The Department of Veterans Affairs has a proud record. Founded in 1944 to care for and reintegrate into civil society the more than one million men and women who served in the Canadian Armed Forces in the Second World War, DVA was an ornament of government. The Veterans Charter, the package of programs created by the Mackenzie King government, gave the department all the funding it needed to care for the wounded in body and mind in superb hospitals. There was money to send vets to university, or for training, to give them farms, or to set up businesses and to put cash in their hands, and a new suit on their backs. DVA was a terrific success and, while there were inevitable complaints, the department still cares well for Canada’s world war vets, and it does fine work on remembrance and military heritage.
Now that record is in jeopardy. Under its new name, Veterans Affairs Canada has besmirched its record, perhaps irrevocably. Modern era veterans, those who served in the Gulf War, the Former Yugoslavia, or in Afghanistan have long believed themselves short-changed by the department and successive governments, and some of the complaints have become vociferous. The Veterans Ombudsman, Colonel Pat Stogran, who commanded the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry in Afghanistan in 2002, has pushed the ministry hard to make improvements in benefits for the wounded in body and mind. So too has retired captain Sean Bruyea, a 14-year Air Force vet with service in the Gulf War.
And what was the bureaucratic response? When Bruyea testified in Parliament in 2005 against VAC’s New Veterans Charter with its plan to pay lump sums to the wounded, he suddenly found access to treatment he required for his post-traumatic stress disorder cut off. The department then demanded that he get a psychiatric assessment at a hospital of its choosing, and when Bruyea later secured access to his file after an Access to Information request he discovered that his records had been passed around VAC’s offices. “Folks, it’s time to take the gloves off here,” wrote one senior official. “It [is] not that this person is spreading misinformation for his own purposes[,] it is that this is … by now creating grave doubts among soldiers who now need to know their government backs them.”
So off came the gloves, and Bruyea lost access to the care and treatment he needed. In other words, the bureaucrats decided to try to shut up a critic who was interfering with the implementation of their plans, and they used his medical records to help them do so. Pay no attention, deputy minister, we can almost hear them saying: He’s crazy and a crank, minister. Your policy is right.
It is important to note that Bruyea’s shameful treatment began in 2005 under the Liberals and continued under the Conservative government. Politics was surely involved, and certainly ministers were briefed, but this sorry story smacks of nothing so much as officials protecting themselves and the programs they wanted against the assaults of critics.
One instance of this bureaucratic persecution would be plenty, but Stogran, his position as ombudsman giving him the perfect public platform, shouted and advocated so loudly that the government declined to renew his appointment. Stogran publicly stated that he had discovered that some 400 VAC officials had scoured his personal files for evidence that could be used to shut him up. Soon other vets came forward with similar stories.
Canada’s Privacy Commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, has confirmed Bruyea’s account and she is now looking into the claims of bureaucratic abuse in Veterans Affairs Canada as a whole. But the commissioner’s powers to punish are limited. A Parliamentary committee might be tasked with fully investigating this issue, but the bitter partisanship that affects every area of Parliament makes that a dead-end. All that remains is a formal inquiry that can call senior officials and their ministers in to explain their actions under oath and issue findings of fault where they may exist. “People need to suffer the consequences of their actions, because it’s the only way they would learn and other employees learn as well,” Bruyea’s wife said.
Mrs. Bruyea is right. Officials must learn that there are limits to playing their “cover your ass” games. They need to understand that veterans are citizens with the same rights to privacy as everyone else and, because of their overseas service in times of war, even more entitlement to their nation’s care and consideration. The Kafkaesque breaches of faith in VAC are a blot on the department’s record and a stain on Canadian government. If the public’s confidence is to be restored, if veterans’ confidence in the department of government created to assist them is to be recreated, there must be a genuine investigation with real punishment for those who tried to smear opponents. Nothing less will suffice.
Historian J.L. Granatstein is a senior research fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.
The Hill Times