By Sean Bruyea-THE HILL TIMES-November 5, 2007
OTTAWA–Remembrance Day 2007 will be unlike any other. On Nov. 11, 2007 Canadian veterans, CF soldiers and their families will finally receive their first officially appointed Ombudsman for Veterans Affairs Canada.
Eight years after André Marin became the first DND/CF Ombudsman, Colonel Pat Stogran will have a no less difficult time trail-blazing through what has become known as an arcane and entrenched bureaucracy. Veterans Affairs Canada is responsible in whole or in part for more than 50 pieces of legislation and regulations for veterans and serving a CF population of more than 900,000. When families, including widows, are added in, the number of potential clients of the Ombudsman’s Office reaches into the stratosphere of millions of Canadians.
Fortunately for the ombudsman, not all veterans and their families are clients of Veterans Affairs. Although there are over 220,000 veteran and family clients receiving benefits, the department has been quick to point out that more than 85 per cent are satisfied with their service from Veterans Affairs Canada. That should be comforting for Stogran when only 30,000 unsatisfied clients start calling his office with a complaint.
Veterans should not be too anxious to have their problems addressed anytime soon. The Ombudsman’s Office has but an interim skeleton staff right now. The new ombudsman will likely require more than eight months or more into the New Year to hire, train, and coordinate his staff to take on the first serious investigations. This should give much required breathing time for the senior bureaucrats at Veterans Affairs to avoid dealing with the long laundry list of issues in need of immediate repair.
The creation of the ombudsman has powerful allies, especially in the first-ever standing Committee on Veterans Affairs which was created in large part for such initiatives as the ombudsman. However, like its work on the Bill of Rights, the committee’s excellent and unanimous report has been all but ignored. Sadly, the process to create the veterans’ ombudsman has abandoned any of the 22 substantive recommendations from 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 have legislated ombudsman offices (except Prince Edward Island) with these important investigative powers.
Whether a soldier has served in World War II, Korea, Kuwait, Afghanistan or Cold Lake Alberta, upon release from the Forces, the soldier is called a veteran. The ombudsman will likely be asked why veterans’ benefits are being designed to create three separate classes of veterans, each with sub-classes. War veterans from World War II and Korea receive entirely different benefits than veterans of Bosnia, Rwanda, and the Gulf War who receive yet again different benefits than veterans after April 1, 2006, when the lifelong disability payments were replaced with a lump sum payment under the New Veterans Charter.
No doubt a high priority for the ombudsman will be the outstanding decisions affecting World War II veterans who are tragically dying at the rate of 2,500 per month. The ombudsman will be frustrated watching Canada’s bravest pass on without receiving just compensation. His office will not be allowed to visit cases of individual veterans if “there is a right of review or appeal to the [Veterans Review and Appeal] Board.” Unfortunately, the inhumanity of making any injured soldiers let alone aging veterans go through years of reviews and appeals when the injustice is glaringly obvious will be a poignant shortfall in the ombudsman’s powers.
It is dealing with the Veterans Review and Appeal Board [VRAB] and the Bureau of Pension Advocate lawyers that serve the veterans that the ombudsman will be most disappointed. The bureaucratically controlled process to create the ombudsman’s mandate ensured that the ombudsman cannot interfere with “any decision of the board” nor can the office confront the sometimes questionable “legal advice provided by the Bureau of Pension Advocates.” André Marin, the first CF ombudsman and now the Ontario ombudsman, testified publicly regarding a veterans’ ombudsman stepping in to look at a file before the board, “There is nothing in our common law that would prevent that kind of intervention.”
Ironically, it was because of the real and perceived injustices in the board and the lawyers which spearheaded the calls for creating a veterans ombudsman.
Hopefully the new veterans ombudsman will actively pursue joint reports with the DND ombudsman on such outstanding scandals as the unfair deductions of Veterans’ Affairs pain and suffering payments from the Canadian Forces Long Term Disability policy (which remain unresolved). At the same time, soldiers are often lost in the hand-off between the responsive, reactive, and reinforcing culture of the military to the often defensive denial and dismissive delays which characterize the administration of disability benefits in Veterans Affairs. Coordination of the two offices in thoroughly investigating and evaluating joint programs could prevent much pain and suffering.
Undoubtedly, there will be many hands attempting to meddle in the ombudsman’s pie. The order in council requires the ombudsman to have an advisory committee “taking into consideration the need for representation from veterans’ and stakeholders’ groups.” Up until now, Veterans Affairs has thrown a few slim pickings to only six veterans groups in secretive discussions. This situation leaves behind more than 60 groups which the department has ignored along with the more than 600,000 unaffiliated veterans. Meanwhile, the department backed by the leadership of these six organizations championed haphazardly written legislation such as the New Veterans Charter without any meaningful or widespread consultations, let alone public or Parliamentary debate.
Perhaps rotating membership would offer most groups representation over time. Meanwhile, creative methods of reaching out to the unaffiliated majority of veterans/CF members and their families would do much to rebuild the horribly broken trust between the government and especially the disabled soldiers and their families. Furthermore, the use of special investigators contracted on a part time basis similar to the DND Ombudsman’s Office would also help circumvent bureaucratic reflex responses from the department and from certain larger veterans groups such as the national leadership of the Royal Canadian Legion.
The list of systemic problems, unjustly administered programs and failures to fulfill the department’s mandate is indeed exhaustive. However, there are two key areas which the new ombudsman can most effectively make his mark and bring about widespread reform. There needs to be a sea change in the often isolated senior leadership in Veterans Affairs. Too few if any of these senior mandarins truly understand the cohesive military culture and the traumatic effects on individual soldiers when they are shamefully evicted from the CF due to disability.
Secondly, the secretive and evasive management has been highly adept at avoiding any real controversy over the years, especially since the move of the head office to Charlottetown in the early 1980s.The ombudsman can once and for all remove the veil of secrecy which has allowed the department to take a band-aid approach to limited public scandal while the systemic wounds continue to fester, hidden from public view.
In his first public statements upon being appointed ombudsman, Stogran said that he is “not going to hesitate to call a spade a shovel.” These may be prophetic words. Considering he is starting handcuffed by a limited mandate, Canada’s first veterans’ ombudsman will need more than a shovel (or a spade) to clear a path through decades of maladministration and poorly constructed and administered policy at the Department which has frequently allowed tens of thousands of injured soldiers, veterans and their families to fall through the cracks.
Sean Bruyea is a disabled veteran who served 14 years with the Canadian Forces. He currently volunteers as an advocate for other disabled veterans.
The Hill Times