Rebuilding trust with our CF veterans: now is the time for a public inquiry

Alienation and abandonment by the Canadian government of its Canadian Forces veterans has long scarred our noble warriors and their families in a much more profound manner than what’s motivating the current worldwide protests.

Into war: Canadian soldiers pictured in Afghanistan. Sean Bruyea says 600,000 CF veterans have been denied comprehensive programs including education in trade schools, college and university, re-establishment grants, housing, and more.Photograph courtesy DND Combat Camera: Sgt Lou Penney

By Sean Bruyea-THE HILL TIMES-PUBLISHED : Friday, Oct. 21, 2011 10:33 PM

OTTAWA—Less than two weeks from now, Canadian Forces veterans, many of them disabled, will publicly protest throughout Canada. This is not part of “Occupy Canada.”

However, alienation and abandonment by the Canadian government of its Canadian Forces (CF) veterans has long scarred our noble warriors and their families in a much more profound manner than that motivating the current worldwide protests.

What began last year under the initiative of a new veterans’ organization, the Canadian Veterans’ Advocacy, continues to expand upon the growing frustration and suffering of thousands of injured CF members, CF veterans, retired RCMP and the families of all. That veterans are forced to protest in the streets on November 5 is a call for substantial and meaningful government action.

The justification for the protest is simple: Canada is treating CF veterans in a far more beggarly and discriminatory manner than veterans of previous eras.

Veterans of World War II and Korea, whether wounded or not, were provided, amongst other things,with comprehensive programs including education in trade schools, college and university, reestablishment grants as well as housing, farming and land grants along with associated economic assistance.

Canada’s 600,000 CF veterans have been denied all of this. Not until 1973 did the federal government establish a limited rehabilitation program, but only for medically released CF members. Oddly, Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC), the department legally mandated for the “care, treatment and rehabilitation” of veterans and their families did not create the program. It was created by the CF.  In the ensuing years, the CF also created at least three separate job training and career assistance programs for releasing military.

Before 2006, VAC at least provided CF members with lifelong monthly compensation for disabilities incurred as a result of military service.

In 2006, the CF rehabilitation as well as the job placement programs were duplicated by Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC). The catch was that injured CF soldiers have to now accept a one-time lump sum payment instead of lifelong compensation. Also part of the program is a one-time priority hiring opportunity in the federal public service. Par for VAC’s course, the accompanying rehabilitation program does not include university even though most positions open for priority hiring require university.

There are many flaws in this lump sum and associated programs. VAC promised to revisit them every “two or three months” as it was proclaimed a “living document.” Months became five years and the living document received over 400 recommendations from two of its own advisory groups as well as Parliamentary Committees calling for immediate remedies.

VAC bureaucrats under current Deputy Minister Suzanne Tining ignored them all. Then, last month, the department implemented just three-and-half of the 400 recommendations. Departmental officials were boastful in their submission to Cabinet and Treasury Board. Although costing $13-million gross annually, the changes will reward the federal government by forcing veterans to pay back $4-million of that in taxes for a net annual cost of $8.7-million.

The department quickly defended itself with the incongruous claim that it was spending $189-million over five years not $87-million over 10 years for the same programs. Did departmental officials mislead Treasury Board and Cabinet with $87 million over 10 years or are they misleading the public about the $189-million over five years?

What is certain is that VAC will be cutting $232-million annually starting next year. Taking inflation into account, in four years, the cuts will amount to $1-billion.

Coincidentally, the total amount paid out in lump sum payments since 2006 until Dec. 31, 2010 was $1-billion. These cuts effectively mean the lump sum program will cost zero dollars going forward. These are contemptible savings at the expense of Canada’s most vulnerable and noble citizens. Not surprisingly, a class-action lawsuit was filed last week challenging the lump sum payments.

Veterans were somewhat hopeful last year when Parliament passed a bill to stop deducting CPP payments from the retirement pensions of disabled as well as retired CF personnel. Prime Minister Stephen Harper refused to request a royal recommendation and the bill died.

Meanwhile, about 6,000 of the most disabled CF veterans have been forced for the past five years to fight all the way to the Supreme Court and back again. Unanimous Parliamentary committees and the CF and DND ombudsman offices have soundly condemned these “profoundly unfair” deductions from already reduced and limited long-term disability income. The 6,000 go to court yet again on November 16, with no end in sight.

It is increasingly obvious that Veterans Affairs and other federal government officials have repeatedly shown contempt for oversight agencies. They show contempt for the highest offices of our land including Parliament. They show contempt for public outrage.

Most abhorrent is their contempt for the suffering and rights of veterans and their families. One wonders why Canadian Forces veterans have waited so long to protest.

Before last year, Canada had not seen veterans publicly demonstrate since the aftermath of World War I. Then, just as now, insensitively designed and inadequately administered programs, such as one-time lump sums drove veterans and their families into the desperation of public protest. Back then programs were managed by civilian bureaucrats who had no idea what it meant to serve in the military.

The same is occurring today. Not one director or above in VAC has ever worn a uniform. Yet such bureaucrats refuse to have veterans sit at the table to design programs for veterans and their families.

Sadly, veterans’ organizations are not united in calling bureaucrats and Parliament to account for such disdain. Many members of traditional World War II organizations such as the Royal Canadian Legion believe that it is disloyal, or even treasonous, to publicly demonstrate. How sad they forget that they and their deceased comrades sacrificed much defending such democratic freedoms.

Ironically, in spite of more comprehensive WWII programs, veterans from that era have had many difficulties receiving necessary assistance from government. How many widows and comrades need pass away before receiving benefits, treatment, and support? What will it take before these organizations are finally willing to exercise their hard-fought rights in standing up against the government which is abandoning them?

The reality is that approximately 60,000 CF veterans are living with lifelong injuries and disabilities as a direct result of military service. This equates to a casualty rate of about 10 per cent, slightly more than the 9.3 per cent casualty rate suffered by those who served in World War II. Minds and bodies in 1941, 1961, 1991, and 2011 are equally vulnerable and should be equally compensated for disability. And all military should be offered comprehensive, not token, assistance to retrain and rejoin Canadian society.

Circulating through the veterans’ community is a poster depicting five CF members in various uniforms along with a homeless veteran and his dog captioned with the following: “They were prepared to fight, they were prepared to be wounded, they were prepared to be captured, they were even prepared to die. But they were never prepared to be abandoned.”

And abandoned to their personal demons and suffering they have been. Government has done a superlative job ensuring Canadians have little understanding of what CF veterans and their families have sacrificed. We as a nation need to learn how to establish trust again with our veterans. Successive governments have long taken advantage of veterans’ honour, silence, and even shame. Veterans must not be forced to accept inadequate programs designed by unqualified personnel who never served in the military or never suffered a disability.

All military members throughout Canada’s history are sent to sacrifice at our bidding. Canada has not sacrificed in return. We have to finally grant our Canadian Forces veterans and their families a proper homecoming.

The demonstrations are an emphatic invitation to begin public reconciliation. Only public reconciliation will re-establish long lost trust. The easiest and most honourable reconciliation begins when the Prime Minister and his Cabinet create a (royal) commission of inquiry into how injured Canadian Forces members, all CF veterans, RCMP and their families have been neglected by Canada. The commission should be given the broadest mandate to recommend sweeping and creative approaches to rebuilding that trust.

The alternative is to have government encourage veterans to fight amongst themselves like desperate dogs competing for a few scraps of compassion. This alternative will have us go on building a nation upon deception and contempt for what our military has and continues to selflessly sacrifice in our country’s name.

On this dark path, it will not be long before we realize that no one is willing to sacrifice for a country which does not sacrifice in return. The scars may be deep for our CF veterans. However, the “first aid” of a public inquiry to finally honour them is a fiscally modest and relatively simple medical procedure.

Sean Bruyea is a columnist, former intelligence officer and graduate student of a masters in public ethics. He is a long-time advocate for the rights of injured soldiers, veterans, and their families and his privacy lawsuit was settled with the federal government last fall.

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