Ottawa pledges additional $2-billion for wounded soldiers

Mark Iype, Postmedia News. Sunday, Sept. 19, 2010

OTTAWA — Facing criticism it has been shortchanging soldiers hurt in the line of duty, the federal government on Sunday unveiled what it says will be the first in a series of steps aimed at looking after Canada’s new generation of war veterans.

The Conservatives plan to pump $2-billion into helping the country’s most severely injured veterans, Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn and Defence Minister Peter MacKay told reporters in Ottawa as they reiterated the government’s support for the Canadian Forces.

“Our support will not end when the soldier leaves the army,” Mr. MacKay said.

In 2006, the government enacted the New Veterans Charter, under which wounded veterans became eligible for a lump-sum payment of nearly $277,000, instead of the traditional guaranteed monthly pension payments.

That change has been criticized by many, including the outgoing veterans’ ombudsman Pat Stogran and even Gen. Walter Natynczyk, the chief of defence staff, who say the pension-style option was better for many veterans.

Mr. Stogran and others have accused the government of being more concerned with its fiscal bottom line than the welfare of its soldiers.

The new measures announced on Sunday include a lifetime stipend of an additional $1,000 per month to help soldiers who are forced to retire due to injuries they’ve suffered in the line of duty.

This payment is on top of the 75% of pre-injury salary that veterans with “catastrophic injuries” currently receive, plus monthly allowances of $536 to $1,609 that they receive during rehabilitation.

The payments will provide the affected soldiers with a minimum benefit of $40,000 per year.

“This is money that will go directly into the pockets of veterans’ households,” said Mr. MacKay.

About 4,000 more soldiers would now be eligible for the expanded monthly benefits, which will take effect once the new measures are passed in the House of Commons.

The monthly payments will not be taxable. They will also not be retroactive to 2006.

The funding, however, was quickly dismissed by several former soldiers who said new money is simply “putting a band-aid on a disease.”

Sean Bruyea, a retired Canadian Forces intelligence officer and advocate for veterans said “platitudes were plenty” during Sunday’s announcement, but he said it will only serve to “enrage” veterans that are already feeling betrayed by the government.

“It’s not just about money, it’s a fundamental issue of equality,” he said. “Veterans don’t understand why they are being dictated to by a broken bureaucracy when they are basically powerless.”

Ron Cundell, a retired sergeant and a disabled veteran of the Gulf War called the government “masters of illusion.”

Mr. Cundell said, that with the House of Commons beginning its fall session on Monday, he’s afraid veterans’ issues will get lost in the raucous parliamentary debate that has been the hallmark of the Conservatives minority government.

“This is the proverbial Christmas Eve as we wait for the clock to strike 12 and we can all say it’s Christmas Day,” he said. “None of this money is coming immediately and we have to wait for it to get through Parliament.

“They have successfully turned the issue into a political football.”

Mr. Cundell was one of the veterans who railed against the government this summer after it was announced that Mr. Stogran, the veterans ombudsman, would not be kept at his post.

While Mr. Cundell said he is happy that Sunday’s announcement has shown the pressure veterans groups have been applying over the past few months has made a difference, he said the changes have still not addressed concerns over the lump-sum payments for disabled vets.

Mr. Blackburn said the government “will be announcing further measures in the weeks and maybe days to come,” hinting that the controversy over the lump-sum payments might be addressed.

“The government is and always will be there for [veterans] and their families,” he said.