There’s a high level of distrust, disdain among veterans of Veterans Review and Appeal Board

Disabled veterans will never feel justice has been truly served under the current composition of the VRAB, nor will justice be served until each tribunal possesses someone with relevant military experience and the ability to effectively communicate/provide advice based on his/her experience of the rigors of war/peace.

By Michael Blais-The Hill Times- February 13, 2012

NIAGARA FALLS, ONT.—Re: “Veterans Board responds to Bruyea,” (The Hill Times, Jan. 30, p. 8, by John Larlee, chairman of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board) and “Just one more reason for a commission of inquiry into veterans’ issues,” (The Hill Times, Jan. 23, by Sean Bruyea, p. 10). Shortly after Mr. Bruyea’s article was published in The Hill Times, Mr. Larlee and a team representing the Veterans Review and Appeal Board travelled to Niagara Falls, Ont., to meet with representatives of the Canadian Veterans Advocacy’s executive. The composition of the VRAB and the percentage of veterans serving was one of the issues discussed. This is a serious matter of contention amongst the veterans’ community and a significant contributing factor to the high level of distrust and disdain many of Canada’s veterans feel after seeking redress through the VRAB.

Prior to 2004, there were few, if any, guidelines and the government of the day was free to exercise its prerogative as to who would fulfill these tribunal appointments.

The Liberal government of the day, undoubtedly acutely conscious of the Harper-led opposition’s zeal to levy charges of patronage, implemented measures to address this issue and created a vetting program for subsequent candidates inclusive of a transparent process wherein veterans of all eras, should they be inclined, could submit their applications for consideration.

Were one to read only the headlines, one might consider this an effective mechanism in eliminating patronage appointments were the selection process not so favourable to patronage rather than the veterans who the Canadian Veterans Advocacy has been advocating to see appointed to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board.

The VRAB selection criterion is particularly veteran-exclusive and renders a vast majority of the Canadian Forces rank and file who have chosen to serve the nation instead of going to a recognized university ineligible. Is it illogical to suggest that a candidate who graduated with top marks from a recognized university would not prevail over a soldier-sailor-airman who completed his studies through the military base’s nearest community college and/or correspondence courses? The inclusion of a provision that military, medical, policing, or legal backgrounds is misleading because it merely provides a mechanism to appoint a legal applicant even when there is the opportunity for a veteran’s participation.

The selection criteria’s experience-factor further serves to reduce the probability of veterans successfully passing VRAB screening protocols. Perhaps Mr. Larlee can answer these questions so that Canadians might put this in perspective. In addition to attaining the educational prerequisites, what percentage of the Canadians Forces have attained a minimum of five years experience as a decision-maker, or as a presenter, of cases in quasi-judicial administrative tribunal settings? How many CF members have five years experience in the application and interpretation of the VRAB legislation? What percentage of veterans have five years of relevant experience in the fields of disability insurance, social sciences, Veterans affairs?

Disabled veterans will never feel justice has been truly served under the current composition of the VRAB, nor will justice be served until each tribunal possesses someone with relevant military experience and the ability to effectively communicate and provide advice based on his/her experience of the rigors of war/peace.

How can someone with zero experience in combat or aggressive peacemaking operations cast judgment on an applicant who has suffered the consequences of conflict? How can disabled Canadian veterans, already profoundly disappointed with the Veterans Affairs Canada, feel confident they are receiving a fair review when no one on the respective tribunal has an understanding as to the extreme nature of military service, the degenerative effects it has on body and mind, or the background knowledge and experience to fairly adjudicate?

Equally important, how can the VRAB Act’s Benefit of Doubt protocols be applied in favour of the applicant’s claim when no one on the tribunal has a concept of where the doubt lies because they have no real conception of how traumatic it can be when one is wounded abroad or the sheer levels of terror associated with armed conflict or peace keeping enforcement?

The credibility of the VRAB will only be restored when the tribunal’s composition is mandated to include the presence of at least one member with the relevant military background and experience to ensure that the non-military component of the tribunal fully understands that national service imparts physical and mental dimensions that cannot be compared in any form to the civilian model.

I would encourage Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney to implement measures that will encourage, not obstruct, participation of veterans on the Veterans Review and Appeal Board, particularly those who have relevant experience in Afghanistan, former Yugoslavia and Africa.

There is no need for delay, at this moment there are five vacant VRAB tribunal positions and an ideal opportunity to create the necessary tribunal composition to ensure disabled veterans, those who have already sacrificed greatly on our behalf, will have the confidence knowing that their case has been put into the appropriate context and each member of the tribunal entrusted to his future fully comprehends the military nuances of the application and are position to render a fair and equitable decision.

Michael L. Blais is founder and president of the Canadian Veterans Advocacy and is based in Niagara Falls, Ont.

The Hill Times