Disenchanted and disabled veterans with their families have been enduring a decade of endless platitudes and rhetoric waiting for programs for which less than two per cent of them will qualify.
Stephen Harper appointed Erin O’Toole to clean up the mess at Veterans Affairs, but O’Toole’s successes were temporary and poignantly superficial and they will haunt whoever wins on Oct. 19. Not only are O’Toole’s initiatives so bureaucratic as to exclude all but a handful of veterans, but O’Toole and Veterans Affairs Canada trampled over every legal requirement to consult with veterans and the public.
The Conservative government has been under-increasing its attack since 2006 when lump sums replaced lifelong pensions. Part of O’Toole’s strategy is to introduce three new programs. But when veterans read the fine print their hopes will be sorely dashed.
The first program offers $7,200 annually to family members of disabled veterans so “they can take time off and recharge if needed, knowing that someone else will be providing the vital services and support they have been providing.” Of the 50,000 veterans who have thus far received the lump sum, the government estimates only 245 family members will receive the new benefit.
O’Toole calls this making “major strides in enhancing benefits for our most seriously injured and their families.” Perhaps if he implemented the allowance available to disabled veterans still receiving pensions for life, he could claim to be enhancing benefits. More than 7,700 veterans receive between $3,400 and $21,000 annually depending on level of disability. Lump sum veterans are not eligible.
The Conservatives also created a retirement benefit for disabled veterans. This one pays 70 per cent of what the veteran was receiving in disability payments prior to turning 65.
This may have garnered pleasing headlines, but disabled veterans are already cut back to 75 per cent of their often low military salaries resulting in the retirement benefit being no more than 50 per cent of military pay minus other income. Bureaucratic criteria will exclude 60 to 85 per cent of the most seriously disabled veterans. For the 600,000 CF veterans with an average age of 56; only 115 will receive retirement assistance this year.
Had O’Toole listened, far more veterans would receive help. Government-appointed advisory groups, Conservative-chaired Parliamentary committees and all veterans groups recommended up to 100 per cent of military salary, especially for the most disabled. The Veterans Ombudsman, Guy Parent, recommended 70 per cent of military salary yet he curiously provided the following for a scripted ministerial media release:
“I congratulate the minister of Veterans Affairs for his leadership on this issue and I encourage all Parliamentarians to pass this new pension benefit without delay.”
The government delayed so long that misguided veterans’ groups and the ombudsman hungrily swallowed the scraps without knowing the ingredients.
Perhaps the most cynical of all the new programs is a bizarre new lump sum program, which pays $70,000 for “critical injuries.” The criteria are so bizarre as to disillusion the least skeptical policy analyst. For example, applicants must require the “assistance of at least one person to perform at least three activities of daily living for a minimum of 112 consecutive days” or “sustained total loss of urinary or bowel function for a minimum of 84 consecutive days.”
Of the 690,000 veterans and serving members, only 114 will receive the lump sum retroactively over the past nine years. Going forward, the annual number of recipients: two.
“Reducing red tape” is another Conservative battle cry. It is a ruse, which excluded veterans from public consultation on the three programs. Cabinet, PCO and Treasury Board rules require public consultation. Contrary to the same rules, government sought public consultation on the original changes in 2005-2006 during an election and over Christmas holidays. This time, government didn’t even make the pretense to consult: they rammed through regulations before the election, refusing any public consultation.
We all understand that politicians and government stretch the truth and make a marlin out of a minnow. Nevertheless, these untruths have real victims. Disenchanted and disabled veterans with their families have been enduring a decade of endless platitudes and rhetoric waiting for programs for which less than two per cent of them will qualify.
Canada once did it much better in less time. Seventy years ago, 14 subcommittees involving every federal department, captains of industry, civilian researchers, veteran experts, universities, vocational schools, every province and major urban centre came together. Canada consulted, designed and implemented the most highly-regarded veterans’ programs in the world benefitting all of the returning one million Canadian veterans. All of this took less than three years.
Let’s stop lying to our veterans and their families. They deserve substantive and immediate action, not scripted media lines and red tape optimism leading nowhere.
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