Remembering the living, not just the dead

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberals promised a return to lifelong pensions as their priority commitment to veterans. This should happen.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, pictured Nov. 11, 2015, at the National War Memorial in Ottawa.The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright


PUBLISHED : THE HILL TIMES Monday, Nov. 7, 2016 12:00 AM

OTTAWA—Honouring Canada’s fallen in war has been increasingly widespread. Honouring the living with dignity has often been a struggle, especially for government. Paying injured veterans one-time lump sums for pain and suffering is neither dignified nor honoured remembrance.

As World War I British poet Laurence Binyon writes, those who “shall grow not old, as we that are left to grow old” have given the greatest of sacrifices. Yet, survivors living with a disabling injury often endure daily, lifelong sacrifice and suffering.

It is difficult to exaggerate the horrors and hardships of World War I. More than 10 per cent or 66,000 of the 650,000 Canadians who served during the war gave their lives. World War I is also seen as the genesis of honouring disabling injuries with lifelong compensation as enshrined in the 1919 Pension Act.

However, research by Robert Smol published in Esprit de Corps magazine points to 2016 as the 200th anniversary since Canada as a British colony began granting lifelong pensions for disability resulting from military service. Even then, bureaucracies quickly learned to save money by placing roadblocks in front of those seeking compensation. The two-century-old legislation’s preamble apologetically explains “much delay and inconvenience have been experienced by individuals entitled to pensions.”

One century later, 172,000 Canadians with World War I service were identified as wounded. These veterans would face much delay and inconvenience. Even by 1940, Canada had awarded disability pensions to a mere 80,000 of the wounded, a number that would dwindle thereafter. Countless others were struck from government books with paltry one-time lump sums or denied benefits altogether.

World War II would tell a different story. Parliamentarians, veterans, and Canadians were keenly aware of the injustices and hopelessness encountered by First World War veterans.

Of the 1.1 million who served during World War II, more than 47,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders gave their lives. For the wounded, the lifelong tax-free foundations of the disability pension remained unchanged for another 60 years though pensions became easier to access. Although 55,000 of those who served were identified as wounded, by 1959 Canada would award lifelong disability pensions to more than 103,000 World War II veterans.

Whereas only half of those wounded in World War I received disability pensions, twice as many veterans officially identified as wounded in World War II received the lifelong pensions. But why the increase in pensioned veterans well after World War II ended? Many injuries may not manifest themselves for years if not decades later. World War II veterans are still applying for post-traumatic stress disorder, a disabling condition that can dramatically worsen later in life.

Perhaps the best modern example of delayed disabling injuries can be found with Gulf War veterans. National Defence states in a 1997 backgrounder that of the 4,500 who served in the region “no one reported any serious casualties at the time” of the war. Nevertheless, as of Nov. 1, 2016, 26 years later, 3,888, or 86 per cent, are compensated for lifelong disabling injuries. Of those, 2,482, or 55 per cent, suffer an injury directly related to the war.

These are casualty statistics representing enormous loss and anguish. They also demand lifelong compensation for lifelong pain and suffering.

For the 40,000 Canadians who served in Afghanistan, less than a decade after the conflict, more than 20 per cent or 8,339 suffer a disabling condition related to the war. Unlike previous wars, most of the Afghanistan and to a lesser extent Gulf War veterans have already received their pain and suffering compensation in the form of one-time lump sums. Sadly, they will face much adversity for the next 20, 30, or 50 years, long after the lump sum is spent.

Canada did something very right for almost 200 years: we recognized that lifelong sacrifice and hardship requires lifelong dignity and compensation. In 2005, bureaucrats manipulated Parliamentarians and veterans to replace lifelong tax-free pensions with one-time lump sums. Replacing a two-century-old commitment to lifelong pensions for those who are wounded with one-time lump sum payments is a betrayal of meaningful and tangible remembrance.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberals promised a return to lifelong pensions as their priority commitment to veterans. Will remembrance be limited to two minutes of silence and 365 days of platitudes? Or will remembrance mean lifelong dignity for our living casualties and their survivors?

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

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