Parliament and our veterans: now’s the time for healing

It’s time to hold public House National Defence Committee hearings into veterans issues.

By SEAN BRUYEA-The Hill Times-Published November 24, 2008

OTTAWA—With another Remembrance Day behind us, now is the time for Parliament to pay more than lip service to truly honour those who have sacrificed so much so that Parliament can begin another session.

This year, the world commemorated 90 years since the end of “the war to end all wars.” It also marks 10 years since the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs (SCONDVA) wrapped up unprecedented hearings and released a groundbreaking report on the state of our military, and, to a much lesser degree, our veterans.

This relative omission of veterans’ issues from the SCONDVA hearings is unfortunate as Canada’s veterans and their families urgently require dedicated public hearings. Our approximately 175,000 World War II Veterans have an average age of 86. About 2,500 are dying each month. Meanwhile, each year approximately 3,000 injured younger soldiers become clients of Veterans Affairs.

The SCONDVA hearings allowed soldiers of all ranks and their families to speak honestly and publicly about how the Canadian government treated them. “Horror stories” of “flooded basements” and “mould infestations” in military housing while soldiers went to food banks due to insufficient pay shocked Canadians nationwide. The government was forced to act. Unprecedented programs were implemented to improve not only equipment but the “quality of life” of the military.

SCONDVA hearings became a healing circle of sorts for our entire nation resulting in our soldiers and families no longer having to “suck it up” while prevented from speaking publicly.

How many of our veterans, young and old, are living in such conditions? The truth is, we don’t know and we never will unless Parliament holds public hearings.

The SCONDVA hearings helped strip away multiple layers of secrecy in how DND operated. Unfortunately, much secrecy remains in the questionable methods in how Veterans Affairs creates, monitors and accepts input to the programs for which the federal department is responsible.

Nothing demonstrates that more than the process of writing and implementing the latest suite of programs christened by Veterans Affairs as the “New Veterans Charter.” The “NVC” replaced a lifelong monthly disability award with a one time lump-sum payment for soldiers injured or killed after April 1, 2006.

In spite of considerable public controversy surrounding the new programs, the “NVC” was passed without a second of debate in the House of Commons and no committee has ever reviewed the programs.

There were no public discussions about the actual legislation designing these benefits. Details were given to one or two individuals from each of only six out of 60 or more veterans’ organizations. These individuals were sworn to confidentiality from divulging any of these details to their membership. Veterans Affairs claims that briefing six to 12 individuals in secret represented the “most extensive…consultations” in the Department’s history.

Canada has suffered more than 800 casualties in Afghanistan. Most are returning home to programs which the bureaucracy refuses to publicly evaluate.

Veterans Affairs has stated that these new benefits are a “living charter” which would be actively reviewed every few months. It has been more than three years since the NVC was passed in the House of Commons without public debate and not a single change has been made.

An advisory group, (aptly named SNAG) was pushed upon Veterans Affairs as a result of an eleventh hour Senate hearing in 2005. In spite of SNAG’s three years of highly commendable work and reportedly over 150 recommendations, Veterans Affairs has not acted upon a single recommendation. The department has thus far refused to make public the minutes of meetings let alone SNAG’s reports. (Another advisory group was established this year but its members are also muzzled by confidentiality).

This year marks 25 years since the implementation of the Privacy Act and the Access to Information Act. Canada’s Information Commissioner, Robert Marleau, insists that “Departments should not be waiting until there is a formal request before disclosing information” and that “as servants to the public, they should be making information available as a matter of course.”

However, Veterans Affairs is the only federal department with its headquarters located outside of Ottawa (Charlottetown, P.E.I.). Perhaps this is why Canada’s first military ombudsman André Marin chastised the “self-serving,” and “hardened and entrenched bureaucracy at Veterans Affairs.”

A year ago, the first veterans’ ombudsman was appointed. The new ombudsman has yet to publish any investigation. That the ombudsman is not legislated and Veterans Affairs exercises administrative control over the office could severely compromise the office’s ability to be both independent and effective.

The ombudsman also has an advisory committee. All members are required to sign a confidentiality agreement. This “gag order” reportedly binds the members to secrecy during and for five years after they leave the committee.

Our soldiers have died protecting and creating democracy. As secrecy is the enemy of democracy, one must ask if this is the kind of democracy for which Canada’s brave men and women have sacrificed?

Canada has entered into a “social contract” with our soldiers and veterans. Our brave men and women accept “unlimited liability” including dying. Has Canada been fulfilling its side of the contract? Our soldiers have certainly upheld their end of the bargain.

Soldiers deeply love and respect their country. They have to believe Canada loves and respects them or why else were (and are) they willing to die? Soldiers would be very reluctant to speak against the government for which they were willing to sacrifice unless that government was noble enough to make a very public invitation for a healing between Canada, our veterans and their families.

Veterans Affairs claims its “clients” are mostly satisfied. Yet every year thousands apply for treatment and services in a convoluted system that creates more problems than it resolves and leaves many veterans in worse condition than before.

Public hearings will honour our government’s commitment to our veterans while honouring our veterans’ commitment to Canada. The first Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs, thankfully created by this government, is in a perfect position to hold these public hearings.

Our veterans, young and old, and their families have a story to tell and we all have some healing to do. It is obvious that wars have not ended and more than 115,000 have died on battlefields for our right to free speech and open democracy. Let’s allow our veterans and their families to exercise their hard-fought rights in SCONDVA-style public hearings before it is too late.

Sean Bruyea is a freelance journalist and advocate for the rights of disabled veterans and their families. He served 14 years in the Canadian Air Force as an intelligence officer. He is disabled as a result of his service in the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91.

The Hill Times