Liberals say right things about helping veterans, but devils are in the details

Budget 2017 for veterans is a hodgepodge of Band-Aid measures, shot-in-the-dark initiatives, and one or two hopeful tools for some to take steps towards a productive life.

We need more than exclusionary piecemeal impulses and Band-Aid fixes for our veterans, such as what has so far been offered by the current Liberal government, writes Sean Bruyea. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright


PUBLISHED : THE HILL TIMES- Monday, April 10, 2017 12:00 AM

OTTAWA—With widespread tensions simmering just beneath a deceptively calm public profile, injured veterans and their families are running out of patience.

The 2017 Liberal budget was no doubt intended to turn down the heat, but emerging details of the programs will likely chafe the veteran community, leaving them, at best, curious, cautious, and, intently concerned.

The 2017 budget for veterans is a hodgepodge of Band-Aid measures, shot-in-the-dark initiatives, and one or two hopeful tools for some to take steps towards a productive life.

The Liberals have tabled legislation in the House of Commons for those programs that require parliamentary approval. Bill C-42 will amend and add to a collection of veteran benefits originally rammed through Parliament, without debate, in 2005 under a previous Liberal government.

The 2005 programs were packaged as the Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-establishment and Compensation Act. This mouthful allowed bureaucrats to brazenly impose the colloquial title of the New Veterans Charter, a shameless attempt to hijack acclaim for the original War Veterans Charter, a far more inclusive and comprehensive program for all World War II and Korean War veterans.

Bill C-42 makes some amends for more than a decade of bureaucratic and political propaganda by renaming the legislation the Veterans Well-being Act.

Former Veterans Affairs minister Albina Guarnieri, who elbowed the original legislation through Parliament, made jobs for veterans a pillar of her sales pitch. Yet the job placement program now known as Career Transition Services is one of the poorest accessed programs. VAC audits determined that the jobs program has been a failure on a number of fronts, including no measures for success. The conclusion 10 years after job placement promises: “The Career Transition Program has not met the needs of releasing Veterans.”

Bill C-42 expands job placement, including coaching for certain veterans released after April 1, 2006, and spouses and survivors of veterans who are released after April 1, 2018. Job placement programs would be denied to those veterans who are severely injured, a designation once known as totally and permanently incapacitated, recently changed to diminished earnings capacity.

However, for some severely injured and other ill veterans who require “ongoing care,” the Caregiver Recognition Benefit provides a monthly tax-free payment of $1,000 paid directly to the caregiver. This is a modest increase over the hastily introduced program under the Conservatives two years ago that pays $7,427 to 218 veterans requiring care as of September 2016.

There are currently more than 3,300 veterans with diminished earnings capacity. The new program needs to be less restrictive.

Given that caregivers of those veterans receiving lifelong pensions have been explicitly excluded from the new program, hope for wider access may be short-lived.

Bill C-42 takes a step towards, but falls substantively short of, the Liberal campaign promise of post-secondary education for all veterans.

The new program does not come into effect until April 1, 2018, and only applies to certain veterans released on or after April 1, 2006. Veterans with less than 12 years of service could access $40,000 and those with 12 or more years of service may access up to $80,000 in funding. The original Veterans Charter included amounts for living allowances and expenses with additional amounts paid for a spouse and/or children. Bill C-42 mentions expenses including “living expenses,” but does not specify a living allowance.

Bill C-42 will fund not just programs with degrees and diplomas, but also professional certifications and designations. There is even an innovative bonus for completion of these programs as well as legislated flexibility to entertain other types of education or training.

On Aug. 24, 2015, Prime Minster Justin Trudeau, while debuting the campaign platform “Real Change for Veterans,” promised: “We’ll cover the cost of four years of post-secondary education for every veteran who wants one.”

However, the new changes exclude all veterans released prior to April 1, 2006, and marginalizes the most disabled: they are denied access. Either they can keep their diminished earning capacity benefits or they can forfeit these benefits and apply for the new Education and Training Benefit, but apparently not both.

Budget 2017 promises limited funding to expand access to Military Family Resource Centres, but only for the families of veterans who are medically released after April 1, 2018. Funding will also be increased for yet another presumptuously-named “Centre of Excellence on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Related Mental Health Conditions.” Curiously, Budget 2017 creates a Veteran Well-being as well as a Veteran Emergency Fund.

None of these four initiatives require legislation. They will be created through Treasury Board submissions. Details are scarce, but hopefully programs will be transparent and accountable. A previous and virtually secret Veterans Affairs emergency fund relying principally upon bequests left in wills made headlines last year when it ran out of money. Eyes will be watching the Well-being Fund, intended “to foster innovation across the public, private and academic fields,” ensuring it does not repeat past impulsive and accountability-starved measures such as granting sole-source contracts to organizations with limited track-records and/or no professionally appropriate skill set.

The success of all programs hinges upon how they are administered and which contractor is chosen to implement them. What is certain at this point is that should the programs go forward as planned, the Liberal government will be responsible yet again for creating even deeper divisions in the veteran community. The exclusion of the vast majority of veterans and families from the programs because they released prior to April 1, 2006, will further entrench well-justified and deep scars of injustice and neglect.

Ultimately, it is unconscionable to exclude the most disabled veterans from testing the waters of even a part-time career or engage in opportunities to better themselves through education or training. They have suffered long enough from the bureaucratically imposed prisons of lost hope and long-eroded human potential.

If the New Veterans Charter is to transform into an act of “well-being” and we are truly serious about respecting and honouring our veterans, then we need more than exclusionary piecemeal impulses and Band-Aid fixes. We need inclusive, proactive, expeditious, and dignified programs that ensure all veterans flourish as human beings within the nation for which they sacrificed.

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.

The Hill Times

Please click here for original article in The Hill Times (may require subscription)