Disposable soldiers: Canada must renew broken trust with its forgotten 4,260 soldiers

Of the 4,260 soldiers affected by what the National Defence ombudsman has called ‘profoundly’ and ‘fundamentally unfair’ deductions, more than 1,500 are currently so disabled as to be unemployable.

By Sean Bruyea-THE HILL TIMES-February 25, 2008

No doubt thousands of cards and good wishes were sent to soldiers on the frontlines in Afghanistan for Valentine’s Day recently. Back home, a different expression of affection is being shown more than 4,260 injured soldiers whom the bureaucrats and policy makers would rather Canada forgot.

Two weeks ago on Valentine’s Day, a Halifax courtroom wrapped up a request to certify a class action lawsuit to stop the federal government deducting pain and suffering payments from disabled soldiers’ long-term disability plan. SISIP or the Service Income Security Insurance Plan is reportedly the only plan of its kind which deducts pain and suffering payments.

Why should Canadians care? Canada has suffered approximately 750 casualties in Afghanistan. The next federal election could be fought on whether or not to risk the lives of more Canadian soldiers. At a time when $20-billion has been earmarked for new military equipment, many disabled military members are quickly forgotten once the uniform comes off.

Of the 4,260 soldiers affected by what the National Defence ombudsman has called “profoundly” and “fundamentally unfair” deductions, more than 1,500 are currently so disabled as to be unemployable. These are the most vulnerable of our military, suffering psychological and physical incapacity as a result of serving in such conflicts as the Gulf War, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, and Afghanistan.

Since these soldiers were wounded as a result of their service in the military, they receive pain and suffering payments from Veterans Affairs Canada. In October 2000, changes to legislation permitted serving soldiers to collect their full salary plus pain and suffering payments. If the soldier is so wounded as to be unemployable, the soldier is forced out of the military, has his/her salary reduced to 75 per cent of their income while deducting pain and suffering payments from the lower income.

The injustice attracted the attention of the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs in 2003 passed a motion imploring the minister of National Defence to stop the deductions and “accept and enact the recommendations forthwith.” Ironically, the current minister of National Defence, Peter MacKay, as well as the Prime Minister, the president of the Treasury Board and the minister of Veterans Affairs were all associate members of this committee when the motion was passed.

New programs stipulate that soldiers injured after April 1, 2006, receive a one-time lump sum payment for pain and suffering instead of a lifelong monthly disability award. This lump sum payment is not deducted from the long-term disability, but the monthly payment continues to be deducted.

In November of 2006, a majority in the House of Commons passed the Veterans’ First Motion which called for a stop to the “unfair deductions.”

Why has nothing been done? One can only imagine that the bureaucrats standing in the way have little idea of what it means to serve in the military. Unlike the 9-to-5 public servant, the military member effectively signs a contract with Canada for what our military calls “unlimited liability.” Not surprisingly, the bureaucrats have ensured that Canada has a very limited liability in caring for disabled soldiers.

These same senior bureaucrats receive their disability plan free, paid for by Canadian taxpayers. Interestingly, their plan is not allowed to deduct pain and suffering payments.

Neither the military nor the veterans have a union to protect them.

In court, the judge received an affidavit from the president of SISIP, André Bouchard, who served in the military for “almost 30 years.” Bouchard claims that should the plan stop deducting pain and suffering payments, the result would be “exorbitant premiums which would impose significant hardship on the members of the Canadian Forces.”

How “exorbitant” is this hardship? Currently, a corporal in the military pays approximately $9.40 per month for the long-term disability policy. Bouchard predicts that premiums would increase by 40 per cent or $3.76/month, the price of a café latte.

Bouchard makes further excuses to continue the ‘unfair deductions’ because a disabled soldier “could effectively receive more than 100 per cent of his or her former income.” This statement is patently untrue. The “former income” included pain and suffering payments plus 100 per cent of their salary. The long-term disability pays only 75 per cent of the former salary.

Furthermore, for many of these disabled soldiers, they were forced out of the military when there was a pay freeze. The same corporal would be earning approximately 50 per cent more today than 10 years ago whereas SISIP has only increased approximately 20 per cent. (SISIP allows for an annual inflationary increase of a maximum of two per cent vs. the public service plan at three per cent).

A senior federal public servant on rehabilitation can earn up to 100 per cent of their former income and still collect their Veterans Affairs payments had the servant been previously injured in the military.

Why the double standard?

Such obvious discrimination led the previous DND Ombudsman Yves Coté to state “the inequity might very well be serious enough to attract the protection of human rights legislation, as well as the protection of the equality provisions set out in Sec. 15 the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which identify physical and mental disabilities as prohibited grounds of discrimination.”

We have all seen the signs of a disposable society but this has been possible because replacements are cheap and the long-term costs are not included. The same holds true for soldiers. We have too long disposed of those when they are obsolete once wounded psychologically or physically.

Canada must renew the broken trust with these forgotten 4,260 soldiers by giving back the money that has been wrongfully taken from them. Only then will the soldiers consider trusting the very society for which the soldiers have sacrificed so much.

Sean Bruyea is a retired captain and disabled soldier who served as an intelligence officer in the Canadian Forces for 14 years. He is now an advocate for other disabled veterans.


The Hill Times