Government should be taking the lumps, not injured veterans

Despite what Prime Minister Stephen Harper says, Canada does not have the best veterans’ programs and services in the world.

The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O’Toole, left, pictured with NDP MP Nathan Cullen.
By SEAN BRUYEA The Hill Times
Published: Monday, 03/09/2015 12:00 am EDT
Last Updated: Monday, 03/09/2015 2:56 pm EDT


It’s the bane of the Harper government. It’s the focal point of a class action lawsuit. It’s the lightning rod for injustice, despondency, and loss for the modern military veteran. The lump sum paid out to injured soldiers for pain and suffering is also the arthritic backbone of a controversial program known as the so-called New Veterans Charter.

In a recent CBC interview with Peter Mansbridge, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made the bold, and unchallenged, claim that the “fact of the matter is this country has the best veterans’ programs and services in the world.”  This truth may hurt, Harper. Unequivocally, Canada does not have the best veterans’ programs “in the world.”

Passed by all parties in 2005 and launched in 2006 under the Conservatives, the New Veterans Charter replaced lifelong pensions with lump sums. Since the war of 1812, Britain and later Canada provided lifelong tax-free monthly pensions to injured soldiers with additional amounts for family members.

The current lump sum pays no extra amounts for family members.

It has been exactly 100 years since the first of 172,000 injured Canadian soldiers began returning from the horrors of trench warfare to communities across a young self-assertive nation. At war’s end, Canada solidified its obligation and philosophy in compensating injured soldiers in the legislation known as the Pension Act.

Taking bits and pieces from the U.K., the U.S., Australia, and even France, the Pension Act developed the model later followed by the courts and workers’ compensation schemes. This model established that pain and suffering payments would be awarded according to the location, type, and degree of injury. Pain and suffering was and is considered completely separate from any consideration of lost income.

Since that time, Canada gauged our compensation programs by comparing three principal nations: the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. Under the New Veterans Charter, any veteran injured due to military service and applying for compensation on or after April 1, 2006, can receive up to $306,698.21. Inflationary increases over nine years have raised this maximum from its original level of $250,000.

The U.K. also compensates soldiers for pain and suffering with tax-free lump sums. The maximum payout is £570,000 or CDN $1,092,348. Like Canada, the lump sum replaced lifelong disability pensions for those injured on or after April 6, 2005. Contrast this with Canada, which disregards date of injury but instead uses application date. Canadians injured in the middle of war-torn Afghanistan may have missed the April 1, 2006, lifelong pension deadline. Receiving blood transfusions, being medevacked, or having shrapnel removed from their brain makes filling in paperwork rather difficult.

Australia likewise changed its compensation after July 1, 2005. Previous programs provided both lifelong pensions as well as lump sums for pain and suffering. The current system provides a choice of a lump sum or a fortnightly tax-free pension. The maximum lump sum in 2015 is AUS $430,452.06 equivalent to CDN$420,207. This amount is adjusted for age with the maximum paid out to those 31 or younger. However, should a 25-and-a-half year-old male choose the weekly pension for the rest of his average Australian life expectancy of 80.5 years, he would receive, in today’s dollars, CDN$906,261.

Ottawa, has been quick to dismiss such dollar-for-dollar comparisons claiming that there is more to each nation’s programs than merely compensating for pain and suffering. Canada provides additional allowances for “permanent impairment,” house and groundskeeping as well as medical treatment. Bureaucrats and politicians like to disingenuously confuse the program mix with vocational and education training. However, if a veteran is so disabled as to receive the increased allowances for permanent impairments, Ottawa refuses to fund education or training. Our most disabled are relegated to a lifelong policy prison of stagnant human potential.

Australia and Britain both have additional allowances and more. Australia provides supplementary lump sums of AUS$83,564.11 for each child. Australia gives allowances for utilities and school age kids. Ottawa takes pride in providing CDN$500 for financial counselling to manage lump sums. Australia offers both financial and legal counselling to the tune of AUS$2,464.80.

British veterans receive up to 100 per cent of military salary tax-free if seriously injured. Canada provides a taxable 75 per cent of income. Britain also allows veterans to sue government in civil court. Such an important watchdog mechanism highlights negligence and prevents further injuries or deaths.  Canada’s government expressly prevents this in the laws bureaucrats and politicians wrote to protect themselves.

Finally, U.S. maximums leave others behind. In the same year Canada took away lifelong pensions for our veterans in favour of lump sums, a congressionally appointed Commission rejected lump sums. Currently, American tax-free disability pensions max out for a veteran with a spouse and one child at US$3,187 monthly. This compares favourably with maximum amounts paid out by Canada’s pre-2006 monthly pension scheme. In the US however, severely disabled veterans with a spouse and one child receive added amounts up to $8,600 monthly.

Canada has been under constant and increasing fire for the past nine years since the lump sum came into effect. A Royal Canadian Legion-led coalition of 19 organizations, including one, which represents another 60 veteran groups, has been pushing Ottawa to increase Canada’s lump sum to match court awards as well as increase the income loss program to 100 per cent of military salary. As of December 2014, maximum court payouts were $354,701.

These and many other recommendations made since 2006 by Veterans Affairs advisory groups, Parliamentary committees, the ombudsman and veterans’ organizations fester in a morass of political and bureaucratic indifference.

Having the best programs also means having responsive and agile processes to make sure they remain the best. Canada has neither the best programs nor the best processes. Only three years after Britain introduced its lump sum program, it doubled the maximum amount. Two years after that, government, military, veteran and family organizations worked closely together to implement dozens of recommendations including increased lump sum payments for levels below the maximum. More than 10,000 previous lump sum recipients received retroactive amounts of up to £150,000.

Canada does not have the best veterans programs in the world. Unfounded claims have sadly become the cornerstone of both the Canadian bureaucracy and elected officials. Equally unfortunate, too many Canadians take such statements at face value. Even the veterans ombudsman has been sounding off uncomfortable imitations of government rhetoric, claiming the “fixation on the [lump sum] program contributes to misunderstanding about the total benefits package provided under the New Veterans Charter…”

Veterans and Canadians have every right to be fixated on an inferior program, which languishes in government misinformation at the expense of suffering veterans and their families. Blaming veterans for misunderstanding inadequate programs and incompetent administration does not erase the inadequacy or incompetence. It is time for Harper to appoint that royal commission on veterans’ issues. Holding government accountable gets votes with the bonus of saving veterans’ lives.

Sean Bruyea, vice-president of Canadians for Accountability, is a retired Air Force intelligence officer and a frequent commentator on government, military, and veterans’ issues.

The Hill Times

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