Dangerous déjà vu for veterans: send omnibus plate back to the chef

Almost 120,000 Canadians have lost their lives and hundreds of thousands more have lived and continue to live with lifelong disabilities. Parliament can do better for its veterans.

The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O’Toole, pictured recently on the Hill. Sean Bruyea writes ‘in a bizarre and never-ending déjà vu, government is ramming through Parliament the fourth piece of veterans’ legislation in a decade.’
Published: Monday, 06/01/2015 12:00 am EDT

OTTAWA—In a bizarre and never-ending déjà vu, government is ramming through Parliament the fourth piece of veterans’ legislation in a decade. It is plainly bad legislation swallowed inside yet another budget omnibus bill.

The proposed veterans’ programs are joined by a torrent of feel-good political announcements. Does the hype match reality? Do the programs fill the identified gaps and address the evidence-based recommendations?

No and no. The proposed veterans’ legislation should be sent back to the kitchen until what was ordered by veterans is finally served after 10 years of painful hunger.

A new Retirement Income Security Benefit claims it will top up to 70 per cent of what the veteran received from government prior to age 65. However this is based upon the veteran’s income loss benefit, which already reduces military salary to 75 per cent. This income loss benefit is inadequately adjusted for inflation to a maximum of two per cent since military release from 1953 onwards. In the past 20 years, inflation has been above two per cent nine of those years. Seventeen of the previous 20 years were above two per cent.

For example, veterans released in 1996 have had their earnings loss benefit increased by approximately 30 per cent while military salaries have increased 80 per cent.

The retirement benefit therefore equates to the veteran effectively receiving 52.5 per cent of their military salary, inadequately adjusted for inflation.  The Ombudsman, Guy Parent, was quick to endorse this program during a partisan political announcement. Yet, Parent’s office clearly recommended a retirement benefit matching 70 per cent of release salary, fully indexed for inflation.

The majority of veterans’ groups active in advocacy, the ombudsman, VAC’s own advisory groups and Parliament in 2010 have all repeatedly recommended that the 75 per cent earnings loss benefit be substantively increased to anywhere from 90 per cent to 100 per cent of release income matching salary increases of a typical career of promotions. Civilian courts have been doing this for decades. Implementing this universally supported recommendation would result in a dignified income loss program, which would in turn provide a dignified retirement benefit for our most injured veterans.

The consequence of government’s repeated dismissal of this evidenced-based research and recommendation: a paltry payout from this proposed retirement benefit, which will go to just 261 veterans with disabilities by 2020.

The Family Caregiver Relief Benefit is another puzzling creation. Only 351 family members by 2020 will qualify out of the anticipated 6,000 totally impaired and disabled veterans.

No veteran group, parliamentary committee, ombudsman or advisory group asked for a benefit in this form. What others have asked for is everything from matching the DND Caregiver Benefit which pays up to $36,500 over any 365 cumulative days to providing spouses of disabled veterans with their own benefit to compensate for lost income in their poorly appreciated efforts to care for their struggling veteran spouses. One of the easiest solutions would be merely to open up the existing attendance allowance program to all injured veterans. The proposed family caregiver benefit pays $7,238 per year equivalent to the lower levels of attendance allowance which pays up to $21,151.44 annually.

The Critical Injury Benefit will provide a one-time payment of $70,000 to Canadian Forces members and veterans “for severe, sudden and traumatic injuries or acute diseases that are service related, regardless of whether they result in permanent disability.” Countless veterans have come forward telling us that disabling PTSD, traumatic brain injury or loss of organ function are being low-balled below the approximately $40,000 average lump sum payment for pain and suffering. How can government justify to veterans enduring lifelong disability that their pain and suffering merits far lower a payment than a veteran who temporarily suffered an injury?

This leads to the obvious question: from what obscure bureaucratic orifice did this proposal originate? Absolutely no one in the veterans’ community, the ombudsman’s office, parliament or advisory groups asked for this benefit. We know little of the criteria but we know it is highly restrictive: only two or three individuals per year will receive it from a totally disabled and permanently incapacitated population of 6000 veterans in 2020 and a current CF serving and veteran population of nearly 700,000 individuals.

How is this in any manner fulfilling Canada’s obligation to all of our veterans and their families? It does not. Why did government not do what all have been asking: increase the amount of the lump sum benefit to at least match court awards for pain and suffering? Why have so much time and tears been expended by suffering veterans for a potpourri of political pretense grudgingly helping too few.

We are inundated by slick PR campaigns and political photo shoots as to the importance of military service but when it comes to addressing shortcomings for those most in need, government delays, deflects, and, unfortunately, dances on the suffering of our veterans and their families. Much of this rhetoric is centred upon how much Canada is indebted to our veterans and their families.

The new legislation proposes an obligation to our serving members, veterans and their families to provide “services, assistance and compensation.” It is more encompassing than some previous legislation but all offer little substance and are mostly meaningless. To what end is this obligation? To rehabilitate, re-establish, to offer opportunity, well-being, quality of life, education, retraining, employment or provide a clear service standard?

Professing an obligation absence a goal is mostly meaningless.

Why does this proposed obligation only recognize assistance to injured members, veterans and their families? Is Canada not responsible for all veterans?  The duty of the Minister in the Department of Veterans Affairs Act is “the care, treatment or re-establishment in civil life of any person who served in the Canadian Forces” and “the care of the dependants or survivors.” At one time this included “retraining.”  Is all of this not what government keeps claiming the new veterans charter accomplishes but has so far abysmally failed to deliver?

These programs, if passed without substantive change, will set dangerous precedent.

First, they create yet more classes and subclasses of inequity between veterans. Second, unnecessary programs result in more red tape and more work for overstaffed frontline workers when merely expanding and improving existing programs will do more. Third, they will encourage government to create discriminatory policy under a political facade while simultaneously dismissing evidence-based research and widespread consensus of those directly affected who truly understand the options available.

Finally, government’s bullying with “it’s better than nothing” attitude intimidates an already subserviently indoctrinated military culture to accept paltry scraps to compensate for genuine sacrifice and life-altering disabilities. Caving into bullying disguised as sweet-talk effectively endorses shoddily concocted programs. This gives license to government again to do nothing for the next five, 10 or more years to fix these abominations while government ignores a host of outstanding programs veterans and their families need now.

Veterans need to realize they deserve what they need and ordered in a timely fashion. Why would anyone swallow that which was never ordered or a spoonful from the menu haphazardly fried up a decade ago? Veterans deserve to have the dish remade as requested. Isn’t a fair and square meal the minimum that lifelong sacrifice deserves?

And let’s stop hiding veterans, let alone any unrelated legislation, in omnibus bills or otherwise ramming veterans’ programs through parliament.

Almost 120,000 Canadians have lost their lives and hundreds of thousands more have lived and continue to live with lifelong disabilities. They have done this to serve our nation in protecting democracy and its vital pillars of transparency, accountability and due process. Surely Parliament can do better for its veterans. Send the programs back to the chef.

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

Click here for article (May require subscription)