Patronizing veterans is the salient problem, not the solution. Sadly, new
Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan appears ready to reinforce,
not resolve, the VAC cultural mess.
Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan, pictured Aug. 28, 2017, at Rideau Hall in Ottawa shortly before he was sworn into cabinet. If the first public comments of newly appointed Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan are anything to go by, veterans and the governing Liberals should be worried, writes Sean Bruyea. The Hill Times file photograph
By SEAN BRUYEA
PUBLISHED : Monday, Sept. 18, 2017 12:00 AM- THE HILL TIMES
OTTAWA—If the first public comments of newly appointed Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan are anything to go by, veterans and the governing Liberals should be worried. The Trudeau government will have to understand veterans far better. They also should be eager to do more than they promised if they wish to reverse seven decades of ghettoizing veterans and their families into arbitrary castes and classes.
O’Regan, in his first advertised action, visited the Veterans Affairs (VAC) bureaucracy in Charlottetown, P.E.I., the only federal department with its head office located outside Ottawa: “I decided to make it a top priority that I get out here and meet people as quickly as I can.”
For those who have battled VAC over the years, and sometimes decades, it is the senior bureaucracy in Charlottetown that has been the principal source of an often dismissive and antagonistic relationship with veterans and their families. It is not unlike Ottawa’s paternalistic and hostile treatment of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. That the minister thought his “top” (and first) priority was the senior bureaucracy and not veterans, sounds a foreboding trumpet call.
During his first visit to Charlottetown, the minister was briefed on the “top priority” of “caseload” ratios, as the bureaucracy likes to refer to the number of veterans managed by each case manager. “I’ve got a lot to learn,” O’Regan told CBC, “I understand that that is a big issue, the issue of caseloads [sic].”
Frustratingly, “caseloads” have been the “top priority” for VAC and its ministers for at least five years. My colleagues and I have been writing and speaking on this issue since at least 2004.
In an effort to reduce these caseload ratios, veterans have told me that local VAC officials delay months in responding, meeting, and providing minimal follow-up services. Some then “ditch” the veterans so that other “cases” can be likewise quickly processed.
Any earnest minister and sincere government must tackle VAC’s bureaucratic culture. It denies there is a problem, discredits those advocating for change, dismisses suffering, obfuscates, studies, delays further, misleads media and veterans into believing action is being taken, and finally manipulates stakeholders into accepting wholly inadequate Band-Aid measures. The culture at Veteran Affairs’ head office is far removed from Ottawa’s oversight, secluded from national media attention, and living in a dimension alien to the reality of Canada’s veterans and their families.
Meanwhile, a host of unaddressed and often grave problems remain.
VAC, the department mandated to care and treat veterans and their families, has only begun to monitor veteran suicides, but only after the government was shamed by a series of media investigations. Meanwhile, veteran pioneers, Louise Richard and Luc Levesque, pleaded for the government to study the matter, more than 20 years ago.
In the 1990s, Richard also called upon the government to monitor and help homeless veterans followed by Don Leonardo of VeteransCanada(.ca) beginning in 2001. It wasn’t until media embarrassment in 2014 that VAC hastily awarded a sole-source contract for more than $1-million with questionable, defined goals and follow-up quality controls. The contract apparently provides some impromptu assistance to select homeless veterans. Certainly, the auditor general should have a look at this. Meanwhile, we still don’t have an accurate and comprehensive picture of homeless Canadian veterans, contributing causes, and substantive long-term solutions.
None of these issues was identified in Liberal election promises. Also not included was an overhaul of the way veterans have their disability claims adjudicated, reviewed, and appealed. I stood beside Louise Richard in the late 1990s, and later Perry Gray joined by C.J. Wallace of Veteranvoice.info, calling for comprehensive changes to this demeaning and humiliating process that makes veterans feel more like criminals than honoured Canadians who sacrificed for all of us.
When veterans are inevitably denied or granted insufficient recognition for their injury, they must turn to a review and appeal process, frequently guided by lawyers employed by the very department with which veterans are fighting for benefits. Pre-1995, these lawyers worked in a completely separate and independent agency preparing veterans’ claims. That model must be reconsidered.
Meanwhile, VAC lawyers argue cases, often with very little preparation and huge “caseloads,” to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board, a body that makes pretences to being judicial, only when it saves money. The board is a notoriously mismanaged and compassionately compromised. This group of politically appointed individuals have their hands and hearts tied by an entrenched bureaucracy that ensures more generous aspects of legislation are quietly kept from veterans’ pleading wounds.
These systemic injustices represent a fraction of the tragic to-do list that never made the Liberal promise cut. For those that have, bureaucratic delay and malice have eaten away at their generosity. For instance, increasing veterans’ disability income from 75 per cent to 90 per cent of military salary saw many veterans receive 20 per cent raises. The lowest paid veterans, who make up the largest single demographic, received less than five per cent. Meanwhile, inflationary increases have fallen dramatically behind reality. A veteran released today with the same disabilities at the same rank and pay level is earning 30 per cent more than a veteran released 20 years ago.
Veterans Affairs’ hard-hearted stop-gap measures continue to belittle Liberal promises of “one veteran, one standard.” Benefits are awarded based upon arbitrary dates or heartless criteria, all in order to save money. The Liberal promise to expand upon allowances for the most disabled to respect lost career prospects, denies the same benefit and its supplement to those veterans released prior to April 1, 2006 even though no such benefit exists for earlier released veterans.
Families who care for the most disabled also will receive an increase in a caregiver allowance but this too is denied spouses of veterans released pre-April 1, 2006. Furthermore, $1,000 monthly is grossly inadequate and will force many families to juggle care of the veteran and a career, likely forfeiting eligibility for the benefit. In effect, those spouses who work the hardest, even though their careers are often hobbled in caring for a seriously disabled veteran, will be punished the most, or at least benefit the least.
Principal among the promises is the return to lifelong pensions. This will be a huge budget item affecting more than 60,000 veterans costing billions, hence the dilly-dallying to fulfill the promise.
The pension promise dawdling has allowed both the Liberals and the bureaucrats to slide through other half-promises. Education for non-injured veterans has been restricted to, once again, those veterans released after April 1, 2006, and denied to the most disabled veterans. Liberals promised to remove the time limit for survivors of deceased veterans to access education and retraining. For spouses still caring for the most disabled veterans, the two-year limitation nonsensically and callously remains.
The bureaucracy controls political agendas, diminishes recognition for service and sacrifice while demeaning veterans and their families through soul-destroying frustration and exclusion.
To address these and many other problems requires authentic and encompassing change. This change necessitates ministers confront the senior bureaucratic culture head-on. O’Regan commented in the same CBC interview, “We’ve got a lot of good people who are doing good work on behalf of veterans.”
If senior bureaucrats are doing “good work,” then by default, culpability lies with veterans in not understanding what “good work” is being done on their behalf. Patronizing veterans is the salient problem, not the solution. Sadly, O’Regan appears ready to reinforce, not resolve the VAC cultural mess.
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