Federal treatment of disabled veterans disgraceful

by Sean Bruyea-THE EDMONTON JOURNAL-January, 27, 2010 pg. A.19

It has become a sad truth that the path of an injured soldier to receive disability benefits in Canada is a minefield of obstacles. Last Thursday, the Supreme Court of Canada heard about one of those mine-fields.

When Canadian Forces members are injured on duty, they receive pain and suffering payments from Veterans Affairs while keeping their full salary. If soldiers are so disabled as to be unemployable, those soldiers 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 deducts amounts for pain and suffering paid by Veterans Affairs.

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 disabled soldiers similarly affected. I am one of the 4,000 disabled soldiers.

The National Defence Ombudsman has called the deductions “profoundly unfair” and said “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.”

The Veterans’ Ombudsman agrees.

As far back as 2003, the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs unanimously voted to stop the practice. Then members of the opposition, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Defence Minister Peter MacKay, ex-veterans affairs minister Greg Thompson and Treasury Board President Stockwell Day were all associate members of that committee.

In 2006, the majority of Parliament passed a motion which required the government to “eliminate the unfair reduction of SISIP.” The Senate Committee on National Security and Defence voted unanimously in 2008 on the “unfair deductions” and recommended “that the government cease the practice immediately.”

Yet the deductions continue. Government appeals have forced the case to the Supreme Court of Canada. Except Canada’s highest court won’t be making a final decision on the deductions. Instead, Canadian government lawyers are arguing a technicality as to whether Manuge can have his case proceed in court or whether he must seek other avenues first.

Manuge and his lawyer must now plead the removal of “artificial and costly legal barriers” placed by Canada in order “to shield itself from liability.”

Unfortunately, decision-makers in Parliament and those uber-mandarins at Treasury Board and elsewhere in the bureaucracy who pull the strings of ministers, have often placed pay and benefits of disabled soldiers on the same chopping block as military equipment. Were the pay and benefits of the Federal Public Service in question, it is unlikely that bureaucrats and their strong unions would vote themselves pay freezes or discriminatory benefits.

There’s the rub: the military does not have a union. When the uniform comes off, there is no ‘top general’ of the veteran community or union to defend the rights of a disabled veteran.

In budget terms, life-saving equipment for a soldier in Afghanistan seems imminently more important than the income loss of a few thousand disabled and mostly silent veterans. But for the disabled veterans, life-saving benefits are just as important as the flak vest for a soldier on patrol in Kandahar.

It’s not that veterans’ benefits have become a political hot potato. It is that veterans’ benefits are not publicly debated at all. 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 politicians, the military, veterans and their families.

Essentially, bureaucrats are acting unilaterally, pulling the strings of politicians while telling veterans and their families what they need. This is the reverse of what the ‘social contract’ should be between Canada and its veterans.

This breach of the ‘social contract’ is at the core of 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.

Who’s at fault? Certainly, the senior bureaucrats who refuse to implement Parliament’s will. But what about the parties in power that are unwilling or unable to force bureaucrats to do what Parliament and Canadians have demanded?

In combat, no matter how overwhelming the odds against our soldiers, our men and women in uniform have followed the orders of our government. No matter how powerful the bureaucrats may be, the Harper government like all before it was elected in good faith to order the bureaucracy to implement the will of the people.

Did Stephen Harper not run and become elected on a platform to hold government accountable? Shouldn’t his government’s commitment to “support the troops” apply to disabled soldiers and extend beyond platitudes?

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, both the House and the Senate, as well as the Canadian Charter, to place absurd obstacles in the path of disabled veterans being compensated justly and fairly?

What does it say to our soldiers dying to bring democracy to Afghanistan when the federal bureaucracy ignores our democratic institutions and continues to discriminate against disabled veterans?

The actions of Canada’s government whether it be their lawyers, elected officials or senior bureaucrats appear to seek one goal: to place as many obstacles so that Canada never has to pay what is justly owed to more than 4,000 disabled soldiers.

The risk is that citizens’ willingness to sacrifice for a selfish government may diminish in the face of such unfair actions.

How tragic that government treats our disabled soldiers 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 an Ottawa-based 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; Freelance

Copyright CanWest Digital Media Jan 27, 2010