By Sean Bruyea
Exclusive to VeteranVoice.info and VeteransofCanada.ca-Published July 15, 2011.
Far too many veterans shoot the messenger instead of aiming their sights on government. This is worsened by the impulsiveness which the internet encourages in instantaneous messaging. Veterans have much to contribute to determining their own destiny. The question is how to focus that energy to maximize chances of successful positive change.
There are many veterans active on the internet which is a good thing. Information portals like VeteranVoice.info, VeteransofCanada.ca, CanadianVeterans Advocacy and HomecomingVets as well as a number of other fine initiatives have provided a valuable service. Up until their appearance, the only message being delivered was from government and Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC). The message has been something akin to “all’s well” and “veterans are overwhelmingly satisfied with VAC services.”
The dedicated volunteers running these portals have often provided a more transparent and truthful interpretation of this official broken record.
Beyond these portals, a select number of veterans have established an email client base. To this base, they send news stories and information on veterans’ assistance, all while sharing ideas within the community. Sylvain Chartrand, Billy Willbond, John Labelle, David Palmer, Kenneth Young, Jacques De Winter and many other dedicated veterans give generously of their time and energy to informing veterans.
Rob Gallant also caters to an extensive mailing list in a service Dennis Manuge (lead plaintiff on the SISIP Class Action Lawsuit) passed on to Rob. It was Rob who provided me with the incentive to write this article.
In the flurry of internet traffic, misunderstandings often occur and veterans’ anger and suffering are frequently misdirected…at the messenger. That is why the work of Rob, Dennis and others, including portal managers, advocates and experts is really the work of true loving charity. The reward is minimal but the cost of receiving misdirected anger is discouraging.
Why so much frustration and anger in the veteran community? Far too many veterans are suffering and may not always understand why. For many of these veterans, the unaddressed hurt can stem form a sense of having been abandoned by their government for which they were willing to sacrifice their lives.
For a military member to be summarily kicked out of the Forces by a unilateral government decision due to injuries sustained defending that same government is a difficult, soul-destroying pill to swallow.
Unfortunately, for many veterans, it is easier to attack each other than it is to admit the following reality:
The overwhelming majority of politicians and senior bureaucrats have never and will never make the same sacrifice caring for veterans as veterans and their families have sacrificed giving up everything to care for government and Canadians.
That is why it is so ironic and frankly sad that so many veterans focus on criticizing each other…as if a fellow veteran has the power to change government policy. Far too many veterans play this “blame game” upon their fellow brothers and sisters. Veterans and injured soldiers likely feel powerless to force change in how they have been so shamefully neglected for far too long.
Veterans themselves may not be able to change policy. However, veteran groups certainly can. Certain high profile groups must stop rubberstamping change such as they did unilaterally, blindly and hastily in endorsing the so-called New Veterans Charter back in 2005 and 2006.
Had the leadership of these six veteran groups not blindly offered their support, the New Veterans Charter would have been, at the very least, forced to a House and more appropriate Senate Committee and then back to debate on the floor. As a consequence, many of the more than 400 unaddressed recommendations made by official advisory bodies since 2006 could have been raised and addressed before the New Veterans Charter was passed.
Sadly, we all know this did not occur.
Astoundingly, leaders of most of these same veteran groups then repeated the same misguided and blind endorsement of Bill C-55, the “newer” New Veterans Charter (with fresher spring scent). Bill C-55 was passed without substantive debate which otherwise could have effected change in either Parliamentary Chamber.
Politicians could get away with this because the leaders of all or most of these six groups supported rapid passage of the C-55 without close scrutiny.
For these prominent veteran groups, it appears far too many of their leaders prefer a select seat at closed door proceedings held with VAC. This clandestine relationship and unquestioning support of VAC consequently excludes those with ‘needs’ who most need to be heard, including their own membership in many cases.
These groups must undergo some soul-searching. They represent far less than 10% of the more than 700,000 serving and retired CF members and their families. If this closed door system works so well, those half dozen leaders of the same number of veteran groups must ask themselves exactly what positive change has occurred in the past six years because of closed-door lobbying?
Is this miniscule positive change, if any, worth the isolation and indignation of keeping the vast majority of veterans and their families in darkness, in silence, and most importantly, feeling powerless over their future?
One might also ask if this miniscule change was worth abandoning the lifelong security once provided by the Pension Act benefits and allowances.
Ultimately, what right do these leaders have to decide your destiny?
If the goal of the leaders of these six veteran groups is to meaningfully help veterans and their families, why is maximum public pressure not being brought to bear by these groups on the system?
Leaders of some of these groups will one day have to account for this apparently conspiratorial alliance with VAC and their accompanying inaction.
Meanwhile, whether such pressure is brought to bear by veteran groups or veterans themselves, where should it be focussed?
Of course those with the actual power to make decisions which will change the situation are not other veterans, but the senior mandarins who work in Veterans Affairs, Treasury Board and Finance. What is also clear is that these mandarins will not take the initiative to change the shameful status quo which prevents veterans and their families from direct participation in deciding their own destiny.
When veterans attack other veterans we all lose. Veterans should instead focus their energies upon government and upon leaders of organisations who have power to effect change. Otherwise, the only ones to benefit are senior mandarins and those few veteran leaders rewarded with appointments for supporting or remaining silent on poorly thought-out initiatives such as the New Veterans Charter.
Certain Veterans Affairs senior managers have also played an adept game at encouraging division in the veteran community. One can only speculate the benefit to senior mandarins. These senior bureaucrats are not only provided with disproportionately high salaries but they also receive “at-risk” and performance bonus lumpsums annually. For instance, a senior DM at VAC could be earning the maximum salary of $309,600 plus an annual bonus of up to 39% or $120,744.
Even though such senior mandarins claim to serve our interests, such bonuses are awarded for reasons which are not disclosed. Nevertheless, it is safe to speculate that the criteria for a $120,000 bonus is based upon minimizing payments to veterans and limiting increased expenditure for veterans and their families.
It is hardly comforting to realize that a DM in one year can earn a total of $430,000. This is 50% more than the amount 134 veterans have received for a 100% disability award of $285,000…an award to compensate for substantial lifelong pain and suffering.
The only way to force mandarins to serve the public they claim to serve is to in turn force Ministers and Cabinet as a whole to skip a few photo ops. Ministers could thereby actually manage their Departments in a manner which truly provides dignity to veterans and their families.
And the only way to motivate these politicians to act on our behalf is to have the public and media carry stories of outrage, protest and suffering from veterans and their families. For the media to carry these stories, veterans must overcome their fear of criticizing the system for which we were willing to die.
We as serving and retired military have to also learn to manage our anger. This is because far too many managers in VAC are well-disposed to ignoring, belittling, disempowering and demeaning veterans. When veterans subsequently become either angry or suicidal as a consequence, VAC then quickly shoots back that such veterans are not credible because they are obviously mentally unstable. Of course, VAC seems to forget their significant role in provoking and causing such instability.
Memorials, ceremonies and vigils have their place but they do not carry a message of much-needed change. They instead carry a message of continuing status quo; as long as participants remember, we need not change anything.
Hoping and praying that the government system which we honoured will somehow spontaneously honour veterans and their families while we suffer in silence is a highly misplaced and futile hope. More and more veterans are awakening to this reality. We are thereby showing that we have indeed ‘grown up’ beyond the ‘yes sir’ indoctrination of the military.
Once a critical mass of veterans and organizations accept these realities, then the “fire for effect” of so many can finally concentrate on the target of those who can indeed make the change, i.e., the political party in power and, by extension, the senior mandarins. Influencing the party in power can only occur through the media, including internet, courts (in the longer term) and any other vehicle to get the message out there to change law and policy.
Public demonstrations, individual acts of protest and poignant personal stories in the mainstream media are the most powerful tools. These vehicles send the message that veterans and their families will no longer tolerate being ignored by politicians. Nor will they continue to be dictated to by civilian senior bureaucrats who are glaringly disconnected from the realities of what veterans and their families need.
Otherwise, the politicians have absolutely no reason to risk taking on what are in fact far more powerful senior bureaucrats. If these senior bureaucrats are not confronted by politicians, veterans will continue to be a very low priority indeed…except when the PM or Minister need a photo op and a rubberstamp on misguided VAC Workfare programs like the New Veterans Charter.
Sean Bruyea is a freelance columnist, advocate for the rights of disabled veterans and a retired Intelligence Officer who served in the Persian Gulf War. He is also a graduate student in the Masters of Public Ethics program at St. Paul University. Last fall, Sean settled his lawsuit with the federal government after the Privacy Commissioner ruled VAC had violated the Privacy Act in multiple breaches