In Debate: Speaking Out for Veterans

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

Mr. Speaker, over the last century, hundreds of thousands of Canadians have served our country with distinction and valour as members of Canada's armed forces. Many of these brave Canadians made the ultimate sacrifice, laying down their lives in the service of our nation. Many more returned home with physical or emotional scars that last a lifetime.

When a decision is made to deploy our troops abroad, whether in a combat or a peacekeeping role, we as politicians must always be mindful of the somber reality that any mission comes at the cost of Canadian lives and casualties. Fatalities or injuries will inevitably occur.

Members of this House sometimes confuse supporting our troops with supporting a particular mission. I want to be clear for the record that there is a definitive difference between supporting the ideology of any mission and the matter of supporting our troops and I would hope that supporting our troops is one matter on which members of this House, regardless of political stripe, can agree.

It is in relation to supporting our troops that I rise today to speak to what is happening at veterans hospitals in Canada, and specifically Parkwood Hospital in my riding. Parkwood Hospital has 269 in-patient beds under the veterans care program for use as long-term residency or short-term respite beds. However, as I learned last month, 72 of these beds are slated for closure. The reason cited for this closure is the dwindling number of World War II and Korean War veterans. The problem rests with who is deemed eligible for admission to the veterans care program at Parkwood.

The hospital's mandate is to serve veterans and members of certain civilian groups who have overseas service in World War II, the Korean War or receive ae Veterans Affairs pension for an illness or injury incurred during one of these wars.

I must take issue with these admission guidelines. In my view, a veteran is a veteran regardless of when or where he or she served. I know this is a view shared by many of my constituents and, indeed, by many Canadians. It is certainly a view shared by Ken Knisley. Ken's son, Andrew, served recently in Afghanistan where he lost his right leg and had significant damage to his right arm. Andrew is currently undergoing rehabilitation for his injuries but he is not eligible to receive this treatment from Parkwood Hospital. His father wonders what will happen to his son and the other injured soldiers returning home from Afghanistan. What happens when they need specialized veterans services?

History has shown time and again that once beds are closed and services are cut, those cuts are permanent. We will never see them restored.

I want to be clear that the slated closure of these beds is not the fault of the hospital administration which operates within its mandate. The problem can be resolved by the government. It is well within the purview of the government to modernize the criteria of Veterans Affairs Canada and ensure that modern-day veterans are eligible for the same services and programs that veterans of earlier generations currently have.

On April 23, I asked the Minister of Veterans Affairs to demonstrate the wisdom to undertake the changes needed to keep beds at Parkwood Hospital open. The minister's response was:

...since our veterans are dwindling in number because of their advanced age, some beds are no longer occupied. It is in these circumstances that we would talk to the hospital or organization about reducing the number of beds. Of course there is always room for our veterans, and other people can use the space when it is available.

That response was wholly unsatisfactory. The hospital administration spoke to local media about this matter and indicated that it would be happy to speak to the minister about expanding the mandate to keep beds open. Unfortunately, that discussion has not happened.

So I return to where I began and I would suspect that the majority of Canadians agree with me: a veteran is a veteran. It does not matter where or when he or she served. Canadian Forces members who have served in deployments abroad should all be treated equally, with fairness and respect.

Mr. Greg Kerr (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Veterans Affairs, CPC):

Mr. Speaker, I thank the member for London—Fanshawe for raising this issue. She makes the point that we all support our veterans, and that is a given. It is not a matter of political stripe. Whether it was the first world war, the second world war, Korean War, we have provided terrific service over the years in recognizing their injuries, providing occupational therapy, retraining and re-establishing them back in their communities and so, and that continues.

There is a reality, though, that as these veterans have aged, the needs have changed along with that. The conditions under which these beds were made available was contractual with provincial health authorities or provincial health delivery.

Today as the modern vets come out, many of the new needs are very clear. People want that service as close to home as they can get it. They do not want to get into the old established facilities where they have to travel long distances and live away from their communities. This has become a real challenge.

Therefore, this service tries to make these beds available to other Canadians who are in need of long-term care. These beds are not simply disappearing. They will be used more and more by civilians, or that will be the intent after the transfer takes place. It is a sad reality that the aging process does continue.

We have to continue to look at the needs of modern vets. A lot of the program changes recognize there are many new needs and new conditions as they come home. However, the general consensus we get from modern day vets is they want to be treated as close to home as they possibly can. They want to be near their families and near their communities.

That has been the focus. There is always room to continue the review, just as we are doing right now with the Veterans Charter because it is a living document. Part of what we hear is the long-term need for them.

Although this issue will not go away quickly, we need to recognize that in many cases the beds are empty because of the aging process. These beds have been made available to the general population for needs in that way. As we look at the legacy these veterans have left us, we will continue to look at the new needs and respond to them. It does not mean things will not change in the future as the needs become apparent down the road. However, for the time being, we felt this was an appropriate response to the needs of the veterans.

Ms. Irene Mathyssen:

Mr. Speaker, we are currently undertaking the beautification of the Veterans Memorial Parkway, the eastern gateway to London, which runs through my riding.

On April 9, at the 93rd anniversary of the Victory at Vimy Ridge, I joined with the mayor of London and my provincial and federal colleagues to unveil the Veterans Memorial Granite marker along the Parkway. Three bus loads of veterans, who reside at Parkwood Hospital, were on hand to witness the unveiling. I know from talking with them afterward how much it meant to them to be recognized with this tribute. Yet it seems the government is doing everything it can to distance itself from veteran care and that is shameful.

The minister said that new veterans from Afghanistan are young and may not need long-term beds yet, but what about the veterans of earlier deployments? We all remember the terrible circumstances of our peacekeepers in Rwanda. Does the minister truly believe that Afghan, Rwanda and Somali veterans will never need care? Psychological wounds can be just as painful and damaging as physical ones.

It is time for the government to support all of our troops and support them close to home.

Mr. Greg Kerr:

Mr. Speaker, on the last point I agree. We are trying to support them as much as we can close to their own communities.

Once again, the new veterans have may challenges that perhaps were not recognized years ago and it is has become more apparent. The response has become quite obvious, as I said, with the charter review and all that goes with it.

We are listening to those concerns. We are listening to the advice and recommendations coming from the review process. It is probably fair to say, because the government does care and puts a lot of resources into it, that the appropriate responses will be made.