Canadians will hopefully remember this before they walk into a Canadian Forces recruiting centre.
In the coming days, Parliament will release a highly-controversial report on the embattled veterans legislation known as the New Veterans Charter (NVC). Will this report help repair or will it contribute to the immense broken trust government has provoked within an increasingly-disillusioned veteran community?
The forthcoming report is part of a legally-mandated “comprehensive review” in spite of the attempt by the minister claiming that he personally called for this review. Such politicking of veterans’ issues has plagued far too much of the Conservative questioning during the hearings. In place of substantive investigation, many Conservative members of committee, such as Parliamentary Secretary Parm Gill, have asked politically rhetorical questions, especially of those witnesses who questioned the government’s inaction: “Can you tell us you are aware that more money is spent today under the new Veterans Charter than under the Pension Act?”
The question was directed to Jim Scott who heads up Equitas Society, which is spearheading a lawsuit claiming the NVC violates fundamental Canadian rights while disadvantaging those veterans under the new legislation compared to the previous Pension Act. Scott obviously did not have internal departmental statistics leaving this categorically incorrect assertion uncontested. However, in 2012-13, Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) paid out $1.6-billion under the Pension Act and only $552.3-million under the New Veterans Charter.
Conservative MP Ted Opitz continued the political badgering of Scott: “Sir, the New Veterans Charter was designed to support wellness, and it was designed to encourage independence over dependence. Would you agree with those principles, overall?” I would have liked to respond, “A low income Canadian stole gold from the Bank of Canada and distributed it to homeless persons. Would you not agree that ensuring Canadians have adequate income supports the principles of independence and well-being?”
Gill asked VAC bureaucrats cakewalk questions such as that given to ADM Walter Semianiw: “Would you please explain the history of how the new Veterans Charter came to be?”
Herein lies the problem. Elected government and senior bureaucrats are far more loyal defending each other than serving veterans. Too often, they quickly attack those with a dissenting view rather than listening, hence destroying the possibility of making real and substantive changes to improve the lives of veterans and their families. Veterans meanwhile scratch their heads and question their hearts: what was it about democracy for which they sacrificed their careers, families and formerly healthy lives?
Focusing “the review on how the [NVC] serves the most seriously injured, how our government supports Canadian veterans’ families, and how Veterans Affairs delivers the programs that have been put in place” is what Fantino asked but the senior bureaucracy appears not to want.
Whatever the bureaucrats want or do not want from a policy perspective should be irrelevant except for one question: does the bureaucracy have the resources to administer any proposed change? Policy development should remain with Parliament and Canadians, not with bureaucrats.
The House committee can learn much from the Senate study on the NVC released in March 2013. The report of the Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs took two years to prepare and was hard hitting with testimony lasting over a year. The conclusion was unequivocal: “Those who die or are injured in the course of duty deserve the best program of compensation and benefits Canada can provide.”
Veterans Affairs Canada essentially ignored the report. Fantino’s response did not arrive in the Senate until April 10, 2014. It is a nine-page used car sales pitch replete with the usual bureaucratic and political rhetoric justifying that bureaucrats know what is best for veterans. The clear message through such condescension was that the three-year Senate study did not directly result in any substantive changes.
Part of the blame for bureaucratic obfuscation can be laid on the Senate and the report itself. Except for calling government to “table a document that articulates and promotes the social contract between the people of Canada and their veterans,” the few recommendations were riddled with vague generalities and fluffy language. Whereas there is near universal endorsement to increase the income loss benefit for disabled veterans to match 100 per cent of military salary and compensate for lost potential earnings increases, the Senate recommended government “continue to review the [income loss program] to ensure veterans are receiving the appropriate level of compensation.”
Fantino could easily claim that the bureaucracy determined that the status quo of 75 per cent is effectively “appropriate” and that no change need be made. Civilian workplace compensation programs pay an average of 125 per cent of current profession earnings to seriously disabled workers. This appears to be lost on Prime Minister Stephen Harper who in 2006, during the launch of the New Veterans Charter, promised “our troops’ commitment and service to Canada entitles them to the very best treatment possible.”
The committee can help repair some of the broken trust brought about by the government’s unquestioning loyalty to senior bureaucrats. Parliament must reinforce who is boss. Parliament works directly for veterans and the rest of Canadians, not for bureaucrats. Recommendations that allow senior bureaucrats to shirk their obligation through vagaries and ‘fluffy’ direction allows bureaucratic responses and consequent actions to be equally or more vague and fluffy.
With only a few weeks preparation, Canada’s military expeditiously began deployment of more than a half-billion dollars in Air Force equipment and 228 personnel for an eight-month or longer deployment to Eastern Europe. Veterans and their families, meanwhile, languish waiting nine years for promised ongoing substantive changes to the New Veterans Charter.
The minister deflected much responsibility to committee, including claiming Parliament was a better venue than the courts to determine what is the nature of Canada’s obligation to her military veterans and their families.
Surely, if military members are willing and have died to serve Parliament’s ends, the least of these obligations should require a committee to write a forceful report with numerous clear and specific recommendations. Harper must enact substantive changes to the New Veterans Charter expeditiously and comprehensively and not use them as campaign promises to hold veterans prisoner during the coming election.
Otherwise, the committee and the Prime Minister will have clarified only one thing: Parliament has no obligation to fight for veterans even though veterans fight and die for them. Canadians will hopefully remember this before they walk into a Canadian Forces recruiting centre.
Sean Bruyea, vice-president of Canadians for Accountability, is a retired Air Force intelligence officer and frequent commentator on government, military, and veterans’ issues.
The Hill Times
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