April 15, 2010-House Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs-New Veterans Charter

For complete testimony, questions and answers,  please click here

Mr. Sean Bruyea (Retired Captain (Air Force), Advocate and Journalist, As an Individual):

Ladies and gentlemen of the committee, thank you very much for inviting me and my wife here today to testify on the new Veterans Charter.

In many ways, Canada’s veterans were betrayed by the MPs who sat in the 38th Parliament. They passed the Veterans Charter in mere seconds on May 10, 2005, without even reading it. Their Senate colleagues did little better, granting it just two days of debate. At its heart, Bill C-45, now known as the new Veterans Charter, removed the lifelong disability lump sum for pain and suffering.

In contrast, when the subject of MP pensions, which affects only a privileged few, was raised in the 35th Parliament, it was the focus of a supply day debate, and when Bill C-85 was finally tabled, there was so much debate that a time allocation motion was required. So while changes to MP pensions were hotly debated over months of Parliament, the new Veterans Charter came in like a thief in the night, with the acquiescence of all four parties of the House of Commons. Ironically, the rapid passage of the bill occurred while most members of the committees on veterans affairs of both Houses had just returned from or were still in Europe celebrating VE Day.

Quite simply, VAC betrayed veterans and hoodwinked Parliament, and I am here to ask you to right that wrong.

Unstated at any point during the parliamentary process of debate is the real reason why VAC needed to pass Bill C-45 with such urgency. Its officials had recommended “a shift to greater use of lump sum payments combined with customized rehabilitation services…to regain control of an alarming future liability scenario”. This was, however, hinted at by the testimony of Darragh Mogan when he appeared before the only Senate committee meeting on the Veterans Charter and admitted that the program “would pay for itself over a 15- to 20-year period”. This is the best illustration of a hidden agenda in recent Canadian political history.

Make no mistake about it. The remainder of the programs in the charter for disabled veterans and serving members existed in one form or another before the charter was passed. This was not, as Minister Guarnieri claimed during the May 11 hearing to the Senate national finance committee, “an entirely new vehicle designed to deliver what the current system cannot”. Louise Richard, Harold Leduc, and I were the only Canadians given an opportunity to testify to committee in opposition to the charter as it was written.

Indeed, we were all sold this new legislation based upon short briefings, which used such catch phrases as “opportunity with security”, “widespread consultations”, “case management”, and “psycho-social rehabilitation”, to name a few.

Although Veterans Affairs did not have a vocational rehabilitation or job placement program at the time, the SISIP vocational rehabilitation program had a long and successful history, and the CF had at least three job placement programs in operation.

Minister Guarnieri also claimed that the new system “will take us back to the same position we were in and enable us to provide the same level of re-establishment support we provided following the Second World War”. Then, ministers from each of a half dozen or more departments had been organized into a special committee. Experts from the military, medicine, rehabilitation, and representatives from the highest levels of the federal, all provincial, and most large municipal governments, industry, and community leaders all came together to create what was largely accepted to be the best re-establishment and rehabilitation program in the world at the time. Then, the deputy minister of Veterans Affairs personally recruited 34 individuals straight from the military to act as the senior managers to implement these new programs in Veterans Affairs, because he knew that veterans were the best to understand the needs of other veterans.

Veterans, whether wounded or not, were given health care, low-cost insurance, and financial assistance to re-establish. All were offered a choice of land grants, farming assistance, low-interest mortgages, university, or apprenticeships, as well as small business assistance. Meanwhile, any disabled veterans were provided with all of the above plus greater health care, the best case management and rehabilitation the world had to offer, and a monthly disability pension paid for life.

Whereas there were approximately a million World War II veterans, compared with roughly half a million Canadian Forces veterans, both deserve similar benefits and compassion for injuries suffered during their honourable service to this nation.

Whereas World War II benefits were designed by a committee of ministers, the Veterans Charter and its associated programs were almost solely authored by a modernization task force headed by a VAC director, Darragh Mogan, who called upon another VAC director, Ken Miller, to be his principal salesman. They presented the charter as a fait accompli to the greater Canadian government as well as to Parliament, veterans organizations, and the Canadian public.

To my knowledge, not one member of the task force in VAC has any military background, and reportedly not a single senior manager in Veterans Affairs is a veteran. More disturbingly, they had very little oversight or meaningful revision by superior or elected officials and have seen almost none since.

The minister promised reviews every two to three months in 2005, and later the department talked of regular reviews of perhaps every year or two years. As a result of my testimony in 2005 to the Senate, the department created the special needs advisory group, and then later the new Veterans Charter advisory group, to ensure that all those veterans who are disabled and their families are being appropriately cared for by the charter.

These groups have done good work, making approximately 299 recommendations for change to the charter. However, all suffer from the same process flaw. The people in charge of receiving the recommendations are the very same as those who authored the charter. It is therefore not surprising to note that fewer than half a dozen recommendations have even been partially implemented by VAC in the four years since SNAG’s first report was submitted and that no serious consideration has been given to any recommendation that might involve financial consequences.

Had the real intent of the Veterans Charter been any other than saving money, such groups would have been convened before the legislation was tabled, so that all their recommendations could have been part of the original program; moreover, there would have been several committee hearings prior to its passage in the House.

True to the spirit of VAC’s hidden agenda, SNAG’s reports have never been made public, and the proceedings of these advisory groups are never published. In the same way, when the charter was created, only one or two individuals from each of only six veterans organizations were involved. Each was sworn to confidentiality and agreed to, in effect, unquestionably support the charter. These leaders could not share any details of the charter with their membership.

Amazingly, this is what VAC has called “the most widespread consultation in VAC’s history”. It is frightening that they believe this to be true.

For the veteran and CF community, it is as though we are playing hockey by the rules on our side, but VAC’s net is far too small to fit the puck and is facing in the opposite direction.

Canada’s men and women in uniform have very high respect for our elected members of Parliament, and we ask you to do what we cannot. Please hold Veterans Affairs Canada accountable. It is unacceptable that VAC bureaucrats should be able to accept or reject any recommendations that affect the social contract between Canada and its veterans. It should be Parliament, and especially this committee, that instructs VAC to implement changes.

Somehow along the way, VAC officials and Parliament developed a highly dysfunctional relationship. Bureaucrats believe they can accept or reject whatever Parliament tells them, and Parliament has done very little to change such unbridled arrogance of certain VAC senior managers.

Let me ask some questions.

Would a lifelong disability pension not offer more security than a one-time lump sum?

In a world where university education is a prerequisite for government jobs, how can VAC promote the fast-tracking of veterans while excluding university education?

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

Why is it that public servants can use their rehabilitation time and income to contribute to their retirement pension but veterans cannot?

Why is it that public servants can arrange for a gradual back-to-work schedule, but the Veterans Charter does not allow this?

Why is it that not a single dollar earned by a public servant while on a rehabilitation plan of long-term disability is deducted, but half a dollar is deducted from a veteran on the long-term disability rehabilitation plan?

Should there be specific programs to help those disabled veterans who have been out of the workforce for years, sometimes a decade or more, especially when these veterans, in their thirties, forties, and fifties, still want to contribute, to be productive members of Canadian society?

Each of these questions is complex and deserves a comprehensive answer. Had the Veterans Charter been given proper public hearings before passage, we would know those answers. I hope your committee report will provide guidance in each of these matters as well as of my other 38 recommendations.

As SNAG recommends, the charter must be completely reviewed by both Houses, as if it is being seen for the first time, in its entirety, and the committees must be willing to rewrite the entire charter if necessary. This is because Canada’s men and women in harm’s way need to know that the Veterans Charter is not the work of cost-cutting bureaucrats in Charlottetown, but of their elected leaders right here in Ottawa.

Indeed, if given a broader mandate, this committee should ask whether the Prime Minister should apologize to those neglected or forgotten veterans from the decade prior to the charter’s implementation and whether these veterans and their families should have been given or could still be given access to war veterans’ programs. This committee should also examine whether maintaining VAC’s headquarters in Charlottetown is a benefit to veterans or simply allows civil servants an even greater distance from their Ottawa political masters. It should also study whether the VAC should be integrated into the Department of National Defence. And not to be overlooked is whether a department charged with the care, treatment, and rehabilitation of veterans should have more than just a symbolic presence of veterans in its ranks.

I know I’m asking a lot, but this minority Parliament is capable of great things. If you’re looking for resolve, I ask you to travel to Afghanistan and tell our soldiers that it is too difficult to change the public service because the public service is too powerful. Our soldiers may remind you of the challenges of patrolling the Panjwai district of Kandahar and their willingness to die in the service of the country they love. They hope they can count on you, each and every one of you, to accomplish this important mission.

Finally, I want to remind you that as an active opponent of the Veterans Charter as written, I have been singled out for reprisals by VAC bureaucrats, as documented by nearly 13,000 pages of my personal government information held by Veterans Affairs and obtained through the Privacy Act. Many of you in committee have known me for several years. You may also know that I take great pride in my advocacy work, work which I hope will help Canada take the best care possible of its disabled veterans and their families.

In May 2005, while I was calling for Parliament to send the charter to committee for study, just as you are doing now, certain officials at Veterans Affairs coordinated their efforts to seek reprisals against me, principally for my opposition to the charter as it was written as well as my support for a veterans ombudsman. I now have in my possession these 13,000 pages of Privacy Act information that the department holds on me and on my activities as an advocate. At least 10,000 more pages exist, but they have yet to be provided to me.

What emerges from this information is a clearly documented and disturbing picture of public servants seeking reprisals against me specifically for my advocacy work. In possible violation of ethical boundaries and privacy legislation, policy officials who designed the charter, such as Ken Miller, worked together with treatment officials, such as Orlanda Drebit and Jane Hicks, to blend my advocacy efforts with my medical files. They blended them into briefing notes seen by cabinet ministers and MPs in an attempt to discredit me personally and my work. Their plan was twofold: first, to attack my credibility by falsely accusing me of defrauding the crown, while attempting to force me to be admitted to Ste. Anne’s Hospital for a psychiatric assessment reminiscent of Stalinist tactics. The second part of the plan was for these officials to use highly personal information and distortions thereof in briefing notes.

These briefing notes were given to the sitting minister whenever I carried out my advocacy work. The notes were principally 10 pages long and included the most intimate details of my pharmacological drug use, my financial benefits, my bladder functions, my mental health state, and excerpts from psychiatric and other medical reports. The briefing notes concluded that the only reason that I advocated was because I was mentally unwell, in the sense that in their opinion one would have to be crazy to advocate for change.

These briefing notes were sent to almost all of the VAC senior managers involved in the sections of policy and treatment. In fact, more than 400 Veterans Affairs employees have seen some aspect of my personal files. When I reported these allegations of reprisals to two separate ministers, the response–on the advice of bureaucrats, including Veterans Charter authors–was to ignore my allegations and instead refer me to a VAC psychologist.

When I reported the matter to the Prime Minister’s Office, documents in my possession clearly show that the minister’s chief of staff and the two most senior VAC officials briefed the Prime Minister’s Office that although they could not talk about my allegations due to privacy, many soldiers in the Canadian Forces distrust authority, and that whenever VAC denies a request, the soldiers imagine a “conspiracy”. Furthermore, these VAC officials told the PMO staff that PTSD is like alcoholism, and that the way to deal with my allegations was to refer me to a VAC psychologist.

I bring this matter to you to emphasize the almost unbelievable lengths to which certain VAC officials have gone to prevent any meaningful debate on the Veterans Charter and to resist all attempts to impose transparency on the department and this controversial new legislation. As a sufferer of PTSD and other service-related injuries, I’m a client of Veterans Affairs. At no time in my military service did it ever occur to me that I would face personal reprisals from bureaucrats for exercising the very rights I defended while I wore a uniform; I never imagined I would lose far more of myself, my health, and my dignity through malicious and vengeful actions of the government I fought to defend so that the same government could destroy me and my attempts to help all those disabled veterans and their families who need help the most.

By the grace of God and through the support of good friends and the love of my wife, we stood up to the department, and I’m still here.

I suspect that other veterans and Canadians who are thinking of speaking out are waiting to see whether anyone can call these bureaucrats to account. I hereby give Parliament responsibility to investigate and call to account those responsible for such grievous wrongdoing. If what happened to me is not addressed by Parliament, then there is nothing to stop VAC or any other government official from attacking those current or future clients of VAC, or clients of any other federal department, who would advocate for policy change. If VAC were as busy improving the Veterans Charter as they are at targeting their critics, our nation would be well served indeed.

Thank you.

For full testimony, questions and answers, click here