Evidence of meeting #12 for Veterans Affairs in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was million.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

  • Suzanne Tining  Deputy Minister, Department of Veterans Affairs
  • Keith Hillier  Assistant Deputy Minister, Service Delivery, Department of Veterans Affairs

8:50 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Greg Kerr

Good morning.

Minister, we'd never rush you. I think it's important that you circulate, so we'll add a minute or two there.

Good morning, everybody. We do have a quorum. This morning we're very pleased to have Minister Blaney join us, along with Deputy Minister Suzanne Tining and other staff representatives, I think. I saw a couple of them earlier. We've very pleased to have you here. As you know, when we're through, obviously we're going to have a couple votes on the supplementary estimates that we have to report back to the House.

As you know, witnesses are encouraged to stay within the 10-minute parameter. We'll try to keep to that, and then we'll go to the questions.

Thank you for coming this morning.

November 22nd, 2011 / 8:50 a.m.

Lévis—Bellechasse
Québec

Conservative

Steven Blaney Minister of Veterans Affairs

Thank you for welcoming me to your committee, Mr. Speaker.

Good morning, everyone. It is an immense pleasure to be here.

This is the first time I've had the privilege of appearing before a committee as the minister, and I couldn't wish for a better audience than parliamentarians who are responsible for taking care of our veterans and their families. I'll make my remarks and then I'll be pleased to answer your questions.

Since I was appointed to the Cabinet in May, I have had the privilege of becoming more familiar with our department's mission, through many meetings with these men and women who give the mission its meaning and a very human face. In many ways, these interactions are a particularly enriching human experience, and often very emotional. By developing an understanding for our veterans and their families of our programs and services, I have also been able to take stock of the mandate of my predecessors, the honourable Jean-Pierre Blackburn and the honourable Greg Thompson, and of their outstanding achievements for our veterans.

Whether it was in Canada or abroad, our veterans are a source of boundless pride for our country. Our government is committed to honouring their services to our country, and Veterans Affairs Canada is going about this in many ways.

I would like to start by congratulating the members of this committee for your work in general, and particularly for your commemoration study. As you know, we are entering the 2014-2018 era, which marks the centennial of the First World War. This historical commemorative period will culminate in 2017, the 150th anniversary of Canadian confederation, and also the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, which is an extremely strong moment in our military and Canadian history. This is why I am eager to have your recommendations about the commemoration.

As you know, the first objective of our department is to provide services and benefits geared to the needs of our veterans and their families, while etching the memory of their achievements and sacrifices in the minds of all Canadians. Most of the programs to do this are quasi-statutory. So the government must provide the financial resources necessary to administer these funds, and the Treasury Board ensures that the department can continue to offer these benefits.

I would like to say very clearly this morning that we will always have the necessary funds to provide our Canadian Forces members, veterans, and their families with the care and support they need. As well, I would also like to take this opportunity this morning, because some of you have expressed concerns, to say that veterans' benefits will be maintained.

I know Assistant Deputy Minister Keith Hillier said this very clearly in his appearance before the committee just a few weeks ago. Rest assured that our government will provide our veterans with the support they need when they need it. Indeed, Veterans Affairs Canada's budget has consistently increased over the past five years. Several significant accomplishments, which we are very proud of, have resulted from these increases. Aside from offering our veterans and their families the support they need, our government has made significant investments in our veterans.

Up front, we have implemented the new Veterans Charter, which we all know was supported by all sides of the House. Just recently, I announced significant enhancements to the new Veterans Charter. These changes mean a total investment of $189 million over the next five years, and $2 billion over the life of the program. The investment will ensure that the support will be available to our veterans, whether today or in the future. More than 33,000 veterans and their family members have received support through the new Veterans Charter. We also established a Veterans Bill of Rights and created the position of veterans ombudsman, all of which are contributing to the well-being of our nation's heroes. I reported the Veterans Ombudsman's report just last week.

I would also like to mention this morning that I'm accompanied by Suzanne Tining, our deputy minister. For the second hour, she will be joined by Associate Deputy Minister Keith Hillier.

So the government acknowledges the sacrifices that our veterans have made, and we will continue to work on their behalf.

Let's talk now about the Supplementary Estimates (B), which is why I'm here today. This year, this budget means an increase of $64.3 million in the 2011-2012 budget for the department, which will total $3.5934 billion, an increase of 1.8%. This funding will be used for important initiatives, for improvements to the New Veterans Charter, for increased support with respect to case management for veterans who have been seriously injured and their families, and for the new community war memorial program, which was implemented in October.

The 2011-2012 budget reflects a demographic reality that the Department of Veterans Affairs needs to adapt to. In fact, it's the biggest challenge we have to face as a department. Right now, many of our veterans of the Second World War or the Korean War have reached a venerable age. After honouring our country with their dedication and courage, these people, who are dwindling in number, are still very active. Among other things, I'm thinking of what I saw on Sunday two weeks ago in Lévis. Actually, veteran and pilot Jean Cauchy, a prisoner during the Second World War, still proudly attends these ceremonies. He trains and stays in shape. Our priority is to ensure that he benefits from all the programs and services he needs.

Last year, for the first time, the number of modern-day Canadian Forces veterans who are receiving services from our department was higher than the number of traditional war veterans. The average age of a modern-day Canadian Forces veteran is 58, while the average age of a traditional war veteran is 88. Over the last three years, the number of traditional war veterans and their relatives has, sadly, decreased. Over the next five years, it is predicted that the number of traditional war veterans could diminish as well, by approximately 40%. During the same period, the number of Canadian Forces veterans is predicted to grow by 24%. So the picture is that, in 2015, there will be three modern-day veterans for every traditional veteran, if our projections are accurate.

Therefore, on the one hand we must continue to meet the needs of our traditional clients, and on the other hand face the often more diverse and complex needs of a new generation of veterans. This naturally has an impact on the department's projected expenditures. We must spend judiciously and where there is the most need.

So our programs are evolving and meet specific needs, particularly in the areas of mental health, family support, and homeless veterans. They also respond to concerns about increased efficiency. In other words, we have to do things better and more quickly than in the past. That's why, in order to simplify the lives of our veterans, we have started to simplify our policies and programs and are making important progress in this respect.

We are listening to our veterans. They have said they want a more hassle-free service. We are delivering on that by providing them with quicker service and cutting cumbersome red tape.

We have also strengthened our partnership ties with the Department of National Defence in order to provide care to Canadian Forces members who have been wounded or are ill and their families. We will continue to jointly focus our efforts on the well-being of wounded individuals. We will conduct early intervention to encourage a smooth transition upon discharge from the Canadian Forces to civilian life for our military members and their families.

We also intend to strengthen our ties with the organizations that are working to improve our veterans' quality of life. Of course, we have made significant improvements in the New Veterans Charter, and we will make sure that the people who benefit from it are better informed.

This new charter is the first step in a series of fundamental changes that aims to modernize the benefits and programs intended for our veterans and wounded or ill members of the Canadian Forces. It includes disability benefits and, upon release, the rehabilitation program, financial benefits, and the health care program. This program is also fit to meet the needs of our military personnel returning from Afghanistan.

Veterans Affairs Canada has a toll-free help line available upon release. It's open 24 hours a day to provide veterans and their families with access to short-term professional counselling services.

The new Veterans Charter has been in place since 2006. It aims to care for the men and women it concerns in a more complete and compassionate manner.

On October 3, four major improvements took place: an increase in the monthly financial allowance under the earning loss benefit, bringing it to a minimum of $40,000; improved admissibility to the permanent impairment allowance; a new monthly supplement of $1,000 to the permanent impairment allowance, intended for the most severely wounded veterans; and flexible payment options for veterans who receive a disability award.

Of course, we don't claim that the new, improved charter will meet all the needs and resolve all the problems faced by our veterans. We know that it is always possible to do better, and that is why we have been firmly committed to this for six years. Since the new charter is an evolving document, the contribution of everyone involved is essential to improve it and, of course, your work as members of the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs is precious in this regard.

I repeat, our department's primary mission is to better serve the men and women covered under the new charter and their families. We intend to do so more effectively, quicker and in a more modern way. This priority is not just the priority of the institution or of myself, but of everyone who works in our department.

We are listening to our veterans, but also to the employees of Veterans Affairs Canada, whose contribution is important. In order to find new ways of operating and to improve the way we deliver our services, the people at the department are involved. I can tell you, this approach is working.

We want to serve veterans and their families and, of course, promote the commemorative activities. We just went through a particularly moving Veterans' Week. Activities were held across the country and commemorative activities were carried out in all our communities with assistance from the community engagement partnership fund.

As I mentioned, your committee is currently carrying out a study on commemorative activities and ways to increase the participation of young Canadians. Many initiatives spearheaded by our department are heading in the same direction, and I'm sure you have had positive comments on the advertising campaign that was held by the department, “I Am A Veteran”. We are getting very good comments on it.

We are also on Facebook and YouTube, and we've developed applications to be able to reach out to a new generation to embrace new and innovative techniques to help our fellow citizens become aware of the importance of commemoration.

Mr. Chair, I don't have quite enough time, but I hope I am getting to the conclusion.

We need to raise Canadians' awareness of an historic reality that too often goes unrecognized.

One thing I realized as a minister, and I will close on this, is that the sacrifice of those men and women has really shaped this country. That's why, as parliamentarians, as a government, and as a nation we have a duty to serve our veterans in the best way we can.

I'll now be more than pleased to answer your questions as I seek your support for additional funding to get our program through within the current year.

Thank you.

9 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Greg Kerr

Thank you very much, Mr. Minister. I will point out that we are always very generous to our witnesses because we want to make sure that we hear all of the information that's going to be provided. So thank you for that.

We'll now go to Mr. Stoffer for the first five minutes.

9 a.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Minister, Deputy Minister, and your staff, thank you very much for appearing before us today.

My first question is how many contract hospital beds are there in Canada, approximately?

9 a.m.

Conservative

Steven Blaney Lévis—Bellechasse, QC

There are roughly 10,000, Mr. Stoffer.

9 a.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

Those are for World War II and overseas Korean War veterans, am I correct?

9 a.m.

Conservative

Steven Blaney Lévis—Bellechasse, QC

Exactly.

9 a.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

What happens to those beds when the last Korean War veteran dies?

9 a.m.

Conservative

Steven Blaney Lévis—Bellechasse, QC

Well, Mr. Stoffer, as you well know, in 1963 there was the Glassco commission. At the end of the Second World War, there were no health care services provided by provinces, and as the commission stated, we had 16 hospitals. At that time, we began to transfer all of those hospitals. We now only have one hospital under our jurisdiction, but we are providing services to modern-day veterans through the provincial health care system, Mr. Stoffer.

9:05 a.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

Thank you very much.

As we know, the Ste. Anne's Hospital is about to close or transfer to Quebec and there are 1,300 people working there. My question is threefold in this regard. I understand that those 1,300 jobs are supposed to transfer to the Province of Quebec. So that's a 1,300-person reduction from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In the media it's said, and I believe Mr. Hillier indicated this earlier, that we're looking at 500 reductions at DVA through attrition or retirement—however you're going to do it—plus a $200-million cut to the department. Over 10 years, it's almost your $2 billion that you talk about reinvesting into the department. So if I just do those figures generally, you're looking at 1,800 people being removed from a department of almost 4,000 people. That's a 40% human resource cut to your department. Many people are very concerned about that. I'd like your comments on that.

But before you do that, we had also talked about the earlier press conference by the three veterans who were worried about their privacy. Their information was spread out. I know that's a long, involved question, but if we could have something in writing from your department on what you're doing to fix that so it never happens again, it would be most appreciated.

You also indicated that you had a duty to help veterans. I called your office a couple of times regarding Sarah Atwood. She's a 92-year-old World War II veteran and the wife of an overseas World War II veteran. She's in the last months of her life but was denied access to Camp Hill Hospital because she is not an overseas World War veteran. I just found it rather unfortunate and very sad that a woman who has served our country, although here at home, would be denied access to Camp Hill Hospital when there were beds available.

As for compassionate grounds, sir, we know that the World War II and Korean veterans are going quickly and that, unfortunately, there will be beds available or open as a result. What we've been asking for is that these veterans and the modern-day veterans have access to those contract beds in the future, because, as you know, many veterans are in their fifties, sixties, and seventies now and are going to be looking for long-term care. The provinces are concerned that the government may be downloading the care of these veterans onto the provinces.

I'd just like your comments on that, please. And thank you for coming.

9:05 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Greg Kerr

Three and a half minutes have been used on the question, but we'll let you go.

9:05 a.m.

Conservative

Steven Blaney Lévis—Bellechasse, QC

You're raising an important issue.

Let me first address Ste. Anne's Hospital. We are talking of a transfer. So all the employees will still be providing services to our veterans. Actually, there's already one floor at Ste. Anne's Hospital that is free. We won't be able to maintain this level of service, because we will lose the critical mass to provide the best service we can.

So the Ste. Anne's Hospital transfer is a win-win situation in three ways. It helps us with my primary goal, which is to maintain a high quality of service for our veterans. The second one is that we are securing the future of those employees. Why? Because we are opening the doors of this hospital to the community of Montreal's West Island. And this is why we have completed a major investment in this facility, which is up to date. I visited it and I can tell you I'm impressed by the quality of this hospital and the services that are being delivered there.

I would just try to move on to the other points you've raised. Regarding the privacy action plan, any privacy breach of a veteran's file is unacceptable. That's why my predecessors established a 10-point action plan. I fully endorse that and it is fully operating. That's the way we address those issues and we take them very seriously. If you want more information, we'll be able to provide it to you as well.

Regarding long-term care, all our veterans have access to the modern health service system. Regarding the number of beds, we are making adjustments in terms of the demand. But one thing is for sure. Our modern veterans are benefiting not only from the provincial government health services they have access to, but they also have access to added value. We provide to our veterans all kinds of services. I will give an example of the special allowances under the veterans independence program. All those programs are there for all our veterans, so we maintain a high level. What is important for us is not who delivers the care, but to make sure that the veterans have access to the better care that they deserve.

9:10 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Greg Kerr

Thank you very much, Mr. Minister.

We now move to Mr. Lobb for five minutes.

9:10 a.m.

Conservative

Ben Lobb Huron—Bruce, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you for attending today. The first question I am going to ask on behalf of Mr. Casey, as it were.

In the House he has asked you this directly. In this committee he has asked Mr. Hillier directly. In his press releases, everywhere he has a chance, he has misled veterans with erroneous facts, specifically around the numbers and the planning and priorities. He has commented numerous times on the reduction in benefits and services provided to veterans, knowing full well that isn't the case.

Minister Blaney, maybe one more time, and perhaps for the hundredth time, you could answer this question and state clearly for this committee regarding the numbers in the report on plans and priorities that was tabled almost a year ago, and indicate to veterans watching today, the Canadians watching today, the services and benefits provided to veterans. Please, minister.

9:10 a.m.

Conservative

Steven Blaney Lévis—Bellechasse, QC

Thank you for your question.

As I used to chair a committee, I'm reminded that I should always address the chair. So, Mr. Chair, please excuse me. I will answer my colleague very nicely.

As I have just stated, the benefits to veterans will be maintained. That's clear to me, and I've been clear on that in many places, that this is important.

Why is that so? It is because we are a veterans-based organization. We have quasi-statutory programs. That's why we have put aside $2 billion for enhancements to the new Veterans Charter and this money will flow based on the need.

We have a projection, but it is a projection. What really matters is if a veteran's needs are typical of a service at a point in time, they'll be sure to have it because it's quasi-statutory. I get back to this expression of quasi-statutory, because it is at the heart of what we're doing here at the department. It is automatic. It goes as the assessed need is proven. This is what our government has been doing for the last six years.

As I mentioned in my opening comments, I am really impressed because over the last six years, on average, more than $500 million in additional money has been invested in our veterans and their families. It's a total of $3.16 billion over the last six years of additional money that has been invested in our veterans, including the new Veterans Charter. We also had the Agent Orange settlement. These are the kinds of initiatives this government has taken to make sure that our veterans receive the services to which they are fully entitled.

I will be very clear again: Benefits to veterans will be maintained.