Stakeholder Committees and Other Reasons for a Public Inquiry into Veterans Affairs

Veterans need to shed their well-indoctrinated sense of loyalty and sacrifice to a government system that has neither shown them loyalty at the senior levels nor sacrifice.

Photograph by Jake Wright, The Hill Times
Veterans files: Veterans Affairs Canada, now led by Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney, pictured on Parliament Hill in this file photo, has a six-decade old habit of keeping a tight leash on CF veterans, writes veterans’ advocate Sean Bruyea.
By Sean Bruyea, THE HILL TIMES-Feb. 06, 2012

OTTAWA—Veterans Affairs claims it wants to do business differently. The big question is: can Parliament, Canada, and veterans trust the bureaucracy? And can veterans trust that the veteran organizations will not just bark but finally bite when Veterans Affairs Canada instinctually and inevitably strays off the path?

Veterans Affairs has a six-decade old habit of keeping a tight leash on CF veterans. The department has failed to fulfill its legal and ethical obligations to Canadian Forces members and their families by denying CF veterans access to similar assistance given to World War II veterans.

This week (Feb. 8-9), Veterans Affairs will be hosting its third “stakeholder committee” meeting in Ottawa. This stakeholder committee involves executives from CF veteran groups, some of which have been clamouring to be heard for anywhere from five years to five decades.

Why the change? It is certainly not because of some sudden realization that the demographics are changing. The CF, Parliament, military veterans, their families, and even the auditor general in 1998, have been telling VAC to adequately respond to the demographic shift for almost 20 years following the Gulf War in 1990-91.

What has changed are six years of growing scandals which reveal a department in crisis and woefully out of touch with the military it claims to serve. The past two years have shone a bright light on the department’s inability to comprehend the needs of veterans and their families. They, along with Canadians are outraged at the payment of one-time lump sums for lifelong military injuries, the maximum of which ($293,000) is deceptive as the average payout is only $40,000. To put that in perspective, one year’s compensation package for a Deputy Minister like Suzanne Tining is $415,000 for a DM-2 as of April 1, 2010. This is 70 per cent more than the maximum lump sum, of which only 134 received the maximum in the first four years of the program.

This is the same deputy minister who oversaw the escalation of the privacy scandal from what could have been resolved quickly and quietly and which instead became a national outrage.

Meanwhile, in November 2010 and 2011 more than 10,000 veterans and supporters took to the streets in national public demonstrations for the first time in over 90 years protesting the department’s insensitive policies.

Why should Canada expect any better from VAC? Only 100 employees of 4,400 have worn a military uniform and not a single executive or senior manager has ever served. Of the more than 1,107 veterans with disabilities who have applied for priority hiring in the public service over 10 years, VAC has hired just 26, or 1.8 per cent.

The department seems to believe that this new stakeholder committee holds the key to reversing their losing game. What is the committee supposed to accomplish? According to the terms of reference, three of the five “roles and objectives” consist of focusing upon discussion and exploration. The remaining two roles focus upon action, responsibility for which absurdly falls upon the veteran organizations to “provide a mechanism for dissemination of information on VAC initiatives and programs.”

You see, in sharp contrast to the more dedicated and far more sympathetic frontline employees, the senior managers at the department have been briefing ministers for more than five years that the reason for the scandals, the homeless veterans, the inadequate programs and poor treatment and the overworked frontline staff is that there is a communication problem. This problem, according to senior officials, centers upon the lack of information for veterans, or, more patronizingly, veterans who don’t understand the good intentions of VAC denying the programs the veterans need.

One only has to look at the “record of decisions” from a meeting last fall to see how VAC senior managers are massaging the message and perpetuating failure. The department has thus far refused to publish actual minutes of proceedings. The “record” is most notable for what it doesn’t contain. For instance, VAC is in the process of a five- year modernization of their IT and online resources for veterans which in the words  of senior officials at the last meeting, will bring VAC up to where it should have been “five years ago.”

This five-year plan met with vociferous and widespread condemnation as well as emphatic offers to petition that more resources be given to VAC. Nevertheless, the “record of decisions” leaves the five-year plan to go ahead as planned, over five years.

VAC is legally mandated for the “care, treatment and rehabilitation” of veterans and their “dependants,” as the government condescendingly calls family members. Yet, families are not represented as a stakeholder on the committee. Nor are any of the dozens of regimental or other veteran organizations which are far larger than some of the traditional CF veteran organizations.

Of those stakeholders who meaningfully contributed to the discussion, there was unanimous insistence that VAC implement all 86 recommendations from the New Veterans Charter Advisory Group published more than two years ago. The House Committee on Veterans Affairs has also unanimously insisted all recommendations be implemented immediately. The stakeholders also emphasized the immediate implementation of the more substantial recommendation of increasing payments to injured soldiers unable to work so as to match 100 per cent of actual military members’ salaries and expected career advancement.

Curiously, no mention of any of this made it into the record of decisions. Perhaps one of the most glaring omissions is the near unanimous insistence to see the “Keith Coulter Report.” This was a report prepared by a CF veteran, former Snowbird pilot, chief of Canadian Securities Establishment and most recently commissioner of Corrections Canada. Mr. Coulter submitted the report to the minister more than 18 months ago as part of the preparations for cutbacks in the department. The report remains a Cabinet confidence and no mention of this exists in the record of decisions.

Since that time, the original contract amount paid to Mr. Coulter has been amended from $18,990 to $24,995.25, and exactly $4.75 under the threshold that would require a competitive bidding process. Why has the report remained secret this long? Was Mr. Coulter asked to change the report to contradict the possibility that his original findings indicated the department did not require cutbacks?

Perhaps the most telling indication that the department intends on having the committee accomplish nothing is the committee’s “Code of Conduct and Confidentiality.” The longstanding complaint from the community of more than 700,000 retired and serving CF members has been that the government refuses to publish the minutes of advisory, stakeholder or working group meetings. The good thing is that stakeholders have not signed any confidentiality agreement nor should they seeing how so many sacrificed for open and transparent government.

It is quite clear that such confidentiality has only served to allow the department to avoid acting responsibly, effectively and comprehensively to the needs of the military and their families. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs conducts its advisory group meetings in the open with minutes and findings widely published.

In true Orwellian “doublethink,” VAC justifies such secrecy in order that “the work of the Committee will be conducted in such a manner as to foster openness and communication, respect for human dignity and diversity, with fairness and civility.”

Others see clear malicious intent in VAC’s actions. “The bureaucrats control the agenda, they control the minutes and they control the timings of the meetings,” explains Allan Cutler, president of Canadians for Accountability. “It is a ‘father-knows-best’ mentality and a ‘big brother’ attitude which allows the bureaucracy to avoid doing anything of substance.”

Taking VAC’s line of argument, if lack of communication to veterans is really the problem, then recording the meetings and publishing the minutes can only benefit veterans.

How has VAC been allowed to get away with this? Sadly, it is because of the complicity of the leadership of veteran organizations, both new and old. The Royal Canadian Legion was born in the tumultuous public protests following World War I.

However, the Legion Dominion Command wrote to its membership when veterans began organizing the 2010 public demonstrations: “Comrades, the legion as an organization does not advocate in this manner and does not condone this method of advocacy.”  Executives in other veterans’ groups are equally complicit and often more passive.

Politicians and bureaucrats fear only one thing: negative media coverage which translates into lost votes and broken anonymity in maladministration. If veterans’ groups aren’t willing to exercise the very rights for which so many of their “comrades” sacrificed their lives, then bureaucrats and politicians have nothing whatsoever to fear. Stakeholder committees, advisory groups and councils become nothing more than paper tigers secretly struggling in vain. As Thomas Moore, in great futility, said when he defended himself before he was executed, “silence gives consent.”

Veterans have much to learn from Canada’s First Nations, a similarly sized population which has, at $12-billion, more than three times the annual budget of VAC devoted to its well-being. First Nations have been willing to exercise their democratic rights. Just last month, the Prime Minister sat down to intervene where the bureaucracy has failed.

Veterans need to shed their well-indoctrinated sense of loyalty and sacrifice to a government system that has neither shown them loyalty at the senior levels nor sacrifice. As cutbacks loom inevitable, it is no longer reasonable for Canada’s bravest and most marginalized to believe that senior bureaucrats absolutely loyal to Treasury Board policy can be trusted with the better angels of our nature. Veterans and their families must be loyal to themselves first and become their own angels of salvation.

Sean Bruyea is a columnist, former intelligence officer and graduate student of a master’s in public ethics at St. Paul University in Ottawa. His privacy case was settled in 2010.

The Hill Times