Parliament must order a royal commission to clean up Veterans Affairs

Only a non-partisan public inquiry will fix this profoundly flawed department. A judicial royal commission would guide Canada to re-establish its commitment to injured military, veterans, and their families.

Published: Monday, 10/18/2010 12:00 am EDT

Veterans and all Canadians are grappling with revelations that federal bureaucrats have repeatedly and flagrantly violated Canada’s privacy laws for the purpose of destroying the credibility of at least one and maybe many more veterans who dared exercise freedom of expression to help others.

I am that veteran. More than 850 bureaucrats, political staffers up to and including the PMO, Members of Parliament and ministers have shared, accessed or received the personal medical and financial information of an advocate who dared criticize programs for Canada’s injured soldiers and their families.

Why was this allowed to occur and what can be done to fix what is now seen as a morally rotten culture at Veterans Affairs?

This ‘privacy scandal’ has not only provoked the outrage of two million veterans and their families but all Canadians shiver in fear as the federal government holds some piece of private information on each and every one of us.

Unsettling to many veterans and Canadians is the relative silence of Parliament on the matter. True to his long-time commitment to serving and retired military members and their families, NDP MP Peter Stoffer and his party are determined ‘lone wolves’ calling for a much-needed public inquiry into Veterans Affairs and federal government privacy practices. The question is not why Stoffer and NDP Leader Jack Layton are calling for a public inquiry into a federal department all of Canada now knows is both ethically and functionally broken. Why is the rest of Parliament not demanding the same public inquiry?

I know what it is to be a lone wolf accused by bureaucrats of howling at nothing more than the moon. It is these false allegations of ‘lunacy’ which Veterans Affairs bureaucrats used to discredit me. Senior managers were appalled and angered that I had the audacity to speak publicly in opposition to the so-called “New Veterans Charter” while calling for the creation of a veterans’ ombudsman.

This is what is clearly shown in the 14,000 pages of my Privacy Act information held by Veterans Affairs, now in my possession. And there are at least 14,000 more pages of documents about me the department has been withholding for more than 16 months.

What has started to send shivers down the spines of Canadians is how the senior bureaucrats manipulated my private medical and financial information. Although 10 or more briefing notes destined for two separate Cabinet ministers were prepared in relation to events unrelated to my personal psychological condition, non-medically trained bureaucrats unilaterally decided that I required a psychiatric assessment in six of them.

Former veterans affairs minister Albina Guarnieri was briefed twice on a plan to force a psychiatric in-patient assessment to be conducted at Veterans Affairs’ only hospital, the Ste. Anne de Bellevue.

Incredibly, the results of the assessment were partially provided to the minister before the assessment was ordered. If I did not agree with the assessment, bureaucrats sought legal advice to cut off all my life-preserving treatment.

This disturbing plan precipitated the second grievous finding of the privacy commissioner’s investigation. After recommending the plan to the minister, bureaucrats sent four volumes of medical and financial information about me to Ste. Anne’s hospital, an amount the privacy commissioner rightly determined “exceeded what could be reasonable and proportional.”

While briefing notes about me were being handed to the minister in July 2005, Veterans Affairs published a telling report. Vol. 2 of the “Disability Pension Program Evaluation” concludes that “A shift to greater use of lump sum payments…would serve, over time, to regain control of an alarming future liability scenario.”

As every good crime story tells us when looking for motive to a crime, ‘follow the money.’

The New Veterans Charter as it is now known was passed as Bill C-45 in the House of Commons on May 10, 2005, for second and third readings in under a minute without a word of debate. Bill C-45 was merely a repackaging of already existing programs for injured soldiers except for one crucial difference. The previous lifelong monthly compensation for military injuries was replaced with a one time lump sum. This is what the chief bureaucrat who designed the plan, Darrah Mogan, called, a “wellness dividend” in that the lump sum plan “would pay for itself over a 15-to-20-year period.”

The only obstacle which stood in the way of saving billions of dollars was me and a handful of enlightened veterans and their families.

But, for disabled serving and retired military personnel, it isn’t just about money. It is about how that money is scrupulously withheld by insensitive middle and senior managers. Injured soldiers are often forced to beg Canada for help in a most humiliating attack on their proud worth they once felt in uniform.

Veterans and families are angry about a culture and a system that spreads condescending PR campaigns telling Canada that all veterans are happy and grateful when many veterans painfully know the opposite to be true.

The medical conditions of disabled veterans are often worsened as a result of dealing with this culture of degradation. The insensitive system inculcates a sense of worthlessness and powerlessness in veterans and their families. It saps their hope and well-being as veterans have little or no say in their future.

And Canadians are becoming increasingly frightened by the ruthless tactics of our once prestigious but far too often morally corrupt senior public service.

Yet, the bureaucrats have far more influence over veterans’ programs than veterans or any of the political parties in Parliament combined. The bureaucracy ignores the unanimous calls for the creation of a legislated ombudsman with real investigative powers. The bureaucratic monster continues to dictate to Canada the details of the New Veterans Charter while Veterans Affairs has resisted full implementation of any of the more than 300 recommendations provided by its own advisory groups for more than five years.

If Parliament cannot control the bureaucracy or make it suffer consequences when it breaks the law what Canadian power can?

This is why veterans and soldiers are angry above all else. In their willingness to sacrifice their lives for Canada at a moment’s notice to uphold Canada’s laws and values, serving military and veterans cannot comprehend why bureaucrats don’t sacrifice anything when they break these same laws and betray those same values.

Our soldiers die for Canada, at the orders of Parliament, not at the order of the bureaucracy. That is why the fix for the bureaucracy must come from Parliament. We must re-establish the lost trust and equal partnership between Canada and its veterans. There must be open debate and involvement of all Canadians to rebuild veterans’ trust. Creative ways to reach out to all veterans must be discovered and no program can ever again be implemented without the veto-empowered approval of our veterans en masse.

The privacy commissioner has correctly ordered a systemic audit of Veterans Affairs privacy practices. Her findings will be welcome in addressing privacy issues but the ethically fetid and dysfunctional culture will remain in Veterans Affairs.

Only a non-partisan public inquiry will fix this profoundly flawed department. A judicial royal commission would guide Canada to re-establish its commitment to injured military, veterans and their families. The commission can be mandated to report every three months with interim findings so that progress can begin immediately to renew long lost trust with our brave veterans.

A public inquiry is a very small price to pay to rebuild more than six decades of Canada’s betrayal of our serving and retired Canadian Forces personnel. Anything less than a royal commission will be once again hijacked by the bureaucracy, currently the most powerful force in Ottawa, or in Veterans Affairs case, Charlottetown.

The Hill Times