Bill C-50 (Historical)
An Act to amend the statute law in respect of benefits for veterans and the children of deceased veterans
This bill was last introduced in the 37th Parliament, 2nd Session, which ended in November 2003.
Rey D. Pagtakhan Liberal
This bill has received Royal Assent and is now law.
November 7th, 2003 / 1:15 p.m.
I have the honour to inform the House that when the House went up to the Senate chamber, Her Excellency the Governor General was pleased to give, in Her Majesty's name, the royal assent to the following bills:
Bill C-45, an act to amend the Criminal Code (criminal liability of organizations)--Chapter No. 21.
Bill C-25, an act to modernize employment and labour relations in the public service and to amend the Financial Administration Act and the Canadian Centre for Management Development Act and to make consequential amendments to other acts--Chapter 22.
Bill C-6, an act to establish the Canadian Centre for the Independent Resolution of First Nations Specific Claims to provide for the filing, negotiation and resolution of specific claims and to make related amendments to other acts--Chapter 23.
Bill C-459, an act to establish Holocaust Memorial Day--Chapter 24.
Bill C-55, an act for granting to Her Majesty certain sums of money for the public service of Canada for the financial year ending March 31, 2004--Chapter 25.
Bill C-37, an act to amend the Canadian Forces Superannuation Act and to make consequential amendments to other acts--Chapter 26.
Bill C-50, an act to amend the statute law in respect of benefits for veterans and the children of deceased veterans--Chapter 27.
Bill C-48, an act to amend the Income Tax Act (natural resources)--Chapter 28
Bill S-21, an act to amalgamate the Canadian Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors and The Canadian Association of Financial Planners under the name The Financial Advisors Association of Canada.
Message from the Senate
The Royal Assent
November 7th, 2003 / 10:05 a.m.
I have the honour to inform the House that messages have been received from the Senate informing this House that the Senate has passed the following bills: Bill C-37, an act to amend the Canadian Forces Superannuation Act and to make consequential amendments to other acts and Bill C-50, an act to amend the statute law in respect of benefits for veterans and the children of deceased veterans.
Children of Deceased Veterans Education Assistance Act
October 27th, 2003 / 5:15 p.m.
Paul Szabo Mississauga South, ON
Mr. Speaker, the reason it has not been done is that there is a bill and the committee did not address the issue when they addressed the bill, either at committee stage or at report stage. There were no report stage amendments, unfortunately. Had we known that the operative area of the bill that grants or extends the benefit is a regulation and in fact not an element of Bill C-50, with a little bit of guidance we probably should have been able to get the thing through.
However, we still have this opportunity. I think the important thing is that we come together and achieve what we have to, whatever way it is. All hon. members can deal with how it unravelled in their own way.
Mr. Speaker, I would again seek the unanimous consent of the House to make the motion to which I referred earlier in my speech.
Children of Deceased Veterans Education Assistance Act
October 27th, 2003 / 4:55 p.m.
Paul Szabo Mississauga South, ON
Mr. Speaker, Bill C-50 is an act to amend the statute law in respect of benefits for veterans and the children of deceased veterans.
The Minister of Veterans Affairs announced the measures included in Bill C-50 on May 12 and they include actions that would extend the health programs now received by veterans with a pension disability of over 77% to those with a pension disability between 48% and 77%.
It would also provide the veterans independence program and health care benefits to overseas service veterans at home when they are waiting for a priority access bed in a long term health care centre.
It would provide long term health care benefits to allied veterans with 10 year's post-war residence in Canada and extend from one year to a lifetime the period over which VIP benefits, which cover costs of housekeeping and grounds maintenance, will be given to widows after the death of their spouse or partner who was a veteran and receiving such benefits.
There also are amendments to the Children of Deceased Veterans Education Assistance Act to establish the education assistance program of the Department of Veterans Affairs in order to provide assistance for post-secondary education of children of members of Canadian Forces and veterans who were killed in military duty or who were in receipt of a disability pension at the time of death.
There is also an amendment to the Pension Act to update the scale of compensation for veterans who were prisoners of war. The War Veterans Allowance Act would be amended to clarify the definition of a member of the Canadian Forces during World Wars I and II.
Finally, the bill would makes a minor amendment to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Superannuation Act.
Bill C-50, in its present form, is an omnibus type bill. It touches a number of other bills. It is not a bill that could be carefully read through and understood as to what exactly is included or its intent. It has to be looked at in concert with the legislation or the current acts that are being amended by Bill C-50.
Last Friday we debated the bill in the House and there was unanimous consent with regard to the actual provisions of Bill C-50 and a strong position that Bill C-50 should pass expeditiously and get to the Senate so we can deal with these most important changes being proposed.
Having said that, there is another issue and the previous speaker talked about it very well. He talked about the terrible inequity that would occur with regard to the veterans' widows who are not presently covered under the current act. The provisions of the act do not state who is entitled to these benefits. They are in fact in the regulations to the bill. As the House knows, the regulations are promulgated by order in council and the when the committee deals with legislation it is not dealing with the regulations but with the act.
The committee did not, although there was a way in which it could have, have an opportunity to address the extension of widows' benefits. To a Speaker on Friday, this place again gave unanimous consent to extend the benefits to the widows who are not covered under the current regulations.
When the Minister of Veterans Affairs spoke in this place I wrote down a couple of his comments. He said that we were in a dilemma. He wondered whether we should delay proceeding with this bill with a package of initiatives knowing that the twilight years of our veterans were upon us while we continue to search for sources of funding to provide for the additional funding necessary for these benefits, or whether we should proceed with the bill right now and lose that opportunity.
The debate then turned very quickly to funding. Many hon. members mentioned that it was important that we find the funding. The debate then turned to how much we were talking about. There was a little bit of variance in the numbers but we did know that it was minimally $200 million over about five years and as much as $400 million over the longer period.
I was advised directly by the Minister of Veterans Affairs that to make provision for the total cost of extending the benefits to these additional 23,000 veterans would be much smaller. It would be in the range of about $150 million and maybe as much as $200 million. We are not exactly sure because they are still working on the numbers.
However it means that it has brought us a lot closer. On Friday, one minute before we moved to private members' business, the Chair asked whether or not the House was prepared to call the question. I said no and I wanted to acknowledge that it was I who said no, but it was for a reason.
I had been made aware just minutes before that one of the reasons the government was having difficulty, as the minister alluded to in his commentary, was that there was a problem of having to record the aggregate cost or projected cost of extending the benefits to an additional say 23,000 widowers over their projected lifetime or the lifetime of the program and to have to record that in the year in which the decision to extend those benefits was made. It basically meant there was a concern, I do not know whether it was at cabinet or whether it was in the Department of Veterans Affairs, but there was this concern about whether we could afford to approve something that we would have to record somewhere between $150 million and $400 million in that year.
I think there is a greater confidence level now that the cost of extending these benefits is much closer to $150 million than it is to $400 million. I understand that is the opinion of the Auditor General's office.
However when we looked at something like the millennium scholarship fund, where $2.5 billion was actually being taken out of the government's resources and deposited in a third party bank account to set up an endowment for these future scholarships, that had to be recorded immediately because the government had no recourse to draw that money back.
This is not the case, however, with the decision, if it were taken, to extend these benefits. Therefore there is some question as to whether or not the accounting for those benefits should be made lump sum in advance or could be accounted for on an annual basis based on the costs actually incurred year by year; in fact smooth over $150 million over the next five or ten years, which members have said consistently is not an inordinate amount for the government to find in the public accounts right now in our estimates.
I wanted to inform the House that in the sixth report of the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs that was tabled in the House there was a recommendation that was adopted unanimously by the committee, a committee representing all parties in the House.
The motion it adopted reads as follows:
That the committee supports the decision of Veterans Affairs Canada to extend from one year to a lifetime the Veterans Independence Program (VIP) benefits provided to surviving spouses of Veterans who were in receipt of such benefits at the time of their death. However, the members of the committee unanimously agree that the Government should take all possible means to provide lifetime VIP benefits to all qualified surviving spouses, of Veterans receiving such benefits at the time of their death, not just to those now eligible for such benefits following the amendments made in June 2003 to the Veterans Health Care Regulations.
That motion was unanimously carried and reported to the House by the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs.
The House has unanimously spoken about the support we have for extending these benefits: that we do not want two classes of widows and widowers. There is only one veteran and there are widows and widowers, and this place has the will to make this happen. There is no question that the provisions in Bill C-50 have the support of the House and it should pass quickly.
To make the changes necessary to extend the widows' benefits cannot happen in this bill, but it can happen by order in council, because the current regulations provide for that benefit for the widows and widowers who are presently receiving this. I said no on Friday because I wanted to find out whether there was some possible way to make this happen so that the unanimous will of this place, the unanimous will of the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs, could be reflected. There must be a way.
I have talked with the Minister of National Defence. I have talked with the Minister of Finance. I have talked with the Minister of National Revenue. I have talked with a number of other cabinet ministers. I have talked to a number of hon. members in the House. I am sure that the sense is there that these benefits should be extended, that there should be only one class of widows and widowers.
There is, therefore, an indication that we should do something. I believe that there is something that we could do now, that is, we should consider a motion of the House. If there is an accounting problem for $150 million, whether we account for it in one year or over five or ten years, it is an immaterial amount in terms of the public accounts. As for the Auditor General, notwithstanding the prescribed method to account for this, it is not going to lead to any substantive problems with regard to the public accounts. This place could unanimously adopt a motion to concur that notwithstanding what the prescribed accounting treatment would be, the House in fact concurs that the government should account for these additional costs on an annual basis as incurred. In accounting terms, it is referred to as accounting for it on a cash basis rather than an accrual basis.
If we were to adopt such a motion, then the government would have a very clear signal that it is the will not only of the standing committee but of this place, of all parties and all members, to include all widows, to extend it to all so that we do not have two classes of widows.
I cannot say it more clearly. I know that members have spoken passionately about this. I know that there is consent in this place to make it happen. It matters now whether or not it is their political will to make it happen. I believe that a motion such as I have discussed here would give the government a clear message from this House that we want to see these benefits extended.
As a consequence, I would like to seek the unanimous consent of the House to present a motion, which would state, if I might read it into the record so that members would know:
That the House concur that the government extend veteran independence program benefits to all surviving spouses of veterans receiving such benefits at the time of their death, and that the cost be accounted for on a cash basis.
That to me would say to the government that there should be all efforts made to deal with it, whether it be by an accounting adjustment or by other methods as recommended by the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs. There is this will, it is a strong will, and it is unanimous. It is the right thing to do.
Having advised the House of the nature of the motion, I would seek the unanimous consent of the House to move the motion.
Children of Deceased Veterans Education Assistance Act
October 27th, 2003 / 4:35 p.m.
Claude Bachand Saint-Jean, QC
Mr. Speaker, this is the last reading of Bill C-50. I had informed you at second reading that we were in favour of the bill. In committee, we considered the bill properly and we listened to people. We also accelerated the process, because we feared that the session would end prematurely. It seems this will be the case or this is being actively prepared. Ministers have decided to rush some bills through.
The Bloc Quebecois has agreed to deal with this one quickly, even though the bill has many problems. Thus, we will agree with the bill because it does contain many worthwhile provisions. The first thing we must recognize in this regard is that it greatly recognizes veterans and their widows.
We often give all the credit to veterans. However, I do not want to diminish their credit, because they deserve a lot. These are people, like my father, who decided to fight for our freedom, for individuals rights and for democracy. They deserve a lot of credit.
However, the women who stayed behind, in Quebec and in Canada, also deserve a lot of credit. We must always remember that these women were not inactive while their husbands went off to war across the Atlantic. They were the ones who had to keep the war economy going. They made guns, artillery shells and ammunitions so that the men could use them in the theatre of operations. Not only do our veterans deserve a lot of credit, but so do their widows.
There are some positive measures in this bill. First, there is a new definition of the term “veteran”. A recent case surprised a lot of people. A veteran did not have veteran status. He had gone to fight with our forces in a theatre of operations without having ever enlisted.
Therefore, the bill before us today suggests a new definition so that this kind of situation does not happen again. From now on, one will have to have enlisted and have completed one's military service to be considered a veteran. It was not necessarily the case previously.
We can see that the change in the definition is aimed at plugging a loophole that was opened up in court by a veteran, with the help of the justice system. The Federal Court ruled that he had fought with the others and, therefore, had to be considered a veteran. Today, we would not want these situations to happen again. This is why people will have to enlist and complete their military service.
The other aspect of this bill that we find very interesting deals with benefits for children of deceased veterans. This program had been suspended for some time. The amounts were not astronomical at the time. It was $125 a month. The minister decided to reinstate the program so that first generation children of veterans could have the privilege of receiving benefits to help them pay for their studies. This is important. The fully indexed amount has been increased from $125 to $300 a month. With indexation, the benefits will not have to be adjusted by way of regulation or legislation. It will be done automatically.
Another positive measure is the recognition of prisoners of war. The government is increasing compensation for prisoners of war. As we all know, prisoner camps, and in particular Japanese camps since a distinction is made in the bill, were not five-star hotels like the Hilton. Conditions were not that great.
At the time, soldiers were encouraged to escape from concentration camps, not an easy task. Some of them made it. Of course, they are not covered by this bill. But as I said at second reading, even if a prisoner could have seen in a crystal ball that a few more days in a camp would get him a pension, I do not think it would have mattered much. As I said, there was nothing posh about those concentration camps.
Everyone was urged to try to escape as soon as possible. Officers encouraged soldiers to escape because troops were needed to fight the enemy.
So, these benefits are increased. Compensation for prisoners of war held in Japanese camps is further increased because of the horrible conditions in which they were detained.
The Bloc Quebecois supports these improvements. It is a form of recognition, as I said earlier, for those who put not only their lives but also their health on the line, since several of them came back home with very serious injuries.
I am a member of the Canadian Legion in d'Iberville. Many people were hurt, and not only physically. They sustained injuries that were unknown at the time, psychological injuries. Nowadays, we know a bit more about post-traumatic stress syndrome. Everyone has heard about it.
In those days, people who went to war experienced absolutely dreadful situations. Nowadays, the same can be said of people who served, for example, in Bosnia, or those who served in Eritrea and Ethiopia and whom I visited personally. There was a demarcation line between the two camps. However, you could still see horrendous things. You could see bodies sprawled in the mine fields that nobody would retrieve.
I can understand that, even though soldiers are said to be tough and willing to accomplish their mission, they still feel pain when confronted with such a disaster and such a display of inhumanity. It goes against our values.
Here in our democratic regimes, we tend to settle our disputes through discussion. The House of Commons and the Quebec National Assembly are cases in point. Yet in those countries, they are often quick to resort to arms. And the victims are not only the soldiers who bear arms, but women and children, who often have no involvement in the conflict. They are its first victims though.
These people come back from those theatres of operations often physically diminished and psychologically damaged. Even the World War II veterans I meet still find it difficult to talk about the atrocities they witnessed on the battlefields.
The major flaw of the bill before us is what it does not do. I will explain. There are many forgotten ones in the bill. For financial reasons, 23,000 widows have completely been forgotten or left out in the cold by the bill.
It has taken us aback, since the minister had announced on May 12 that he would make legislative and regulatory changes. It so happens that among the legislative changes he wanted to make some had to do with the veterans independence program, which also applies to their widows. We were quite surprised when the minister came out with new background documents in September announcing his bill. Bills always come with briefing notes and background information announcing the forthcoming introduction of a bill at first reading.
At that time, it became obvious that the program would no longer be dealt through legislation. It meant that changes would not be made through amendments to the legislation. In the meantime, it was decided to proceed through regulatory changes.
This caught our attention. I then got out the regulation dated June 18, which says that widows now benefiting from the privilege will be able to benefit from it as long as they stay in their house. The program is for widows to give them help with housekeeping and grounds maintenance.
We understand the legislator's intention to help widows keep their house for quality of life reasons, of course, but also probably for economic reasons. Indeed, when they no longer have a house, they soon end up in long term care.
The problem is that the former program said that, when a veteran died, his widow would benefit from the program for 12 months. After that, she would no longer be eligible for benefits.
So, the minister said, “Those who now benefit from the program, those who have lost their spouse in the last 12 months, will be able to continue to benefit from it”. He forgot all the others. This means that 10,000 widows will continue to benefit from it, and 23,000 will not.
We may also question many things. Among others, my colleague from the Bloc, who deals with status of women issues, was mentioning to me that it would have been interesting to know whether the government has made a gender specific analysis.
I would like to explain this. The Beijing convention, which is a convention for women's rights, provides for certain conventions and treaties. There is one dealing specifically with the obligation of governments, when legislating, to see whether there is a negative impact on women. If the government decides to make legislation for veterans, we should see if the bill would have a negative impact on veterans' widows. In this regard, I am not sure the government has done its homework.
In fact, we do not intend to let off. We think that it is inadmissible that some persons should be told they are eligible and that others should be told they are not. Those who are not eligible have as much merit as the others. They too saw their spouse go off to war. My own mother saw her husband go off to war. She is still alive. She is living in a long term care facility and could not benefit from this allowance. However, if she still lived in her home, she would be told, “We are going to pay for your neighbour, because she lost her husband less than a year ago, but in your case, since you lost yours five or six years ago, you will get nothing”.
Understandably, some of these widows are coming to see members of Parliament. Some came to me and said, “This is unacceptable. Why am I not eligible? My husband went off to war. Other widows are eligible, why not me?” That is when we started looking into the matter and found out that 23,000 widows were not eligible.
Why are they not eligible? The minister is trying to explain that this money came from a reallocation within the department. Some $69 million was reallocated. A senior official of his department told us in a briefing, “Had we made all of them eligible, it would have cost $200 million, whereas all that could be reallocated was $69 million”. What happened is that they made a regulatory change that no one knew about. On June 18, cabinet met and decided that all those who benefited from the program at that time would continue to benefit from it as long as they lived in their homes, until they entered a long term care facility.
This means that those who no longer benefited from the program are no longer eligible. One can understand the position of a government that says it cannot afford to pay. However, there are other means available to the minister, and it would seem that he did not take advantage of these means. For instance, supplementary estimates were recently approved; that is more money ministers ask for in their respective budgets.
Why has the minister not said that he would like to have more money for his department and point out that he cannot say to 10,000 women that they are eligible for benefits under a program and to 23,000 others that they are not eligible? But it seems that he did not do that. The Prime Minister himself is said to have made a commitment to settle this issue. However, time is running out because, if the House adjourns on November 7, I am not sure that justice will be done to these women. This is one of the problems that we have right now. We should settle this issue tomorrow night, since we will be voting on a motion in which we are asking for a permanent solution to the problem, which would be for the Prime Minister to leave office and let someone else take his place. Then we will be able to continue our work and deal with the kind of issue that we have before us today, one that creates an injustice for many veterans' widows.
When we know that the government had a $13 billion surplus last year, we cannot help but wonder where that money is going. It is used to pay down the debt. Is the government dealing with the everyday problems of those people who really need help? No, it is not dealing with problems faced by the unemployed; on the contrary, it has reduced access to EI benefits. It is not dealing with problems faced by the elderly; in my riding, we are still looking for 800 to 1,000 elderly people because they are entitled to the guaranteed income supplement but have not been told.
The government could—and I agree that it would take $100 million in additional funds—ease the plight of these 23,000 women who have been left to fend for themselves. The Bloc Quebecois does not really understand why ordinary people are given such a low priority. I am sick of seeing people in Quebec City and in Ottawa always doing things for the millionaire club. They are not left to fend for themselves.
The future prime minister, the hon. member for LaSalle—Émard, has probably received government contracts totalling $15 million. But he is not someone who collects welfare. Why is it that it is always the better-off classes who benefit, and people who really need it, including those widows with annual incomes of $10,000 per year, are forgotten? They are left in the dark, while someone promises to try to get their problems solved. That is not enough for us.
The Liberal Party promises that it will now make an effort to compensate the 23,000 widows it had overlooked. In the meanwhile, some of them do not have the money and truly need it. Unfortunately, they will have to do without.
In short, we are extremely disappointed at the way things have turned out for these women. They are being deprived of their quality of life. I know that in my riding we found 200 people who were entitled to the guaranteed income supplement. When they were told they were entitled to it, and then they received it, they got $2,000 more each year, per person.
Just imagine what these senior citizens can do with $2,000. They are able to go to restaurants a bit more often, give little presents to their grandchildren, things they could not do before. It enables them to enjoy a better quality of life; perhaps they can live in a nicer apartment or perhaps buy more clothes—things they could not do before.
And it would be the same for these widows. If we could give them this amount, they would derive great benefit from it, and that is without counting the economic spinoffs in every riding.
We have just had a press conference about the goose that lays the golden eggs for the hon. member for LaSalle—Émard. I refer to the employment insurance fund. It deprives the riding of Saint-Jean of $34 million a year.
As for the senior citizens, if we found those 800 people in the riding of Saint-Jean, we would have recurring economic spinoffs of $2.5 million per year in our riding. That gets to be quite a large amount of money. There are between 100 and 200 veterans' widows who cannot qualify at this time, for the reasons I have just outlined.
People are being denied quality of life. And all the ridings in Canada are being denied economic benefits. Again, where will these women go? They will go to long term care facilities, which are under provincial jurisdiction and the provinces will have to foot the bill. In terms of transfers, again, the federal government pays no more than 14¢ for every dollar spent on health services.
It is a downward spiral and the provinces are increasingly choked by the services they have to provide. Ottawa is passing the buck. It clings to a fiscal imbalance vis-à-vis the provinces and rakes in surpluses. In the area of health alone, the Minister of Finance announced last week a $7 billion surplus. The provinces said, “Great, that is extraordinary. You told us that if you had more than $5 billion you could give us $2 billion of it”. The minister changed his mind a few days later and said he had miscalculated and that he may have spoken too soon. In the end it was a $3 billion surplus.
In other words, the minister could tell the provinces he is not going to give them their $2 billion. The federal government will continue to contribute 14¢ for every dollar, while the provinces contribute 86¢ and have to fend for themselves.
There is a great deal of injustice in most of these cases. In the one before us, there is even more. Many women do not understand how the federal government could abandon them. Many women say, “My husband went overseas. He benefited from the program. Now that he has passed away, I should be entitled to the program for more than 12 months like others are, but I am being told no”.
As I said, we are going to maintain our support for the bill because it contains positive things. Nonetheless, as we proved in asking the question today, we will not forget the fact that 23,000 widows have been left out in the cold and we will defend them. They are being treated unfairly and we will do everything we can to try to correct this injustice.
Children of Deceased Veterans Education Assistance Act
October 24th, 2003 / 1:15 p.m.
Peter Stoffer Sackville—Musquodoboit Valley—Eastern Shore, NS
Mr. Speaker, it gives me great pleasure to speak on behalf of the federal New Democratic Party in this very worthwhile debate. Any time is a good time to speak about veterans and their families.
I want to congratulate the minister as well the parliamentary secretary and the government for moving ahead with Bill C-50. We in the NDP support many aspects of the bill unequivocally.
As has been heard during previous debate in the House, there is one very serious flaw with the legislation. Is it money or is it the regulations in the legislation? It is probably a combination of both.
I do not think the government can be so cruel that it would intentionally leave out some widows or widowers. At the same time, it cannot hide behind budgetary remarks or legislative remarks. If the government has the will, with the full support I would assume of many of its own members as well as those in the four opposition parties and the support of many veterans organizations and their families, then there should be a way of moving the issue forward so all of them are protected under the same umbrella.
If the Prime Minister of Canada can, in record speed, allocate $100 million for two jets that even the defence department has said are not necessary, then surely he or the future prime minister can easily make it happen. I do not care what they have to do, but they have to make it happen so all widow and widowers are under the same umbrella. There is no reason in the world why it cannot be done.
We on this side of the House are encouraging the government to proceed with this legislation. It has our full support. Opposition's basic role is to oppose that which is worthy of opposition. However, we will support legislation brought forward by the government that is proactive as is Bill C-50. Many parts of this legislation are worthy of support and worthy of rapid approval to get this through the House.
The reality is all of us in opposition and many members on the government side have noticed a serious flaw in Bill C-50.
I know Mr. Cliff Chadderton quite well and he is not easily prone to asking ministers to resign. Out of pure frustration and out of what I would assume is anger, he has felt the need to do so. I would not want to see the minister resign because he is a decent human being and his heart and his efforts are in the right place. If he resigned, we would have to wait quite a while for the next veterans affairs minister. Then we would have to go through this debate all over again. We cannot ask the minister to do something and then at the same time ask him to resign. That is defeating our own argument. The minister should stay right where he is and a general election will clear up any problems in the future.
The present minister can do this if there is a will within Treasury Board or the finance department or if the Prime Minister says that is should happen.
In my riding of Sackville--Musquodoboit Valley--Eastern Shore, approximately one-third of my constituents are either in the military, or have retired from the military or are associated with the military in a civilian capacity. These people are constantly calling me on various issues with regard to the military.
There is no question that all of us would like to have more money to do all the things we would like to do. I know the government has to work within fiscal frameworks, but there are certain times when the obvious slaps us on the head.
The obvious situation in this regard is those of the widowers. Many people who are not even in the military have called my office and asked what is going on. They have asked why the Prime Minister has said that he can correct this deficiency and we are still debating it today in the House.
Symbolically, November 11 is coming down the pike. It is what I would call almost a holy day in Canada when we take the time to seriously reflect upon those who have gone before us in terms of defence of freedom and democracy. It was not just the soldiers, airmen, merchant mariners and sailors who fought for our freedoms and victories. What about the people who stayed home, kept the home fires burning and kept the families going?
Those men and women of the military, past, present and those yet to join, pay the ultimate price. They are willing to put their lives on the line to protect us. It does not just affect them, but their families as well. Many of us in Nova Scotia and the rest of Canada sometimes wear what we call the invisible ribbon. That is the invisible fourth arm of the military, the families.
The parliamentary secretary knows very well the great job our military family resource centres do across the country, looking after many of the situations that we are discussing right now, many situations that we hope Bill 50 will correct. However there is one glaring omission. The military family resource centres know very well what this will mean if it is not corrected.
I give credit to the previous admirals, generals and people who made the military family resource centres a very prominent aspect of our military life. I give credit to the previous defence minister who accepted many recommendations in the report of the Standing Committee on Defence and Veterans Affairs on the quality of life. My previous colleague, Mr. Gordon Earle of Halifax West, worked on it with others. The government accepted many initiatives from that. Thus we are, albeit quite slowly in my opinion, improving the quality of life for veterans and their families as well as current military personnel.
We cannot forget the ones who were here before us. When individuals in the military lay their lives on the line and those lives are unfortunately taken, then, as members of Parliament on all sides, we have to ensure that we respect and accept the ultimate responsibility to those individuals and their families. That responsibility is to ensure that when members of the military go overseas or do their duties in the country, if they die because of their actions or their duty, their families will not have to fight with the government to get proper benefits.
Individuals in the military have to worry about their own training and defensive capabilities in order to promote peace and security around the world. The last thing they need is the lingering thought in the back of their minds is if their families will be okay if they are not. That should not even be debatable.
This is something we can correct. I know the parliamentary secretary, himself being a decent individual, would want this corrected. There is nothing stopping him and his colleagues from going to the Prime Minister when he gets back from his trip and telling him they need this corrected now.
The parliamentary secretary and colleagues could explain it to the Prime Minister in their next Wednesday caucus meeting if they have to, but they should get it done. All we are asking is that it get done. Then we will stand up and sing the praises of the government's in this regard. There are many other issues on which we would not. However it is extremely imperative that this be done.
In closing, I thank all the opposition members and those on the government side who have brought this issue forward. I also thank Mr. Cliff Chadderton and all the organizations that have brought this issue forward in defence of veterans and their families.
Children of Deceased Veterans Education Assistance Act
October 24th, 2003 / 1:10 p.m.
Rick Borotsik Brandon—Souris, MB
Mr. Speaker, that is probably one of the easiest softball questions I have ever had. It sounds like a Liberal asking a question to a minister during question period.
The answer to the question is obvious. Yes, of course, let us get the assurances from the Minister of Veterans Affairs. Let us get the assurances from the finance minister. Let us ensure that the regulations will be amended, rewritten properly and that they will incorporate these forgotten few. That is all there is to it. It is a no-brainer. I guess that is why Canadians maybe a little cynical about politics right now.
The member for Mississauga South said that it was an oversight, that the legislation was meant to come forward to take care of these issues. Maybe and maybe not. Maybe it is a simple thing like money that the parliamentary secretary has put on the table at the present time. Maybe it was not meant to be funded. Maybe with the pressure that is being applied currently by the veterans themselves, veterans organizations, the opposition, and for that matter, very conscientious members of the backbench of the government has forced the hand of the Minister of Veterans Affairs in a positive way.
Yes, let us ensure we have those assurances. I have said at the onset that we will not be voting against Bill C-50. There is too much good in the bill to stop it. That is not the intention. The intention is to fix what is wrong in the bill and if that is the way we can do it, then by all means the member for Mississauga South will have our support in ensuring that takes place.
Children of Deceased Veterans Education Assistance Act
October 24th, 2003 / 1:10 p.m.
Paul Szabo Mississauga South, ON
Mr. Speaker, I do not know of anybody in this place that is not supportive of Bill C-50.
The problematic issue comes down to a matter which happens to be buried in the regulations. I do not know how it was allowed to stay there when, in fact, members of the House were seeking to bring the spirit and the intent of the act as it existed, and incorporate it into the act and not leave that information buried in regulations. It is really unfortunate that it is there.
I do not believe that even the Senate has the authority to make the amendments because it has to do with money matters. I would have to inform myself a little bit more about the purview or the scope of the Senate.
It would appear that the best that we can do now, and I wonder if the member would agree, and not risk losing the rest of the bill, is to collectively make the sincere representation to the minister and cabinet to amend the regulation to provide benefits to all widows.
Children of Deceased Veterans Education Assistance Act
October 24th, 2003 / 12:50 p.m.
Rick Borotsik Brandon—Souris, MB
Mr. Speaker, I rise on behalf of the Progressive Conservative Party and my caucus colleague the member for Saint John who sits on the national defence and veterans affairs committee. I will represent her but certainly not in the capacity that she could have spoken to the bill.
I do not think there is anyone in the House who would disagree that she passionately supports and defends the rights of veterans as well as the military. She has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that if there is anyone in the House who has the feel for what is happening in the veterans portfolio and certainly with the widows of those veterans, she is certainly the one who could put forward a very passionate plea to the government.
I am a poor stand-in but I will attempt to put our position forward. I hope to convince the government that it has an obligation, a right and a responsibility to change Bill C-50, if not in the legislation, then in the regulations as was explained by the minister this morning. And if it is not changed in the regulations and the legislation, then perhaps it should be fixed when the bill comes back from the Senate. There is an opportunity to sit down with the Senate and negotiate the necessary changes that could fix the injustice that has been articulated by previous speakers.
There is always good and there is always bad in any piece of legislation. However, the omission in this legislation is not only good or bad, it is repugnant. It is targeting a portion of our society that we should be assisting in their years of retirement. We should be providing those individuals with the VIP pension benefits. We should be showing them some respect for the sacrifices they have made and the losses they have experienced on our behalf.
There is good and there is bad. There is no question that Bill C-50 should go forward. We know full well that we would not want to stand in opposition to the bill because there is an opportunity to correct some wrongs in it. However, when the minister stood today and recognized that there is this sad omission, I did not feel confident that the minister would be able to correct it.
I do not have to explain the situation as it has been done before. However, for the purposes of those people who may be joining us just now, the problem is there is a large group of individuals who are excluded simply because of an arbitrary date that has been chosen in this legislation. I said a large group of individuals because I heard that the number is 23,000 but today the minister today said that he does not know. He does not know what the number is. He has to get confirmation of the number before he can actually mention what the number is. That is fair ball. I am okay with that.
Let us assume that the number is 23,000 plus or minus a few. The minister is not prepared to make that commitment to those 23,000 individuals because of an arbitrary date.
There is a mirror image here by the way. The mirror image is the hepatitis C compensation package that was put forward by the government. Maybe there is a model that the Liberals follow. Maybe there is a manual that is put in front of ministers. Maybe they are told that they have to follow this model which makes some people second class citizens and treats others not as second class citizens.
That model is that there is an arbitrary date. That date is May 12, 2003. Before that date those 23,000 people would have obtained these benefits but one day after that date those people do not obtain those benefits. It is not fair. It is not equitable. It is not right.
Quite frankly, we have to make sure that it is equitable, that it is made proper and that it is made right. The way to do that, as has been suggested in a number of fashions, is to change the regulations. Now I hear that maybe it is not just the regulations. Maybe it is not just the legislation. Maybe it is not just a change from the Senate coming forward. Maybe it is a matter of money.
Twenty-three thousand people are being excluded from this. I am told that the dollar amounts may well be anywhere from $23 million to $40 million. It is a lot of money, make no mistake about that, but it is not a substantial amount of money that the people excluded should not take advantage of it.
We have heard that there is ample opportunity for the government to find $43 million or $23 million. As a matter of fact, as I understand it, if we take the lower number, the Governor General spends more than that on an annual budget. I believe that the Governor General, because of her position in our society, should certainly have the ability to have funding. But I also agree that the widows of veterans or the widowers should have the ability to achieve a certain standard of living and a certain level of independence. To not allow that $23 million or $43 million to flow to those individuals in my estimation would be tragedy and a travesty for the government.
Maybe would could look at some of the areas to save that $23 million to $43 million. I think it is there. We are told there is a budget surplus.
However, it may not be money. If it is not money, then the minister must tell us what it is because I did not get an answer to my question.
I have a lot respect for the Minister of Veterans Affairs. He is a fellow Manitoban. I believe he is here for the right reasons and he does what he does for the right reasons. The problem, however, is that perhaps he does not have the influence to put proper legislation forward right now to correct a tragedy and a wrong.
Maybe the minister should get cooperation from his backbenches because I know there are many backbenchers in the government right now who support making this equitable and right. Maybe he should get that support to go forward with the regulations and come to this House today, tomorrow or next week and say he has taken the recommendation and has found the necessary money and, in fact, those 23,000 people will be looked after the way they should be.
There are others who agree with me. There are people who have sent letters to the minister and suggested he resign. Frankly, I do not subscribe to that. I believe that the minister should do what is right. He should fight for the veterans and their widows and widowers as one of his last duties in this House, as his last duty perhaps as a member of Parliament. We do not know. We may going into another election.
He should do what he believes in his heart is right. I believe, in his heart, he is concerned about those people, but unfortunately, he has not delivered. Not to deliver is not doing a job properly. Let us give him the opportunity to make that change and do it properly.
We are approaching Remembrance Day in the not too distant future. As a matter of fact, I have a poppy which is not a prop. I was told poppies can be worn only at a certain time. It is not true that we should not consider what the poppy really represents and what we as Canadians should consider when we consider our veterans and our military.
I can speak from experience. I have a Canadian Forces base in my riding. I can put faces to the people that are responsible for what we wish them to do in the military. We send them to Afghanistan and other areas throughout the globe on our behalf, and they do it willingly. Members of our military are the most professional individuals of any military anywhere in the world and they carry our flag on their arms with pride.
The reason why I mention the poppy and the military is because sometimes, other than November 11, we have a tendency to forget exactly what it is that they provide Canadians. Unfortunately, that is what is being reflected in this legislation. We are forgetting a segment of that military dependency and it is not in the best interest of Canadians.
I suggest that the legislation go forward because it is a good small step in the right direction. However, within the next month or so--if it will be that long that we are in the House and because it involves a small number of people--the minister should find out what that number is and the financial implication. He should then return to the House and tell us that either the change has been made in the regulations or that it will be fixed in the Senate when it comes forward.
It would make me very happy. It would make the Royal Canadian Legion and the widows of veterans very happy. It would make Canadians in general extremely happy to have this terrible injustice fixed. When that happens, we would all congratulate the government and certainly the minister for a job well done. All the calls for his resignation would be moot at that point, as well they should.
On behalf of my colleague who sits on the committee, who fights as hard as she possibly can for the rights of military personnel and veterans, I would suggest that the sitting backbenchers of the current government let their voices be heard and that they cooperate with the minister.
By the way, this should not be so difficult. The Prime Minister is already on record saying that he will fix this problem. Well, he is leaving soon, we think, but I do not think anybody knows just when. I do not even think the backbenchers in the Liberal Party know when, but he has said he will leave and he has said that he will fix this problem.
With his support and the support of backbenchers, and certainly with the Minister of Veterans Affairs having his heart in the right place, this should not even be an issue. This should simply be a slam dunk. The government should be able to come to the House next week and say that the problem is fixed and it is really happy to have fixed the problem.
I congratulate the government for going forward on that basis and I certainly wait with anticipation to hear that it has fixed this terrible injustice to the VIP benefits. I wish government members the best of luck in their deliberations in the not too distant future.
Children of Deceased Veterans Education Assistance Act
October 24th, 2003 / 12:25 p.m.
Mario Laframboise Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, QC
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-50. This is a very important debate for the future of the support programs, including that for widows and widowers. Because there are more and more women in the Canadian Forces, there will be an increasing number of veterans' widowers who will be entitled to certain benefits.
The advantage of this bill was that it would make certain improvements to the existing program. That was the goal. Obviously, we all would have liked to see the improvements to the existing program made in the right order and with respect for all the people, all the women and men who become the widows and widowers of veterans. But this was not what happened.
For instance, there is a very specific program that provides support to veterans to give them help with housekeeping and grounds maintenance. It has been a much appreciated program, so much so that many requests were made by widows and widowers, because it was a time-limited program. The veterans who qualified for this program could have help with household tasks and grounds maintenance, and it would continue for one year after the death of the veteran.
Therefore, the majority of surviving spouses can receive this allowance under the veteran's independence program. The program goal is clear from the title. Its purpose was to provide veterans suffering from health problems due to war wounds, for example, with assistance so they could remain independent and continue to live at home and take care of their property. Those unable to do so were entitled to assistance under the veteran's independence program.
This program provided an allowance for housework. As a result, this meant someone could be hired to do the housework or yard work. This program took care of that. Under the old rules, once a veteran died, the surviving spouse could continue to receive this allowance for one year.
Obviously, if veterans were no longer able to do this work while still alive, it was quite logical to cut off this allowance one year after their death. The need was there, it was urgent while the veteran was alive and then, after one year, the need suddenly disappears.
There were long discussions, great debates and the program was amended. Everyone in the House wanted this program to be provided on a permanent basis. Therefore, when a veteran receiving this allowance died, the surviving spouse would be entitled to it for life. That was the objective.
Once again, when the regulatory changes were made, for purely budgetary reasons, one entire portion of the program for surviving spouses of veterans was shelved. A cut-off date was introduced. Surviving spouses of veterans who have died within a certain period of time could benefit from this program for life, and those no longer receiving this allowance would not be entitled to it.
All the complicated explanations from the minister or the Liberal members make no sense whatsoever.
A person either is or is not a veteran's widow. This bill and the regulations create two categories of widows.
Some will be entitled to the program for life, while others will not be entitled to it at all. Here, I am talking about those who are no longer entitled to it. Those who were subject to the previous legislation and received benefits for a year and complained, the widows who received nothing or lost this assistance after a year. They are the ones who put pressure on the government, explaining that the reason their spouse received benefits from this program was that they were unable to take care of their home.
The program's objective is to help veterans live independently. It is only normal that in our society, our veterans, those who fought for us and defended us, at least have their independence. That was the objective.
Several widows and widowers felt that the program was completely unacceptable. They wondered why they were getting benefits for only one year. The government, in its wisdom, has decided to study and analyze the program and say yes to all those who complained about it ending one year after the veteran's death.
The government says that, effective May 12, 2003, widows of veterans who were entitled to the program will receive benefits for life. However, people complained for 10 or 20 years, and said that the program was worthwhile and important. They used the program because they were unable to be independent at home. These are the people who managed to move this issue forward. Yet, because the government was short of funds, it decided to deny benefits to widows whose husbands had passed away before May 12, 2003. In fact it is May 12, 2002, because those who had been receiving benefits from the program since May 12, 2003 would continue to do so for life.
According to the figures available to us, benefits are being eliminated for 23,000 surviving spouses, mostly widows. Often these women are the ones who fought to obtain the program. They are the ones who led the battle to let the government know it made no sense to provide assistance for a year and then do away with the program. Loss of their husbands has meant the loss of their independence. They are often compelled to sell their homes because they cannot carry out housework and yard work. Yet the specific purpose of this program was to provide veterans and their spouses with peace of mind. That was the reality.
We agree with the new measure whereby, after the death of a veteran, his or her surviving spouse could go on living as before. We support the measure, but what we do not support is the regulations setting a cutoff date. It will, according to our estimate, make 23,000 widows ineligible for the program.
The minister has criticized members for stating in the House that certain people would no longer be on the list. He is the one who drew up this new list. It encompasses the surviving spouses of veterans effective May 12, 2003 or 2002, depending on the technical calculations.
He is the one who drew up the list, and some people will no longer have any entitlement. What is even more serious, I repeat, is that these are the people who fought for this program to be maintained, the people who have been trying for decades to get the government to understand the objective of the VIP program. Its purpose is precisely to allow veterans' families to remain in their homes in peace.
This is a serious matter. We will be told that care must be taken because of the money involved. I will spare hon. members a repeat of all the money the government has wasted. There has been plenty of media coverage, and plenty of reference in this House to all the scandals and overspending in all departments, not to mention the constant surplus, which they underestimate in order not to have any money left for the provinces. We are told that the surplus will not be more than $3 billion, yet in the end the figure is said to be $7 billion.
It is not true that there is no money. It is a matter of putting money in the right place. That is the reality. What the opposition wabts is simple. There is a good veterans independence program in place, and wives, widows and a number of widowers have been requesting for decades that it be maintained indefinitely so that veterans' widows and widowers can continue to enjoy the same quality of life they enjoyed when their spouse was with them.
I repeat that not all veterans were eligible for this program, only those who were unable to look after their housekeeping or groundkeeping for any number of reasons, be it health reasons, war injuries or what not.
Again, this is an indication that the Liberal government is not spending wisely. We could give a long list of examples of departmental expenditures. Departments could be told to start putting money in the right place. Compensation should be provided to these 23,000 widows and widowers. We in the Bloc Quebecois sincerely believe that this would be spending the taxpayers' money wisely.
This is the simple rationale we are trying to get across to the government. The bill contains many other measures to improve the situation of veterans, former POWs and others. In that respect, we agree. We are also pleased that there was broad consultation on this bill.
The only problem is that no one has ever held consultations saying that a cutoff date would be introduced for the veteran's independence program and that there would be two categories of surviving spouses: those who lost their spouse prior to May 12, 2003, and those who lost their spouse after that date.
It is wrong to say that it was discussed. The minister is saying that broad consultations were held. However, all the stakeholders challenge this. We cannot have two categories of surviving spouses. But that is what the government is doing today.
The minister can insist all he wants that he is trying to find solutions, but there are none. The only solution is for all the surviving spouses of veterans to be entitled to the veteran's independence program. That is the only solution. No other solution is possible. The minister wants discussions, but about what? Does he want to move back the date from May 12, 2003, to May 12, 2000, or 1990?
There are no other solutions. The only solution is to put the money on the table to ensure that all the surviving spouses of veterans are entitled to this assistance program. That is the only possible answer.
The minister would have us believe that he is not hesitating, but he is. There is no other alternative. Thinking that an opposition member would rise in this place to set a new cutoff date or to exclude widows and widowers is wrong.
The solution is for the minister—that is what a responsible minister would do—to move an amendment to his own bill. He would have to admit that he made a glaring error in setting a cutoff date that creates two categories of widows and widowers of veterans, and to eliminate it. There is no way that this date should be maintained and that two categories of widows and widowers of veterans should be created.
That is all we are expecting from the Liberal government. At the end of the day, that is all we are expecting from all the Liberal members who will rise in this House to speak to Bill C-50. Do not tell us that efforts are being made to find a solution. We want to hear that the bill is fair to all widows and widowers of veterans.
That is the only outcome the opposition, and the Bloc Quebecois in particular, expects. Why? Because all widows and widowers of veterans are entitled to the same quality of life they enjoyed when their spouse was alive. It is as simple as that. It is a matter of quality of life and humanity, no more no less.
The problem is that the government side is not listening; it does not want to listen. Once again, the minister is trying to hide and to have us believe that he is not hesitating. He is boasting about being able to clearly communicate such a simple idea. The questions opposition members put to him all boiled down to this: Will you make money available so that all widows and widowers of veterans have access to the same program? That is what they were asking him.
The minister tried his best not to answer the question. The bottom line, as we know, is a budget issue. We are told that there is no money for these 23,000 widows and widowers who lost their wife or husband before May 12, 2003. That is the reality.
With the federal government surpluses, cost overruns, everything that happens in the public service, and the money the Liberal government has wasted, we do not believe there is no money for this. We believe it is simply a matter of the minister not wanting to spend that money. He habe better not try to make us believe that veterans and groups have sent him letters of thanks.
I would say that indeed, important provisions have been included in this bill. However, there is no reason for having two categories of spouses of deceased veterans.
We must be careful. We have to be able to talk about what is good in this bill, but also agree on what does not work in this bill.
The Liberal government must move calmly and gently. Moreover, all the Liberal members in this House should sit down with the Minister for Veterans Affairs and tell him that the money will have to be found and ask him to pressure the Minister of Finance to do so.
Before this bill is passed, he will be able to tell us that it will be amended and that we will guarantee all the spouses of deceased veterans that the veterans independence program will be maintained so that they can continue to enjoy the quality of life they had before their spouse's death.
That is all the Bloc Quebecois is asking for.