Veterans Affairs Canada Has a Perverse Understanding of ‘Consultation’

By Sean Bruyea-THE HILL TIMES-March 21, 2011.

In a most bizarre déjà vu, history repeated itself on March 11 when the House passed Bill C-55. The bill was sold as the fix-for-all that ails veterans’ legislation originally passed in 2005, legislation which replaced lifelong payments for pain and suffering for injured soldiers with a one-time lump sum.

The tactics which forced through Bill C-55 as well as the original 2005 legislation are near mirror images of disturbing bureaucratic processes.

Setting aside the multiple flaws of the legislation itself or Canada’s failure to provide and administer adequate programs for its veterans, it is the process to create veterans’ legislation which has been deeply flawed over the past decade. At the heart of the process is Veterans Affairs Canada’s perverse understanding of the process of “consultation.”

In May 2005, the government of the day rushed through Bill C-45, now known as the New Veterans Charter. Indisputably this was the largest change in how veterans were compensated for their injuries in more than 90 years. But the bill received less than one minute of discussion in the House for second and third readings. Fortunately, a few veterans, including myself, held a press conference. In spite of media frenzy over a possible snap election, CBC carried the story on national news. This forced a hastily prepared Senate committee hearing the next day.

During the hearing, the minister, VAC officials and hand-picked stakeholders declared that the legislation was the result of “widespread,” “broad” and “extensive” consultations. Ministerial briefing notes claimed that “consultations on the New Veterans Charter have been the most comprehensive in VAC history.” Is there truth to any of this?

Veterans Affairs Canada had commissioned a couple of studies since 1999 following reports of the scandalous quality of life issues suffered by serving CF members. In 2000, the VAC-CF Advisory Council was created. It was chaired by a historian and included medical practitioners and representatives from a select few veteran groups. Only one individual, retired general now Quebec Sen. Roméo Dallaire, represented the specific interests of disabled veterans. No one represented the families of veterans and none of its meetings were open to the public nor were minutes ever made publicly available.

Some members of the council held sessions on Canadian Forces bases. To the question of a preference of lump sums or lifelong pensions, one council member testified that all six of the CF bases he interviewed responded overwhelmingly they preferred a lifelong pension.

The council, in March 2004, did eventually publish its report with 17 recommendations. VAC would later claim that the New Veterans Charter followed the report’s recommendations. A read of the report will show that the New Veterans Charter fails to respect all but one recommendation. Unfortunately, Veterans Affairs Canada stopped organizing further council meetings after publication of the report. The council has never been able to officially respond to whether the new veterans charter actually follows their recommendations.

Then in January 2005, representatives from just six veterans’ organizations met in secret with Veterans Affairs officials. The representatives agreed to blindly support the coming legislation. They were not permitted to discuss the legislation with their membership or see the wording until three months later less than 48 hours before the bill was tabled.

Ironically, the entire membership of two of those veteran organizations and the majority veteran members of the Royal Canadian Legion were World War II veterans eligible for lifelong disability payments. Why were these organizations allowed to have any say in giving less to post-World War II CF veterans than their own members received?

As for the other three organizations, even if their membership was allowed to be informed of the details of the legislation, their combined membership was and still is probably less than 2,000 CF veterans.

Is this what Veterans Affairs Canada considers the “most comprehensive” consultation in its history? Maybe this was a play on semantics as Veterans Affairs Canada is an applied title given in 1984 to the legal name of the “Department of Veterans Affairs.” In this light, the consultations were indeed the “most” of everything since they were apparently the only consultations Veterans Affairs Canada carried out since 1984.

However, the department had previously engaged in much more substantial consultations. During and following World War II, more than a dozen federal departments, every provincial government, all major municipalities, universities, hospitals, veteran groups, the military, businesses and communities across Canada were brought together in more than 14 committees to create the original Veterans Charter. This was true consultation. And it was far more “comprehensive” or “widespread” than Veterans Affairs Canada’s secretive efforts to consult with as few as six individuals on behalf of more than 600,000 serving and retired Canadian Forces members and their more than one million family members.

That Senate hearing in 2005 had another valuable consequence—the creation of two Veterans Affairs advisory groups: the Special Needs Advisory Group (SNAG) and then later on, the New Veterans Charter Advisory Group (NVCAG). Between these two groups, they have produced six substantial reports encompassing more than 380 recommendations to improve the New Veterans Charter. However, only the report from NVCAG is publicly accessible and all of SNAG’s reports are only available through an Access to Information request.

The House Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs also produced a report with 18 recommendations. I have submitted to the same committee another 55 unique recommendations.

What is the response from Veterans Affairs? Bill C-55 and its four “enhancements.” The VAC bureaucracy never responded to any of the advisory group recommendations and contrary to custom, failed to respond to each of the House Committee recommendations. Instead, the minister read into Hansard the following statement from the president of the Royal Canadian Legion on March 11, 2011: “This bill, as a first step, makes great strides in improving the New Veterans Charter and encompasses many of the recommendations made by the New Veterans Charter Advisory Group and the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs.”

Would the two advisory groups agree with the president of the Legion? We will never know because Veterans Affairs Canada suspended the meetings of these two groups last fall, just prior to tabling Bill C-55. However, as the chair of SNAG testified last summer, the changes to the New Veterans Charter over the last five years have been “minimal to nil.” As to the legislation itself: “It is not working.”

There are more than 400 recommendations outstanding. Clearly the president of the Legion is not speaking to the facts. The reason for this could be that the Legion itself has lost touch with the Canadian Forces veterans with more than two-thirds of Legion members having never worn a military uniform.

According to Treasury Board guidelines, consultation must be “clear, open and transparent” amongst many other requirements including the need to incorporate or account for input from stakeholders into the legislation. Consultation is, even by bureaucratic standards, supposed to be a two-way process. It cannot merely consist of Veterans Affairs Canada allowing someone to speak and then refusing to either respond to, or, more importantly, refusing to include the wishes of the stakeholders in the final product.

Why the refusal to truly enter into bilateral, equal, and transparent consultations with the veteran community? Reportedly, not one EX level position in Veterans Affairs Canada has ever served in the military. Veterans Affairs Canada’s concept of consultation looks more like paternalistic condescension.

Parliament has held only one committee hearing on Bill C-55 and it is set to be fast-tracked through the Senate due to the threat of…as in May 2005… a federal election.

It took six years to address just four of the 400 recommendations. At this rate it will take more than 600 years to address the remaining recommendations. During the one and only Committee hearing on Bill C-55, Elphège Renaud, President of the Association du Royal 22e Régiment spoke of C-55, “Sadly, this is all just for show.”

Perhaps the VAC bureaucracy should remember that 100,000 Canadians have not died and almost 300,000 have not incurred lifelong injuries in military service merely for “show.”

Sean Bruyea is a freelance writer and retired Air Force intelligence officer who writes about issues of governing with a conscience.

The Hill Times