Veterans awaiting an ombudsman

The Toronto Star-September 21, 2007

Sean Bruyea

Canada ‘s hidden tragedy in Afghanistan, seldom reported in detail in the media, is that at least 228 Canadians have been wounded and will likely require some form of long-term assistance for their disability in the future.

This does not include psychological injuries such as post- traumatic stress disorder, which could affect 10 per cent or more of the approximately 20,000 soldiers who have served in Afghanistan since 2002. Nor the more than 200,000 veteran and widow clients already requiring assistance.

So it should come as no surprise that Canadians want to ensure the bureaucracy is indeed caring for our soldiers and their families, including the families of the fallen.

That is why the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs was created. In February, it released a unanimously endorsed report titled A Helping Hand for Veterans: A Mandate for a Veterans Ombudsman. Admirably forthright and clear in its 22 recommendations, the report calls for an “independent, impartial and effective veterans ombudsman.”

Unfortunately, the transparent and accountable process Canadians have demanded and government has promised in creating the office has been virtually non-existent.

We do know the veterans ombudsman “will uphold the Veterans Bill of Rights and will review individual and systemic issues arising from it.” But that document, which lists six rights already guaranteed in other statutes, omits any statement of equality in the treatment of veterans. And it fails to honour the unique sacrifices Canada’s men and women in uniform have made for more than a century.

Betty Hinton, parliamentary secretary to the minister of veterans affairs, has said the Veterans Bill of Rights “is meant to be a complement. The heavy hammer is the ombudsman.”

However, it appears the process to create the veterans ombudsman has abandoned the substantive recommendations contained in the committee’s report. The ombudsman’s office will not be legislated, nor will it have the necessary robust powers of investigation, such as the power to subpoena documents and witnesses, take testimony under oath or enter any relevant premises as required.

By contrast, all Canadian provinces except Prince Edward Island have legislated ombudsmen with these important investigative powers. And the Canada Revenue Agency has announced both a Bill of Rights and an ombudsman, neither of which was mentioned in the Conservative election platform. In sharp contrast to the Veterans Bill of Rights, the CRA Bill of Rights has 20 substantive rights, most of them new.

What are Canadian soldiers in and out of uniform to think when they are repeatedly told that the Department of Veterans Affairs “exists to repay the nation’s debt of gratitude toward those whose courageous efforts have given us this legacy, and have contributed to our growth as a nation?”

The federal bureaucracy has been in control of the process for creating the ombudsman, but having the bureaucracy decide the details of its own oversight is scandalous.

Ontario Ombudsman André Marin, who also was the first Canadian Forces ombudsman, has publicly defended veterans from the “self-serving,” “hardened and entrenched bureaucracy” that “has opposed a veterans ombudsman for as long as (he) can remember.”

Like his predecessor, current Canadian Forces Ombudsman Yves Côte has emphasized that “the veterans ombudsman will require a clear and robust legislated mandate.” Legislation is imperative for “an independent, impartial and effective” ombudsman’s office.

Canadian men and women endure bullets, bombs and the resulting injuries and death to bring stability and good government to troubled nations. Senior bureaucrats should be able to endure legislated oversight to ensure our soldiers return home to good government in Canada.