Insurance Plan (SISIP) and all active duty soldiers must enroll. Under this plan, 15 per cent is paid by the individual soldier with the government taking up the rest.

However, should an injured veteran be in receipt of a disability pension from the federal government, then that amount will be deducted from any long-term disability benefits that the SISIP may offer.

By contrast, members of the federal civil service, who operate on a similar insurance plan, are not subject to the same clawbacks should they suffer a work-related disability.

“We have been left on the field of battle,” said former Corporal Dennis Manuge who initiated the class action lawsuit. “This is a matter of principle and fundamental right for myself, and for all my brothers and sisters who chose to serve this country.”

On March 27, when questioned in the House of Commons on the class action law suit by Mr. Manuge’s MP, NDP MP Peter Stoffer (Saskville-Eastern Shore, N.S.), Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor (Carleton-Mississippi Mills, Ont.) stated, “we will resolve the issue.”

Yet, today all indications appear to be that the government is going to defend itself, forcing Mr. Manuge to proceed with an application to have his case certified as a class action lawsuit.

“The government said that they are going to deal with it, the problem is that they didn’t say when they are going to deal with it,” said Mr. Stoffer. “I think that what the general attitude of government is you delay, delay, delay and hopefully the people will just give up and go away.”

“In my opinion, there is nothing stopping the government from going ahead and negotiating with the lawsuit at any point in the court action,” said retired Canadian Air Force captain Sean Bruyea who is currently disabled as a result of his service during the 1990-91 Gulf War. “The government waited this long and I anticipate that they will try to put up an obstacle in the path of resolving this.”

Other Canadian Forces veterans are concerned over what sort of message the government is sending out to those in uniform and to those who may be thinking of joining the forces.

“I think the government challenge is sending the wrong message out to the public especially now with what is happening in Afghanistan as well as trying to get people into the Forces,” said Tom Hoppe the most highly-decorated post-Korean war veteran in Canada and president of the Canadian Peacekeeping Veterans Association. “As part of the social contract, soldiers have to know that they are going to be looked after and this kind of stuff shows that the government is not going to look after them.”

It is an opinion that is shared by Mr. Stoffer who introduced a motion last year in the House of Commons to resolve the SISIP issue.

“These guys served their country, became injured, and the government always says, ‘Support the troops,’ ” he said. “But what happens to that support when the uniform comes off? There, you get nothing but a blank stare.”

Apart from providing adequate compensation for an estimated 6,000 disabled Canadian Forces veterans, Mr. Manuge also hopes that the class action lawsuit will help serve as a wake up call to the Canadian public as to how the government actually treats younger disabled veterans.

“Everytime I have explained this case to any lay person the response has been, ‘I can’t believe it–this is wrong,’” he said.

Others point to the importance of cases like this in maintaining the confidence of the Forces.

“You have to have some good morale to be doing what you are doing in Afghanistan meaning in the back of your mind you have to know that you are going to be looked after,” said Mr. Hoppe. “Taking action sets a precedent and is one of the spokes in the wheel when all these very seriously injured guys start leaving the Forces in a short period of time.”

The Department of National Defence refused to comment on the Manuge case saying it is now before the courts.

The Hill Times