Disabled veterans not just another statistic

There are 600,000 Canadian Forces veterans. More than 50,000 of them are suffering permanent injuries and will need some form of support for the rest of their lives. Why was this statistical elephant in the room ignored?

By Sean Bruyea -The Hill Times-August 9, 2010

At first glance, an independent and soundly functioning Statistics Canada’s has little in common with the manner in which Canada treats its injured soldiers. However, objective, sound and thorough statistical science has much to do with how we honour the military sacrifices made in Canada’s name.

There are approximately 170,000 World War 2 and Korean War veterans left. How do we know this? Through statistics gathered in the 1971 long census form from Statistics Canada and updated regularly from other Statistics Canada surveys since then. That approximately 1,700 of these veterans are dying each month is the main reason the government is considering reductions in Veterans Affairs Canada, the federal department mandated to care for our injured soldiers and surviving family members.

When Canadians line the Highway of Heroes between Trenton and Toronto, we mourn with a great sense of sadness the lost future of soldiers cut down in their prime. A widely known statistic is the 151 Canadians who have lost their life and the approximately 2000 wounded in Afghanistan since 2002. In spite of every single one of these tragedies, some in the Canadian government are using these relatively small numbers to justify cutbacks in frontline employees at Veterans Affairs.

However, one statistic which was not released in the media discussions about possible cuts to Veterans Affairs: there are 600,000 Canadian Forces veterans who have an average age of 54 and approximately 90,000 serving regular and reserve Canadian Forces personnel. Almost 10% of these ‘statistics’ or more than 50,000 are suffering permanent injuries and will need some form of extended medical care and/or support for the rest of their lives. Why was this statistical elephant in the living room ignored? Was it because government cutbacks are more important than Canada’s legal and sacred commitment to care for our wounded soldiers and their families?

Canada’s mission in Afghanistan has shone a brighter than usual light on the plight of our injured soldiers. What happens when the mission ends and other issues allow Canadians to forget about the cost of caring for its wounded? Accurate statistics about the veteran population are sometimes the only voice to remind Canadians to keep the memory of our veterans alive.

For almost a century prior to April 2006, Canada honoured the non-fatal sacrifices suffered by our men and women in uniform with a lifelong tax-free disability pension. Since April 1, 2006, injured soldiers, including most non-fatal casualties from Afghanistan receive a one-time lump sum amount to compensate for their lifelong injuries.

When the lump sum law was first passed without debate or Committee hearings in the House of Commons, a mere handful of voices (including this author), were the first to oppose the lump sum award. Since that time, all outside government are now calling for a removal of the lump sum in favour of a system similar or identical to the previous lifelong disability pension.

How did Veterans Affairs respond to the outcry from the veteran community? By gathering its own statistics through a survey. According to Minister of Veterans Affairs, Jean-Pierre Blackburn, the result of the survey apparently revealed that a lump sum is the “preferred option for the majority of veteran[s]”.

Academics and the veteran community were shocked. How could an injured soldier, many in their 20’s and 30’s, prefer a lump sum which equaled what would have been paid out in as little as 7 years or so by the previous lifelong disability pension?

The answer lies in the fact that Statistics Canada did not carry out the survey, Veterans Affairs bureaucrats did. As such, the quality of the survey and its methodology, and therefore the statistics are not of the highest standard which a survey conducted by Statistics Canada would have otherwise provided.

In the Veterans Affairs survey, only 11% of the lump sum recipients completed the survey and not one of the more than 100,000 veterans who receive the lifelong disability pension were contacted. But the question did not compare the lump sum to the previous lifelong disability award:“If you had a choice, would you prefer to receive your lump sum payment with the same dollar amount as a single payment or as payments over time?”

It is difficult to imagine that someone would prefer to have the same “dollar amount” spread over time and lose potential investment income. Even then, more than one quarter of the respondents preferred to have the amount spread over time. But this is not the issue being hotly debated. The real choice unanimously and loudly voiced by the Royal Canadian Legion, the Veterans Ombudsman, opposition parties and every independent expert witness who testified to Parliament: Would veterans prefer the lump sum which pays a maximum of $276,000 or a lifelong monthly tax free disability pension of approximately $29,000 per year plus amounts for spouses and children and fully indexed to public service salaries?

That’s right; Veterans Affairs survey forgot to ask if the respondents of their survey would like to receive additional amounts for children and spouses, something for which the lump sum does not provide unlike the monthly tax-free disability pension. Furthermore, as the lump sum increases with inflation, those injured soldiers who have already received their payment do not see a penny of that increase. Those receiving a monthly lifelong disability payment, however, receive annual increases in line with federal civil servant salaries or inflation, whichever is greater.

Another statistic not released by Veterans Affairs in this survey: the average lump sum paid out to our injured soldiers over the past five years has been less than $40,000. That is about the price to buy a family minivan. Once the minivan is gone, injured soldiers have nothing to show for disabilities which will last the rest of their lives.

Neither Munir Sheikh, the head of Statistics Canada who resigned over making the long form census voluntary nor Ivan Fellegi, Canada’s world renowned previous Chief Statistician would likely agree Veterans Affairs Canada’s survey was good statistical science. Nevertheless, the government is using the highly distorted statistics from the Veterans Affairs survey to avoid scrapping the lump sum in spite of the outcry of those most affected: disabled veterans and their families.

Similarly, some of the loudest voices in favour of an involuntary long-from census are those Canadians who could be most marginalized by the biased statistics of a ‘voluntary’ long form census: minority, religious as well as physical and mental disability groups.

And, just as in the case of the most seriously disabled veterans, all the groups calling for the involuntary long form census are being ignored by government.

In government, high quality statistics can be used to create valuable programs to give meaning and value to the lives of those who would otherwise be forgotten or more marginalized than they already are.

Disabled veterans and their families know all too well what it is like to be a statistical ping pong ball. School children and those who take the minute or two to honour sacrifice once a year on November 11 mourn and revel in awe at the statistics of the sacrifices our young men and women have paid in blood to make Canada a great country. Fundamental to being a great country are good government practices such as making decisions with objective and sound statistical information.

Sadly, statistics have been skewed to avoid paying for the unavoidable and necessary high cost of caring for our wounded soldiers. Canadians and especially government have a fickle memory when it comes time to finding the money to care for those brave men and women who endure their disabilities in characteristic noble silence.

Objective, sound and thorough statistics ensure that we remember our injured and fallen more than just on November 11 but in every annual budget and across all government departments.

Although Statistics Canada is not an independent, arms length agency, recent government interference shows that it should be made so. An independent Statistics Canada which has up until now commanded the world’s respect has and would set the highest standard for all government departments to ensure that Canada’s ‘constitutional’ promise to care for all, whatever their race, religion, economic status…or disability, in or out of uniform, is fulfilled and their memory is never forgotten.

As a statistic in the population of wounded soldiers, I have a vested interest in ensuring Canada has a sound, independent and world-respected statistical agency so that I am not forgotten.

Sean Bruyea is a free-lance writer and retired Canadian Forces Intelligence Officer who writes about issues of governing with a conscience.