OTTAWA — The senior managers at Veterans Affairs Canada received almost $700,000 in bonuses and extra pay last year even as their department came under fire for failing to help former soldiers.
The last several years have seen numerous complaints from veterans about poor treatment from the department and breaches of their privacy by Veterans Affairs bureaucrats.
But that didn’t stop the government from paying out in 2011 both bonuses and what is called “At-Risk Pay,” the financial incentives received by managers who achieve results.
The total paid out to the 57 department executives for last year was $696,287, according to government figures. The department doesn’t break down the amount each individual received but if evenly distributed, each manager would have been paid a little more than $12,200.
Veterans’ advocate Sean Bruyea called the payments “way out of whack with reality.”
“This department has been repeatedly falling short on the services it provides to veterans,” said the Ottawa-based veteran. “These people should not be given bonuses for such poor performance.”
Bruyea said when veterans find out “they will be furious and justifiably so.”
A retired captain and Gulf War veteran, Bruyea made headlines two years ago after he alleged Veterans Affairs bureaucrats were misusing his personal information and harassing his family. The information was used in an attempt to discredit Bruyea, who was an outspoken critic of reforms to the system of veterans’ benefits.
Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart ruled that Veterans Affairs broke the law when it came to handling the retired officer’s personal information. The government settled a lawsuit with Bruyea out of court and issued a rare public apology in late 2010.
But since then there have been allegations from other veterans that department officials misused their personal information.
Bruyea noted that all of the bureaucrats named in his lawsuit were given bonuses by Veterans Affairs.
Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney has said he takes seriously any complaints by veterans that the department has misused their private information.
His spokeswoman Codie Taylor noted that Blaney “has dedicated himself to ensuring that the private information of our veterans remains fully protected. That is why Minister Blaney took action by implementing the Privacy Action Plan 2.0 which strengthens existing safeguards.”
The action plan provides targeted training to employees to ensure that they are aware of their obligations to follow the law when it comes to protecting the private information of veterans, she added.
“Our government believes that any privacy violation is totally unacceptable and we will continue move forward with changes that further protect our veterans personal information,” Taylor stated.
But Bruyea questions that, noting that those who violated his privacy have been rewarded with extra pay.
A Conservative government official speaking on background said there is little Blaney can do about the bonuses since they are determined by Treasury Board and Veterans Affairs senior management.
But that isn’t good enough, says Bruyea. “He’s the minister so isn’t he in charge?” said Bruyea. “The senior managers work for him and if Minister Blaney can’t manage them then maybe someone new should be brought in who can control the bureaucrats.”
Bruyea said he found it disappointing that the minister wouldn’t stand up for injured soldiers and cancel the bonuses.
The extra pay does not include the bonus provided to the department’s deputy minster Suzanne Tining.
Bruyea pointed out that could be as much as 25 per cent of her salary, which he noted is more than $214,000.
Next year’s payouts could be even larger since the government is tying those to the savings managers can find in their departments.
An estimated 800 jobs will be lost at Veterans Affairs over the next three years. Government officials say that most will be done through attrition and that there will be little impact on services provided to veterans. Veterans advocates, however, question that.
Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent has also raised questions about the performance of the department in several high profile cases.
In December, he raised issues about how the department treated families of ex-soldiers affected by the spraying of Agent Orange. He described the treatment as “scandalous” after federal bureaucrats denied the financial claims of spouses.
A month earlier, the ombudsman’s report revealed that some of Canada’s most severely injured soldiers were not being told by Veterans Affairs about all of the benefits they were eligible to receive.