In Debate: C-55 Improving the Veterans Charter

Ms. Irene Mathyssen (London—Fanshawe, NDP):

Mr. Speaker, I am most grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate concerning the courageous men and women who serve and have served in the military.

When our country was in danger during World War I, World War II and Korea, or when our country called upon them to be peacekeepers in places far from home, like Somalia, Bosnia, Lebanon, Cypress, East Timor, Suez and now in Afghanistan, when they were sent to serve in NATO, or when our country asked them to help communities jeopardized by floods, earthquakes, ice storms, forest fires, our courageous men and women did not hesitate. They did what they were asked to do. They did their duty in World War I, World War II, Korea and a multitude of deployments since.

In the course of that duty our country made a covenant with them. Canada made promises that the men and women of the armed forces would not be forgotten. Our governments made and continue to make promises assuring these men and women that they would be remembered and honoured by a grateful nation. That is a wonderful sentiment.

I know without a shadow of a doubt that the people of Canada are grateful and that they truly remember and honour our servicemen and women in the Canadian Forces and the RCMP. I see it every day from my constituents in London—Fanshawe.

Sadly however, what has become painfully obvious is that the government neither honours our veterans, peacekeepers and those currently serving, nor is it willing to unconditionally provide the services, pensions, programs and special care to which these veterans, the members of the armed forces and their families are entitled.

I am extremely disappointed that after four years the government was unable to incorporate more substantial changes to the veterans charter. The changes proposed in Bill C-55 are merely cosmetic and do not go far enough.

Bill C-55 states that the minister may provide career transition services; may provide rehabilitation services and vocational assistance to veterans' survivors; may on application pay a permanent allowance to a veteran. “May” is not good enough. The word must be “shall”.

Veterans have waited long enough. The Government of Canada has an obligation to ensure that after veterans have put their lives on the line they are treated with dignity, honour and respect.

Sadly, Bill C-55 is a lost opportunity. The act itself is full of equivocations. We have report after report that show the total inadequacies of an overly complex and ineffective Veterans Affairs program.

The government ignored the vast majority of recommendations regarding changes to the veterans charter, the lion's share of which came from the Gerontological Advisory Council as well as the former veterans ombudsman and the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs, all of whom produced significant studies on the veterans charter.

I would like to highlight some of the problems that this new legislation ignores.

I am sure members know about the pension clawbacks that retired members of the Canadian Forces face when they reach age 65. In 1966, when the CPP was introduced, it was integrated with the Canadian Forces Superannuation Act and the RCMP Superannuation Act. Members of the Canadian Forces were unaware that there would consequently be reductions to their pensions.

During their working years, CF members face health hazards, long periods of time away from family and frequent moves. The negative impact of these stresses are often felt most acutely in later life. Cancelling the clawback is the best way to acknowledge the commitment and service of veterans. The government has however not been receptive to this imperative.

When a veteran dies, his or her spouse is allowed only 50% of the pension of the deceased. Many of these spouses face real hardship and as a result, legions across the country have tried to make up for what the government takes away. Legion sponsored funds attempt to support widows and widowers and their families as well as possible. The legion has fundraisers with raffles and poppy sales, dinners and hall rentals, but the legion too is falling on hard times. Its members are aging. Its numbers are in decline and it is having difficulty making ends meet.

Legions have recommended that survivor pensions be two-thirds of the original pension. That would be a tremendous help to spouses, many of whom are elderly women.

Unfortunately, the government is not interested in such a change. Even worse, if a veteran marries after age 60, the widow or widower is entitled to nothing. The Canadian Forces Superannuation Act calls them gold diggers and refuses to recognize any entitlement, refusing to recognize the importance of the love and comfort they gave to their partners. It is a sign of disrespect.

Nowhere is such disrespect more evident than in the situation faced by many ex-forces members if injuries sustained during service do not fully manifest themselves until after retirement.

Just this fall I had an extended conversation with a master sergeant. While serving overseas, he sustained injuries from a significant fall in a training exercise. He was hospitalized with a spinal fracture, and after he recovered he returned to active duty. Now some 30 years later, he suffers from neck pain caused by the fracture. He survives on expensive medications not covered by his benefits. When he asked Veterans Affairs for help, he was denied. The reason given was that he had not been injured in combat. In other words, despite medical records showing injuries from a serious accident during his service career, his veracity and the value of his service were called into question and he was refused benefits.

Bill C-55 does not provide a remedy for this injustice. The corporate insurance mentality of those administering the program within Veterans Affairs hurts those who have served their country, and hurts their families too. That mentality has to go.

Did members know there is a homeless shelter for military veterans and a food bank in Calgary set up specifically for veterans?

Last April, the Prime Minister visited that food bank, had a media photo op and talked about how wonderful it was that the community was helping veterans. Well, it was, except that a research study conducted by London based researchers, Susan Ray and Cheryl Forchuk, shows that in southwestern Ontario alone there are dozens of homeless veterans. I wonder if it occurred to the Prime Minister that it is an outrage that the people we pledged to honour and remember are homeless and forced to survive by going to a food bank.

Even with Bill C-55, veterans and retired CF personnel still face reduced pension, may have pension benefits denied and are not entitled to help for non-service-related injuries. The experience of homelessness and hunger among veterans is a common occurrence.

It certainly does not seem like a grateful government or a responsible Department of Veterans Affairs.

Finally, I want to talk about the situation at Parkwood Hospital in my riding. Parkwood was at one time the regional veterans hospital. I can remember visiting my uncles, both veterans of World War II, at Parkwood whenever they were hospitalized. Parkwood was also a long-term care facility for veterans whose injuries were so serious they would never live independently or with their families again.

Back in 1979, Parkwood and veterans hospitals across the country were turned over to the provinces and Veterans Affairs contracted for beds and care for the World War I, World War II and Korean War vets. The agreement entered into with the province contained no provisions for modern day veterans or the estimated 200,000 peacekeepers who have served on missions since Korea. Many of these retired or soon to be retired Canadian Forces members feel they have been overlooked by their country. While there are private care homes available to them, many feel they should receive the same level of care and have the same access to hospitals like Parkwood that previous generations had. Unfortunately, the beds at veterans hospitals will close as World War II and Korean War veterans pass away. Once these beds are gone, they will not re-open.

The Government of Canada should change the mandate of veterans hospitals and allow those coming back from Afghanistan and the aging post-Korean service personnel to have access to federally supported beds. I say this because the care of veterans is a federal responsibility, a part of the covenant that I talked about at the beginning of my remarks.

These veterans have earned their pensions, their benefits, their services and programs and they have earned the right to expect their government to fulfill all of the promises made. It is time for the government to go back to the drawing board. Bill C-55 does not fix the problems with the veterans charter. The bill needs extensive amendments.

Our veterans deserve much better than what they are receiving. Let us honour them with the dignity and respect they deserve.

Hon. Jean-Pierre Blackburn (Minister of Veterans Affairs and Minister of State (Agriculture), CPC):

Madam Speaker, I listened to the hon. member's comments and I found that her judgment was too harsh. We are in the process of making significant changes to support our veterans, particularly our modern-day veterans who may come back from Afghanistan wounded.

We are in the process of implementing three measures that will help them in their lives. If they participate in a rehabilitation program, they will receive $40,000 per year for the duration of the program. In addition, if they are seriously wounded and are unable to return to work, they will receive a minimum of $58,000 per year plus the lump sum payment that, with the new changes, can reach up to $285,000 depending on the extent of the veteran's injuries. They can receive this money in cash or spread it over the desired number of years; they have the choice.

There was a unanimous vote in this regard in 2005. Our soldiers are still in the Canadian army for two or three years after they return from Afghanistan, during which time they receive their full salary. It is only in the past few years that we discovered weaknesses in the system. That is why we are proceeding in this fashion now; we are going to improve things for them.

The Royal Canadian Legion and the other seven veterans organizations that we consulted think that we are on the right path and that we have set the right priorities. Does the hon. member not think that we are doing something really good for veterans?

Ms. Irene Mathyssen:
Madam Speaker, I thank the hon. minister for his question. I do, however, have to go back to Bill C-55.

I am very disappointed it is so very weak. Clause after clause indicates that the minister “may” provide support, not “shall” but “may”. To me, this equivocation means that veterans are once again going to be put at risk.

The minister is quite right in terms of the living document that appeared in this House four years ago. Unfortunately, I feel that it took far too long for the needed changes to even be proposed.

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to comment on the announcement made a couple of weeks ago by the Minister of National Defence, in which he talked about five places where veterans could go in order to have the services and support they need. While it is an important step in the right direction, I would suggest that only five centres spread across this huge country are not enough.

A great many of the veterans that I come in contact with are unsure and need support, and they could never manage to get to one of these centres. I am pleased to see that the centres have been brought forward. Establishing them was one of the NDP suggestions that we fought very hard for for a very long time.

Again, however, veterans need more.