Trust violated, where do veterans turn?

By Michael L. Blais-THE HILL TIMES-October 11, 2010

NIAGARA FALLS, ONT.—The past two weeks have been a whirlwind of activity on the veterans’ front. Nationally, veterans continue to rally in defence of Veterans Ombudsman Pat Stogran, and the serious concerns he has identified.

Revelations pertaining to repeated VAC violations of retired captain Sean Bruyea’s privacy rights might be a good indication that veterans’ concerns are well justified.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn teamed up for announcements on financial increases and long-overdue care improvements. A baseline income for Canadians Forces members whose disability awards are based on lower pay grades and a catastrophic injury award of $1,000 a month for life was proposed. At this point of time, however, there has been no clarification as to the whether the award is taxed or whether the increase will be deducted from the wounded veteran’s Manulife SISIP LTD payment.

Nor do we know just who will qualify for this catastrophic award or what qualification requisites are. As such, one can only wonder where and if there is any substance to these announcements.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper also entered the fray and proclaimed that veterans suffering from ALS, some who launched legal action against the Canadian government for treatment support when VAC denied their claims would now be considered for VAC benefits. It is frustrating to note, however, that there seems to be no real plan or date for support implementation for those suffering from ALS. This disease waits for no man, not even the Prime Minister of Canada. To offer hope to those afflicted and their families yet have no plan or method of implementation logically raises questions about the true motives behind making promises at this time.

Again, where is the substance?

News then broke of systematic charter violations made by retired intelligence officer Sean Bruyea’s Veterans Affair Canada files. Bruyea is a staunch advocate for veterans’ issues and a long-standing critic of the New Veterans Charter. For good reason.

The sanctity of his medical and financial files was repeatedly violated at high levels of government and VAC bureaucracy with the intent, allegedly, to use this information to impugn his credibility prior to the NVC enactment.

To compound the issue, Stogran admitted that the security surrounding his personal medical files had also been compromised and that he also had grave concerns that his confidential information would be used against him. In addition to and because of the investigation into the hundreds of violations initially reported by Bruyea, Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart launched the first ever department-wide investigation into Veterans Affairs Canada activities weeks before Blackburn claimed responsibility for the same systemic investigation of his department.

These issues have tested, perhaps broken the bond of trust between our troops/veterans and the bureaucracy and ministerial officials at Veterans Affairs Canada. Let us not forget, this nation is at war. Canada’s sons and daughters are being repatriated with terrible injuries and under such extraordinary circumstances one might realistically claim that it is Prime Minister Harper’s responsibility to implement measures to restore a state of integrity to Veterans Affairs Canada.

The question is, just how can the bond of trust between our troops, veterans and VAC be restored?

First, Prime Minister Harper must call for a full public inquiry into Veterans Affairs Canada’s activities. The breach of privacy violations against Bruyea and Mr. Stogran are not internal VAC issues, they are a breach of federal privacy laws, the spectre of alleged widespread abuse corrupts the very level of trust veterans are entitled. How can a government address the serious problems at VAC and improve our veterans’ quality of life if the government does not take comprehensive measures to study, evaluate and propose changes to a variety of NVC inadequacies? There must be a forum guarantying veterans a state of meaningful dialogue, the prospect of change, a mandate to recommend and implement measures of improvement.

Second. The prime ministerial appointment of the veterans ombudsman, while an admirable act, cannot be effective should the Prime Minister and his government simply decide to ignore/dismiss the recommendations. To be effective, the veterans ombudsman must be a legislated position responsible to Parliament, not the government of the day. When necessary, the veterans ombudsman must have the legal mandate to intervene, investigate and implement corrective measures on behalf of the veteran. Furthermore, the ombudsman must have a staunch military background, strong credentials, an abundance of integrity and an ability to relate to the veterans he/she has sworn to assist.

Someone perhaps like Stogran?

Our troops and veterans deserve nothing less.

Michael L. Blais is a former member of the Canadian Forces and the national organizer of the Canadian Veterans National Day to protest for veterans against the government to take place on Nov. 6 on Parliament Hill.

The Hill Times