May 11, 2010-House Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs

For complete testimony, questions and answers, please click here.

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

Thank you, Chair. Good morning, Chair, ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you for inviting me back to testify. More importantly, thank you for continuing your extensive study on the new Veterans Charter and the well-being of disabled CF members, veterans, and the families of all. I am grateful to the committee for ensuring that my initial report and 40 accompanying recommendations on the new Veterans Charter and Veterans Affairs in general has been officially tabled and entered into the parliamentary record. I have also provided an additional 15 recommendations in a separate document for tabling.

Today, in the audience, I would just like to acknowledge David Hutton, executive director of FAIR, and two renowned whistleblowers, Allan Cutler and Ian Bron. All of them are brave advocates for effective whistleblower protection from reprisals from the public service.

For the record, it is important that the committee understand that I am not a participant in the new Veterans Charter programs. I am here advocating on behalf of those CF members, veterans, and families who do not have the health to defend themselves.

Reading through the testimony of your many esteemed witnesses, I am encouraged by the passion, enthusiasm, and expertise they all bring to the table. I’m also pleased to see the impressive unanimity of almost all witnesses in calling for not just a tweaking of the new Veterans Charter, but a complete rethinking of how we treat disabled soldiers, veterans, and the families who stand by them through thick and thin. Alone in resisting fundamental change, let alone any substantial change, are the non-veteran employees of Veterans Affairs Canada, who are the architects of the new Veterans Charter.

It is a sad coincidence that five years ago today, on May 11, 2005, the one and only parliamentary committee hearing was held on the new Veterans Charter before it was rushed to royal assent. Harold Leduc, Louise Richard, and I were the only voices permitted to offer insight into the design flaws of the charter.

However, now is the time to answer some important questions.

Why have the individuals and organizations who have testified thus far not been integrated into VAC’s policy-making process, rather than, at best, standing on the sidelines so that VAC can mostly reject or ignore their expert input?

Why are the ultimate experts on disabilities—the passionate and skilled disabled veterans and family members—not making the decisions and designing policy for their peers?

And, as occurred five years ago, why are all of these stakeholders excluded from directly participating in the redesign and rewriting of the new Veterans Charter, as is unanimously called for outside VAC?

Perhaps it is because VAC remains isolated, both geographically and professionally, from the disabled veterans it serves and the front-line employees who serve veterans. As most witnesses have pointed out, including the veterans ombudsman, Veterans Affairs requires a significant and fundamental cultural shift. But how will that shift occur if VAC is allowed to continue the status quo of working in isolation in Charlottetown while employing few, if any, veterans?

I am pleased to hear that the staff of Office of the Veterans Ombudsman consists of 30% veterans. This is exactly the minimum proportion of veterans I recommend for employment in VAC, and it is the proportion of veterans working in the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.

The veterans ombudsman testified that “quotas of any sort are counterproductive”. That’s interesting, since quotas ensure that visible minorities, aboriginals, females, and the disabled are reflected at all levels of government. Without quotas, how would the opportunity for employing underrepresented populations come to be in a timely manner? Besides, I’m recommending quotas not merely to adhere to the principles of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which justify such quotas, nor am I recommending quotas as a favour to veterans—although they do deserve them—but I am recommending quotas as part of a comprehensive and sound business model. As the ombudsman testified, veterans offer credibility. More importantly, the raison d’être of Veterans Affairs is veterans and their families. Therefore, the department must designate a significant number of positions for veterans, disabled veterans, and family members of disabled veterans only, precisely to provide the expertise and intimate understanding of veteran clientele that is currently lacking, while developing programs that veterans need—not programs to suit Veterans Affairs or unrealistic Treasury Board processes.

Almost all witnesses have testified about these overwhelming and confusing bureaucratic processes that VAC has implemented for disabled veterans and their families in order to receive the “care, treatment and rehabilitation” mandated by Canadian law. Meanwhile, new Veterans Charter architects attempt to appease Parliament and veterans by telling us that the NVC has all the built-in flexibility necessary in order to accommodate change in what they call “a living charter”. That no change has yet to occur is painfully obvious. However, there are two problems with the platitude of inherent flexibility.

First, if the legislation has flexibility to offer services and benefits where not expressly defined by legislation, what happens when budget constraints are implemented and the spotlight is no longer on veterans and their military service? Flexibility in legislation also allows the department to deny services and benefits if not expressly defined. Verbal guarantees to the contrary from VAC officials do not sit at all well with a disabled veteran dependent upon VAC for life, and should hold no water with this or any Parliament.

Second, the flexibility platitude is mostly untrue when it comes to implementing an overwhelming number of recommendations made thus far. Legislation would have to be written to accommodate such changes. For example, a number of senators, most advocates, including the Legion, as well as both the special needs advisory group and the new Veterans Charter advisory group have called for the earnings loss benefit to be moved from 75% to 100% of salary, and to have that 100% keep pace with real CF salary increases and typical career rank advancements. The NVC legislation, as currently written, does not allow any of this.

Furthermore, appeal mechanisms for the new Veterans Charter programs are hard-wired into the legislation and designed to be severely limited. Under the Pension Act, all programs can be appealed at the departmental level and, failing that, through at least two levels of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board and then through Federal Court. However, under the new Veterans Charter, only the lump sum can be reviewed in this manner. All other programs can only be appealed through the department. This means the system of precedents set up by more than a century of common law is irrelevant to most of the new Veterans Charter programs.

The department has consistently told Canadians that the programs of the new Veterans Charter cannot be viewed in isolation and that the NVC is a suite of wellness programs. That this suite of wellness programs is merely a repackaging or a duplication of already existing programs is only now being understood, although we presented this conclusion and supporting documentation to the Canadian public, members of Parliament, and Veterans Affairs more than five years ago. I have provided the committee with an updated summary version of that documentation.

Canada’s most disabled veterans and their families are often completely dependent upon Veteran Affairs for both medical care and financial stability for the rest of their lives. What happens should these veterans or family members determine that the government, which controls so much of their lives, is not providing them with the necessary services or benefits? What protects disabled veterans from the real or perceived fear that they may be unjustly treated by a Veterans Affairs employee for reporting deficiencies in VAC practices for themselves or in their lifelong commitment to watch over their comrades? What is more integral to wellness than the need for security from such real or perceived reprisals?

As I testified to this committee last month, I was and I am the victim of reprisals by Veterans Affairs officials precisely because of my opposition to the new Veterans Charter, as well as my support of a veterans’ ombudsman.

The new Veterans Charter cannot be looked at in isolation from the process in which it was created. We cannot, as a nation or a Parliament, blindly accept that any means justify the end. The secretive and bullying manner in which the new Veterans Charter was fast-tracked prevented due process of committee review, a review we called for exactly five years ago today, a review that, thankfully, you are now carrying out.

Perhaps if Parliament had held public hearings prior to the tabling of the new Veterans Charter, Veterans Affairs officials such as Darragh Mogan, the chief architect of the NVC, would not have acted with such impunity on March 24, 2006. He told six VAC senior managers, including Assistant Deputy Minister Brian Ferguson, that it was “time to take the gloves off” when dealing with me and my public analysis of the new Veterans Charter. It’s not a little alarming that the plan detailing what Mr. Mogan carried out with his “gloves off” was sent to two Canadian Forces officers and then later blanked out by access to information.

It can’t be a coincidence, but later that afternoon, Ken Miller circulated a letter to Assistant Deputy Minister Brian Ferguson, Darragh Mogan, and others that I wrote to Prime Minister Harper regarding the charter and that had bold letters written above, “Not For Departmental Viewing”. Thirty-six minutes later, instructions from Assistant Deputy Minister Brian Ferguson that my personal medical files be shared with Parliamentary Secretary Betty Hinton were put into action, only three days after Minister Thompson saw those same files. I can only assume this was done to undermine her confidence in me, because her office doesn’t look like a medical office to me, and neither Mr. Mogan nor Mr. Ferguson appear to have MD or medical doctor designations following their names.

More curiously, Parliamentary Secretary Betty Hinton’s support for me quickly declined after receiving the skewed medical information provided by the department, and I don’t think that’s a fair or ethical use of my personal information. But I may not be alone here. The Privacy Commissioner is investigating the matter.

I wasn’t dreaming when 13,000 pages of Privacy Act information showed me how VAC had used my personal medical files to slander my reputation with ministers, members of Parliament, and senior VAC managers, thereby undermining my effectiveness as an advocate for the overhaul of the new Veterans Charter. Nor was I delusional when those same documents showed how VAC bureaucrats, not medical doctors, had determined that I was “clearly unwell” and in need of “one week or more in patient psychiatric assessment”, simply because I demanded a review of the new Veterans Charter.

While it is true that I suffer from PTSD and have a therapeutic medical team who strongly oppose the need for this assessment, the mere fact that one disagrees with VAC officials is not in itself a diagnosis for such draconian measures or any other treatment. If disagreement with VAC were a diagnosis for treatment, I’m sure many members of this committee would already be racking up very large therapy bills.

The fact that VAC officials would target an opponent in such a devious way is why comprehensive whistleblower veteran and family protection legislation must be included in any rewrite of the Veterans Charter, to show veterans that they are equal partners in overseeing the programs created in their name and in honour of their sacrifice. No matter what else is done, meaningful change at VAC, given the department’s history and culture, will only be successful in the long term if accompanied by a truly independent, impartial, and legislated ombudsman’s office with teeth. Many members of this committee have already pointed this out. Such an office would ensure that veterans and families receive programs they need in a timely and efficient manner. Such a partnership of legislated protection, with a powerfully independent oversight body, would have provided a perfect vehicle to which I could bring my allegations of reprisals.

Equally important, a veterans’ ombudsman who reported to Parliament and was not beholden to VAC would avoid the troubling reaction of the current veterans ombudsman to VAC’s reprisals against me. A well-respected veteran colleague informed the veterans’ ombudsman personally of the allegations of harassment and my associated distress. He urged Mr. Stogran to have the ombudsman’s office contact me. The ombudsman did not act upon this distress call of a veteran in dire need, nor did the ombudsman consider as potentially serious the reprisals and harassment endured by someone whose efforts had resulted in the creation of his office. Stunningly, the ombudsman, Mr. Pat Stogran, e-mailed his director, Louise Wallis, callously withholding help in the hope that I would endure greater harm. The ombudsman wrote, “In battle, it’s better to hold off on a counter-attack as long as the enemy is busy destroying himself.” Please, let me repeat that: “In battle, it’s better to hold off on a counter-attack as long as the enemy is busy destroying himself.” If these are the views of the ombudsman when faced with a clear distress call of a disabled veteran, what purpose does the position serve, and how are our men and women who once donned a uniform to have confidence in its impartiality? What protection does any disabled veteran and his or her family have against similar reprisals to those I have endured?

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the Veterans Charter and ombudsman with you because these are issues that are vital to the veteran community and are central to the mandate of this committee.

A secondary question, but of no less importance to the veteran community, is VAC’s utter contempt and demeaning derision of those who advocate change. I have the good fortune of having been able to carefully document VAC’s reprisals against me, but many of my colleagues do not have the health or fortitude to confront betrayal by a department in whom former soldiers must place their absolute trust.

I hope you might request either the House Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics or the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights to initiate a study. Perhaps these committees could look at what systemic flaws or individual failings contributed to the Veterans Affairs’ employees believing they could seek reprisals against me and try to silence the voices of those calling for change to the Veterans Charter, merely for exercising the well-earned right to freedom of expression, a right that those same voices have so valiantly defended in uniform.

My great-grandfather died in World War I. My grandfather was killed on the beaches of Sicily in World War II. My uncles died while serving in the Royal Canadian Navy. And my brother is permanently and severely disabled because of his service in the CF. And 143 Canadian Forces members have not died in Afghanistan for the bureaucracy. They have paid the ultimate sacrifice for Canada’s democratic institutions and principles. They have died and been wounded by the order of Parliament, not by the order of public servants.

The bravery and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform have consistently inspired Canadians for more than a century. The military is inspiring because they believe their sacrifices mean something, that a vote means more than just another face in Parliament. That vote must necessarily translate to empowering those different faces, each one of you, to be the figurative and real will of Canadians, sacredly entrusted to hold all of government accountable or else the bureaucracy can continue to act with impunity and the principles of Canadian democracy and human rights mean absolutely nothing.

To that end, as Colonel John McCrae writes, “To you from failing hands we throw/The torch; be yours to hold it high.” Our dead and wounded have lost so much carrying that torch for you and for Canadians.

I and others have stood up to Veterans Affairs to bring reason and transparency to this haphazardly constructed new Veterans Charter. Today, virtually the whole veteran community is calling for those changes, and a growing chorus of Canadians, including perhaps the Privacy Commissioner, is learning firsthand about the tactics of a department whose practices and culture are long overdue for fundamental change.

Thank you.