Disabled soldiers face legal minefield

By Sean Bruyea-THE OTTAWA CITIZEN-January 21, 2010 pg. A.13

It has become a sad truth that the path of an injured soldier to receive disability benefits in Canada is a minefield of obstacles. Today the Supreme Court of Canada will hear about some of those obstacles.

When Canadian Forces members are injured on duty, they receive pain and suffering payments from Veterans Affairs Canada while keeping their full salary. If soldiers are so disabled as to be unemployable, they are kicked out of the military and paid 75 per cent of their salary through a long-term disability plan held by the Canadian Forces. Then, in some seeming petty act of revenge, the Canadian Forces insurance plan claws back amounts for pain and suffering from the reduced incomes of the disabled soldiers to keep incomes at the 75 per cent level.

No other long-term disability income plan in Canada is allowed to deduct Veterans Affairs payments for pain and suffering. This is why Dennis Manuge has brought his case to the Supreme Court of Canada as his case represents more than 4,000 other disabled soldiers similarly affected.

The National Defence Ombudsman has called the deductions “profoundly unfair” and noted that “the inequity might very well be serious enough to attract the protection of human rights legislation” including “the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which identify physical and mental disabilities as prohibited grounds of discrimination.”

As far back as 2003, the standing committee on national defence and veterans affairs unanimously voted to stop the practice. Prime Minister Harper, Defence Minister Peter MacKay and former veterans affairs minister Greg Thompson were all associate members of the committee.

In 2006, the majority of Parliament passed a motion which required the government to “eliminate the unfair reduction.” In 2006, the Senate committee on national security and defence recommended “that the government cease the practice immediately.”

Yet the deductions continue. Government lawyers have forced the case to Canada’s highest court. Manuge’s lawyer must plead the removal of “artificial and costly legal barriers” placed by Canada in order “to shield itself from liability.”

Who’s at fault? The uber-mandarins at Treasury Board and elsewhere in the federal government? The party in power which refuses to force that same bureaucracy to implement the will of Canadians and Parliament?

Were the benefits of the federal public service in question, it is unlikely that their strong unions would allow a similar injustice to continue.

There’s the rub: the military does not have a union and there is no “top general of the veteran community” to defend the rights of a disabled soldier once the uniform comes off.

Tragically veterans’ benefits are not publicly debated. Canada’s top mandarins have excluded the overwhelming majority of veterans, especially the disabled, from any public and meaningful influence as to their destiny.

The bureaucracy presents changes to veteran programs as a fait accompli, a done deal for the veteran community and their families.

This is why many veterans feel abandoned by their country. It is why our disabled and once proud warriors must fight battles in the courts of this land rather than live their remaining years in peace.

More than a million Canadians in uniform have followed orders which could and, for more than 100,000, did bring them to their deaths. Why is it that bureaucrats can ignore disabled veterans, their families, oversight agencies, the House and the Senate as well as the Canadian Charter to prevent disabled veterans being compensated justly and fairly?

On this day, while the Supreme Court ponders the “unfair deductions” from injured soldiers’ disability income, let us have two minutes of silence.

Let us honour the suffering of those living veterans who are increasingly seen by Canada’s senior bureaucrats as a fiscal liability and a nuisance instead of being viewed as brave and selfless, the way most Canadians see our veterans.

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 one of the 4,000 soldiers represented in the class action.

Credit: Sean Bruyea; Citizen Special

Copyright CanWest Digital Media Jan 21, 2010