Democracy also a right of veterans: how Canada can begin to repay debt owed to our injured soldiers

The bureaucracy forced the sale of the New Veterans Charter upon us in 2005. Today, veterans are demanding an all-encompassing recall.

By SEAN BRUYEA The Hill Times Published February 8, 2010

OTTAWA—While we wore our uniforms, democracy was furthest from our minds as we cast votes in makeshift polling stations often set up in foreign lands. We all know how the military is not the most democratic of institutions. However, I believe that veterans, especially the disabled and our families have come to treasure Canada’s democratic values because we know intimately what it is to have given up so much to protect those values.

At issue is the New Veterans Charter which was created in a decidedly undemocratic environment. Its creation was characterized by secret agreements between as few as six individuals from six veteran organizations, tabling of regulations during an election over a Christmas break and so-called consultations which resulted in bureaucrats ignoring all input from these one-way discussions. Perhaps, most disturbing of all was that the single greatest change to how Canadians honoured the sacrifices of our brave men and women in uniform was passed in the House of Commons in under three minutes without a single word of debate.

Whatever the reasons, none justify denying democracy to all of us who have fought and have lost so much trying to protect it.

The bureaucracy forced the sale of the New Veterans Charter upon us in 2005 before we had time to choose the colour of the car let alone look under the hood. Now we have had five years to drive it and veterans are demanding an all-encompassing recall.

In Parliament, the smallest change in laws, let alone a completely new one like this charter, are given months of scrutiny. The public and Parliament debate the pros and cons, committees travel and the media have a chance to weigh in. In the history of Canada, there has likely never been such disregard for the democratic process for such an important piece of legislation as the New Veterans Charter which skipped over virtually all scrutiny and due process.

Had there been scrutiny, veterans like Louise Richard, Harold Leduc and I would not have been some of the first Canadians to come to the conclusion that honouring a lifelong disability with a one time lump sum is wrong. It is also irresponsible given the initial psychological state of most disabled members being kicked out of the military.

Scrutiny would have Canadians ask important questions like no matter how broken the Veterans Review and Appeal Board may be, why is there recourse with free legal advice for all older Pension Act benefits yet the New Veterans Charter benefits, except for the lump sum, deny legal assistance and appeal rights through the board.

These are but two of the more than 200 critical observations and recommendations which have been recorded by the Special Needs Advisory Group and the New Veterans Charter Advisory Group. Ironically, the members of both these groups are chosen and essentially report to the same bureaucrats who told us that the Charter had no flaws in the first place. It is no wonder that Veterans Affairs cannot point to a single substantial change in the charter since it was passed five years ago.

This is why platitudes like a “Living Charter” resonate so hollow. In 2005, the Senate Finance Committee was promised that small scale reviews of the charter would occur every three months and later commitments promised full scale reviews every one or two years.

The Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) bureaucracy continues to silence debate with other platitudes like the charter offers “opportunity with security.” Would a lifelong disability pension which can never be taken away not offer more security than a one-time lump sum or a two-year time limit to complete rehabilitation?

Would university training which is absent from the charter not offer security while allowing more opportunities for employment in the federal civil service?

Would no-interest loans or grants like those offered to World War II veterans not offer more opportunity to start a business while the injured soldier can still count on the security of a lifetime monthly disability award?

The truth is that what the charter provides to disabled soldiers existed in some form or other before the charter came to be, except for the lump sum replacing the lifelong monthly Pension Act award. Why then was the charter forced upon veterans? As the bureaucracy wrote in their own words in July 2005, it wanted “to regain control of an alarming future liability scenario,” that is to save money.

It is indeed tragic that the bureaucracy sees disabled veterans as a “liability.” The only reason Veterans Affairs exists is because of “us liabilities.”

This is the problem. While many frontline workers are extremely compassionate and understanding of veterans and their families, most middle and senior managers at VAC are physically isolated from government in Prince Edward Island. In Charlottetown, VAC is not only deeply disconnected from understanding veterans and their needs, management apparently did not consult their own frontline employees when they created the charter.

This leads to another platitude from the bureaucracy: “that consultations on the charter have been the most comprehensive in VAC history.” If true, Veterans Affairs Canada indeed has a sad history of understanding its employees, let alone veterans.

Why was the charter allowed to get to this stage? The military and veterans are tragically accustomed to seeing repeated governments fail to make the sacrifice to repay its veterans after Canada’s soldiers have already paid their debt in death and injury.

Quite simply, the bureaucracy is far too powerful and overwhelms whatever government comes their way. How can a minister and one senior policy adviser at Veterans Affairs force unwelcome change upon senior public servants with 3000 employees at their disposal? Ministers can’t and that is why government has to change.

In addition to full public debate and a full-scale rewriting of the charter, I suggest the following changes as to how Canada’s government could improve and begin to pay back the debt owed to its disabled veterans.

First, just as in the American Department of Veterans Affairs, all advisory committees in VAC must report directly to the minister and barring the privacy concerns of witnesses, all their meetings, reports and minutes must be made immediately public.

Second, veterans must be employed at all levels of VAC. Veterans Affairs apparently does not have a single veteran in its senior management, whereas 30 per cent of the American Department of Veterans Affairs bureaucracy are veterans with more than 25,000 of those suffering service-related disabilities.

Third, all oversight agencies across all federal departments must be completely independent officers of Parliament including the Veterans Affairs Ombudsman, and, finally, ministers must have the power to remove senior public servants who are resisting the will of the majority of Parliament.

The bureaucracy has repeatedly snubbed its nose at the will of Canadians, Parliament, veterans, and their families. The prevention of a legislated ombudsman and the refusal to stop deducting pain and suffering payments from disabled veterans’ long-term disability income (while serving soldiers collect full salary plus pain and suffering payments) show the bureaucracy’s alarming disrespect for Canadian democratic processes and values.

Veterans and the military have been mostly silent but we certainly know when the democracy we fought for and sacrificed so much to protect is being wronged beyond recognition.

Sean Bruyea is a retired and disabled Air Force intelligence officer, advocate for veterans and their families and a writer on issues relating to veterans, military and government. Mr. Bruyea delivered this speech to the Liberals’ Roundtable on Veterans Issue on Jan. 28 on Parliament Hill.

The Hill Times