New Veterans Affairs Minister: Same Old Crisis of Insensitivity

Published: Monday, 10/14/2013 12:00 am EDT

OTTAWA—Veterans aren’t happy and recently-appointed Veterans Affair Minister Julian Fantino is only fanning the fire with the usual parroting of bureaucratic misinformation. How do veterans and other Canadians hold a minister and his bureaucracy accountable for spreading half-truths and misleading claims?

The first step to accountability is to uncover the truth.

The situation in the veteran community is so dire that Fantino wrote an op-ed for the National Post and also sent it out on the internet addressed to “Dear Veteran.” His open letter claims there is a “tangle of misinformation regarding how Canada treats” its veterans. His first assertion is that “a majority of Canada’s veterans receive the support and care they need.”

The truth is Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) provides programs to a mere 17 per cent of Canada’s serving and retired military members. It would be impossible for Fantino to know whether the remaining 83 per cent of veterans are indeed having their needs met since no effort is made by his department to track the “needs” of this population.

The primary focus of the minister’s op-ed is the legislation for Canadian Forces members and veterans known as the “New Veterans Charter.” He rightly points out that Parliament was unanimous in endorsing “wholesale change to veterans’ support and services” for post-World War II Canadian Forces veterans. What he leaves out is that Parliament never scrutinized the legislation in a House committee and not a single word of debate was permitted amongst MPs.

Bureaucracy and successive ministers promised Canadians that the legislation was open to regular changes, claiming the new program was a “living Charter.”

Since that time, Fantino’s government has wrongly taken credit for the $4.7-billion, which has been cumulatively added to the department’s budget since 2006. What the minister does not explain is that almost 50 per cent of those funds were cost of living increases hard-wired into Parliamentary law. A substantial part of the remaining $4.7-billion was allocated as early as 2005 as part of the legislation which replaced lifetime disability pensions for lifelong injuries with one-time lump sums. The bureaucrats anticipated the increased upfront cost of the lump sum program would eventually save the department money in what one callous bureaucrat of the time proclaimed would be a “wellness dividend.”

In a not so veiled attack on the lifelong pension, the minister claims that the lump sum program does not “simply throw money at a problem or a person.”  This is a rather rich claim since the lump sum is seen by rehabilitation and medical as well as veteran policy experts as doing exactly that: throwing money in the short term at a veteran and leaving most recipients without anything to show for their lifelong injuries in the years that follow.

The minister is quick to laud the recent veterans ombudsman report which notes that unfair comparisons are made between the lump sum and lifelong disability pensions without considering the “overall suite of monetary and non-monetary benefits provided under the New Veterans Charter.”  The minister claims this “cherry picking” is not objective. What the minister omits and the veterans ombudsman overlooked is that a recent uncontested Federal Court ruling concludes that compensation for pain and suffering must be considered completely separate from other economic financial benefits.

Because of this ruling it is both legal and correct to compare these two programs directly. Even the ombudsman notes that “there are undeniable differences between the value” of the two programs. Even with all programs taken into account, the Veterans Ombudsman concludes that the “overall value” of the New Veterans Charter programs is below the benefits paid under the lifelong disability program.

The minister asserts that his department implemented “over 160 recommendations that were determined after wide consultation.” However, repeated efforts over the past two years by organizations such as the Royal Canadian Legion and other veterans’ groups to obtain a detailed accounting of the ethereal changes resulting from the implemented recommendations have yet to materialize from Fantino’s department.

In his final words, the minister concludes that an upcoming review of the New Veterans Charter in Parliament will work towards “appropriate change” to address the “needs” of veterans and their families. However, the previous review proposed 16 areas of change, each necessitating a handful of specific remedies. The result was that the bureaucracy ignored all but four specific remedies.

As for attempts to placate the overwhelming cries to reinstate the lifelong pension: the department implemented a choice to receive the lump sum all at once or the same lump sum paid over any chosen period. It is not surprising that less than five per cent of recipients of the lump sum chose to take it over time and none were given the choice between a lifelong pension and a one-time lump sum payment.

The minister’s cherry picking of facts has served to only further inflame a veteran and family population far too bruised by bureaucratic insensitivity and empty political rhetoric. It is the veterans and their families who must define what is “appropriate change” and what they “need.” It is nothing less than condescending paternalism for a department, 99 per cent of which has never served in the military, to tell a veteran what he or she “needs.”

The Department’s Values and Ethics states that “we are accountable and responsible for our actions and accept the consequences for our decisions.” Are these words just another half-truth?

Sean Bruyea is vice-president of Canadians for Accountability and he is also a veteran.

The Hill Times