Election 2015 – the battle for the hearts and minds of Canada’s veterans


October 18, 2015

Not since the 1920’s has a governing party so mismanaged the care of Canada’s veterans that all political parties would include veterans’ promises in their platforms.

Prime Minister Harper appointed Erin O’Toole this past January to clean up the mess at Veterans Affairs (VAC) after the public relations meltdown under Julian Fantino. O’Toole’s successes are temporary and poignantly superficial; they will also come back to haunt whoever wins on October 19th. Not only are Conservative initiatives so bureaucratic as to exclude all but a handful of veterans but O’Toole and VAC trampled over every legal requirement to consult with veterans and the public to enact them.

In April 2006, the Conservatives replaced lifelong pensions for injured veterans with a one-time lump sum. They have been under increasing attack ever since. Part of O’Toole’s strategy in response to criticism is the creation of three new programs. The announced programs raised much hope in a despondent veteran community. When Canadians and disabled veterans read the fine print their hopes will be sorely dashed.

The first program offers $7238 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.”

Let’s forget that $7200 will not go very far to pay for “vital services and support”.  Of the 50,000 veterans who thus far have received a one-time lump sum, the government estimates only 245 family members will qualify. By 2025, Canada will have paid lump sums to almost 100,000 Canadian Forces veterans but government anticipates only 449 families will qualify for the $7200 grant. 

O’Toole calls this making “major strides in enhancing benefits for our most seriously injured and their families.” Perhaps if he implemented the allowance already available to disabled veterans still receiving pensions for life, he could claim to be making a modest stride at best. More than 7,700 veterans with lifelong pensions continue to receive anywhere between $3400 and $21000 annually depending on level of disability. Lump sum veterans are not eligible.

After almost a decade of criticism, the Conservatives finally enacted a retirement benefit for disabled veterans. This one pays 70% of what the veteran was receiving in disability payments prior to turning 65.

The headlines are pleasing but disabled veterans are already cut back to 75% of their often low military salaries resulting in the retirement benefit being no more than 50% of military pay minus all other income. Bureaucratic criteria will exclude 60 to 85% of the most seriously disabled veterans.  For the 600,000 CF veterans with an average age of 56, only 115 in total will qualify for the benefit this year.

Had O’Toole listened, far more veterans would receive help. Government-appointed advisory groups, Conservative-chaired Parliamentary committees and veterans groups all asked for up to 100% of military salary, especially for the most disabled. Even the Veterans Ombudsman, Guy Parent, asked for 70% of military salary yet he applauded the program as meeting “the intent of my recommendation”. Mr. Parent had not even read the fine print but curiously provided the following quote 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.”

Government delayed so long to act on recommendations 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. The new veterans charter lump sum (up to $306,700) pays a fraction of what the lifetime equivalent of the pension pays. The average lump sum paid: $40,000. Even civilian courts pay up to $355,000. And the Liberals who introduced the legislation in 2005 have promised to return to lifelong pensions. O’Toole’s new program provides a single, one-time payment of $70,000 for “critical injuries”. 

How did government arrive at this amount let alone any of the amounts under the three programs? No veteran group, Parliamentary committee, advisory group, rehabilitation researcher or ombudsman asked for any of these programs in their current form. Besides, the criteria are so bizarre as to baffle the least skeptical policy analysts. To receive the critical injury lump sum, 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 “critical injury benefit” retroactively over the past 9 years. Going forward, the annual number of recipients: two.

The British government enacted a lump sum program at around the same time as Canada. It was widely criticized as well. However, within three years of implementing their program, they carried out a massive overhaul and increased the amounts for all recipients. More than 10,000 British veterans received additional retroactive amounts of up to $300,000. Their lump sum now tops out at $1.1 million.

Minister O’Toole claims that these programs bridge the gaps in the new veterans charter and provide “service excellence” so Canada “can provide Canada’s Veterans and their families with the support they need and deserve.” Since most veterans, including the overwhelming majority of the most disabled will receive nothing, is nothing what Ottawa believes veterans and their families deserve?

It is not clear whether Minister O’Toole understands the programs created under his tenure or is he merely the cheerleader for programs which would never pass the smell test of public scrutiny. Some veterans’ advocates have indicated that he is aggressive in trying to intimidate those who criticize the programs. Either way, veterans will hold him accountable.

“Reducing red tape” is another battle cry for this government. It is a ruse which in this case excluded veterans from public consultation on the three programs. Cabinet, PCO and Treasury Board rules on presenting legislation and regulations require accountable and transparent public consultation. Contrary to the same rules, government sought public consultation on the original lump sum program in 2005-6 during an election and over the Christmas holidays. This time, government didn’t even make the pretense to seek public feedback: they rammed through the regulations right before the election call, refusing any public consultation.

We all understand that politicians and government stretch the truth and make a marlin out of a minnow. Nevertheless, these lies have real victims. Disillusioned veterans and their families have been enduring a decade of endless platitudes and rhetoric waiting for programs for which less than 2% of injured veterans will qualify. 

This is not rocket science. We have done it much better with far less time. Seventy years ago, fourteen committees involving every federal department, captains of industry, civilian researchers, veteran experts, universities, vocational schools, representatives from every province and major urban centre came together. Canada consulted, designed and implemented the most highly regarded veterans programs in the world benefitting every one of the returning 1 million Canadians who donned a uniform.  This was all accomplished in 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. 

For long original article including David Pugliese’s valuable preamble on Defence Watch website, click here

Article also published by Veterans of Canada