Evidence of meeting #22 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 veterans.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

  • James Gilbert  Assistant Deputy Minister, Policy, Communications and Commemoration, Department of Veterans Affairs
  • John D. Larlee  Chair, Veterans Review and Appeal Board
  • Suzanne Tining  Deputy Minister, Department of Veterans Affairs

3:35 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Greg Kerr

Thank you, folks. We're very pleased to have the minister here today with us.

We are considering the estimates for the minister's department, and as I understand it, Minister, we'll have some comments and there will certainly be questions. I can imagine there will be a few, and then I understand that you will be leaving later, and your staff will be remaining to provide further information as necessary.

So, Minister Blaney, thank you for joining us. We're under way. We're here pursuant to Standing Order 81(5), supplementary estimates (C) for 2011-2012, referred to the Veterans Affairs committee on Tuesday, February 28; and also pursuant to Standing Order 81(4), main estimates, 2012-2013, votes 1, 5, and 10 under Veterans Affairs, also referred to committee on Tuesday, February 28, 2012.

So we're on the record. That's why we're here.

Welcome, Minister Blaney.

March 6th, 2012 / 3:35 p.m.

Lévis—Bellechasse
Québec

Conservative

Steven Blaney Minister of Veterans Affairs

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair. Thank you for welcoming me. I would like to greet the members of the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs.

First of all, I would like to introduce the two persons joining me: Suzanne Tining, Deputy Minister for Veterans Affairs Canada, and James Gilbert, Assistant Deputy Minister for Policy, Communications and Commemoration.

Mr. Chair, I could give a very short speech and say that, at the end of the day, I need billions of dollars for veterans, but you are entitled to know why. That is why I have prepared a speech that will basically focus on two items, including the funding I need to be able to get through the year, more specifically the Supplementary Estimates (C). I am also going to seek the support of the committee members for next year's base budget, the 2012-2013 budget, which will begin on April 1st.

Mr. Chair, I want to state clearly from the very beginning that our government is maintaining benefits to veterans, and we're also making great strides in our efforts to ensure that these brave men and women—some are with us today and this makes this meeting even more meaningful—receive the hassle-free services that they asked for and that they deserve.

My department's priority is to provide services and benefits that are tailored to the needs of veterans and their families, while ensuring that all Canadians remember their achievements and sacrifices. The 2012-2013 main estimates provide Veterans Affairs Canada with nearly $3.6 billion, an increase of $44.8 million, which is 1.3% when compared to the main estimates of last year, which was 2011-2012.

We are doing everything we can to modernize and to upgrade our activities so as to maintain a balance between providing services to veterans and, of course, to modern-day veterans, whether they served in Korea, the Balkans, Bosnia, and Afghanistan, or during World War II.

To this end, we work closely with a variety of veterans groups so that they can help us balance our response and actions, as we address the demographic shift within Canada's veteran community.

A few weeks ago in Winnipeg, I announced the cutting red tape initiative as a way to reduce paperwork. This action plan is going to reduce administrative formalities for veterans, making it possible to provide them with the care they deserve. One of the major features of this announcement is the use of clear and plain language.

As I said during the announcement, much of what is needed to make these improvements simply involves returning to the basics and overhauling how this department works.

With that in mind, we are putting in place updated and more efficient technology to make bureaucratic delays a thing of the past. We are making our programs and policies more relevant, providing greater electronic access to benefits and services, offering professional service from employees who understand the military experience, and creating seamless transition to civilian life from military life, and this is to be done in communicating in plain language.

Last year, Mr. Chair, we processed 41,000 letters, mainly disability benefit applications from veterans. For each of these applications, a letter was written and sent out advising the veteran of a decision. We have heard from the veterans, and we have heard from the Veterans Ombudsman that these letters are too complex, and need to be written in clearer and plainer language.

As you know, we are sending out about 41,000 letters every year in response to veterans' disability claims. Over the past few years, we have made improvements to the way those letters are written, but that is not enough. The ombudsman has asked us to take this a step further.

That is why veterans now receive letters that are clearer and organized based on the following criteria: the veteran's request, the answer, the facts, the evidence we have used, the references and the means available to veterans to proceed forward.

We have heard from the veterans and we have acted upon these recommendations.

These letters are easier to read and understand. We are also making direct contact with the many veterans who have recently received them to ask for their feedback. Better training for employees and better technology will ensure that letters are processed faster and meet the accepted standards of plain language.

We have a new brochure to explain the services and benefits to veterans—and not only to veterans. It provides an overview of the department.

We are modernizing the tools our employees are using to help the veterans. The benefit browser allows employees to quickly access information on the programs and services most relevant to the veterans they are serving. We're rolling out a similar online tool that we expect will be available to veterans once we have made it more user friendly.

Veterans can see a difference. In the past year we have reduced the amount of time it takes to deliver decisions to veterans regarding their disability benefits, a fact reflected by the increased funding requested through the supplementary estimates.

We have improved the response time in our national call centres. And of course, veterans can now take advantage of the direct deposit option to receive their money more quickly.

We have announced a number of other initiatives. Last year's most important initiative was definitely the improvements to the new veterans charter. That is why I am here for the Supplementary Estimates (C). Actually, the call for these new measures is quite strong. We estimate that, over the next five years, 4,000 veterans are going to benefit from these measures. That is an additional $189-million investment. As you know, our department has to let the Treasury Board know what our long-term estimates are. We are roughly talking about a $2-billion investment over the life of the program, meaning the improvements to the new veterans charter.

With these enhancements, we are ensuring that our veterans and Canadian Forces members, especially modern vets, have the right care at the right time for as long as they need it.

In January, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced funding for the helmets to hardhats program.

Worth noting is that this program was launched jointly with the unions, the provincial government—the Ontario government, in this case—and with resources from the private sector in order to provide veterans with job opportunities in the construction industry.

In this case, TransCanada agreed to put in funds, with the government. So it is a type of public-private partnership for the benefit of veterans. And I have to say that we have had a great response so far with the program.

Approximately 4,000 Canadian Forces members make the transition to civilian life each year. Over the course of their careers, many have developed highly transferable skills as craftsmen, engineers, and welders—just to name a few. Others have administrative, leadership, project management, or planning experience, all skills that could be put to work at one of Canada's 260,000 construction sector firms.

The uptake on the helmets to hardhats program is good, Mr. Speaker, and we are building on this success to make it wider and to reach out to other parts of the country.

At this point I want to thank the members for the work you did on the commemoration report. I've taken note of your recommendations and I will be replying in the near future. Especially as we are to enter the centennial of the First World War, it is key that we get ready for this big meeting.

Actually, in a much shorter window of opportunity, on April 9 we will mark the 95th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge in Canada and in France. For the second year in a row, over 500 cadets will hold a candlelight ceremony on April 8, and cadets will stand vigil all night at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. They will also participate in the national ceremony the following morning.

More than 5,000 Canadians will join veterans, members' organizations, and 100 members of the Canadian Forces in Vimy on Easter Monday for commemoration, and especially to make a transition for young Canadians to learn about the key role Canada played in this battle and learn more about the stories and sacrifices of Canadians in the First World War. So that's quite inspirational.

One thing that is very good, Mr. Speaker—we also need some additional funding as I come to you—is our community war memorial program and cenotaph monument restoration program. Communities throughout the country are asking for funds to rejuvenate, and build new cenotaphs. I'm sure the members around the table have seen projects nearby.

There's good uptake for this program.

Last week, I was in Brighton, Ontario, near the military air base. The government announced a $50,000 contribution for a construction project there.

This monument was inaugurated in 1927 by Sir Arthur Currie and has not been improved, so I think this is more than welcome.

In closing, Mr. Speaker, I just want to reaffirm that I can see that, as parliamentarians, we're all here today to make the lives of our veterans better. That's my very goal as the Minister of Veterans Affairs. I really insist, and I've instructed my officials, that we need to move on with cutting red tape and making our programs easier for veterans to access.

With this, I will be more than happy to take your comments and questions.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Greg Kerr

Thank you very much, Mr. Minister. I understand you have to get away around 4:30. Is that correct?

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

Steven Blaney Lévis—Bellechasse, QC

Yes, I do.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Greg Kerr

I just want to make the members aware that up until that time, questions can be directed to him, but Madam Tining will be staying with the staff to provide detailed answers beyond that as well.

To begin the rounds, we will go around now to the various members of the committee.

I'm going to watch the clock very closely, and we start with Mr. Stoffer, for five minutes, please.

3:45 p.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

Minister, and Suzanne and James, thank you very much for coming today. We really appreciate it.

Sir, I'm going to ask you three questions, and you can answer them when I'm done asking the questions.

Number one, can you show me on the estimates where, in the cuts to Ste. Anne's Hospital, the transfer to Quebec, those 1,300 jobs are shown as a loss in terms of departmental staff?

Also, we understand, Mr. Speaker, from previous discussions we've had in this committee and others that an additional 500 jobs may be on the chopping block over a two- to three- to possibly four-year period. Could you tell me exactly where those are in the estimates, if indeed that is going to happen? Could you tell me how many employees DVA has now, and how many employees they will have by the end of 2014-2015? That's question number one.

On question number two, you had talked about eliminating red tape—

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

Steven Blaney Lévis—Bellechasse, QC

I thought those were your three questions.

3:45 p.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

You talked about red tape, and you're bang on the money. Every government could look at its department and make sure the red tape is being eliminated, but I've asked you many times about the Veterans Review and Appeal Board. This is the frustrating stumbling block for many veterans. Would you not agree with us that if you really want to eliminate red tape, you would eliminate the Veterans Review and Appeal Board, and put the $11 million it costs to run that politically appointed board into programs and services for veterans?

Number three is a soft one for you because I was asked it by the individuals from Bomber Command. As you know, there is a ceremony in England regarding Bomber Command. Some veterans who served on Bomber Command wanted to know if, indeed, the government is planning to do a presentation there, and if it is at all possible that the government plans to take a couple of veterans from Bomber Command to reignite and revisit that history in England.

Thank you very much for coming.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Greg Kerr

I was going to say you have about three minutes to answer. I'll give you a warning.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

Steven Blaney Lévis—Bellechasse, QC

That's good.

3:45 p.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

Not bad, eh? Two minutes.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

Steven Blaney Lévis—Bellechasse, QC

I'll try to do the most I can with the time I am given.

First, I would like to address Ste. Anne's Hospital with the honourable member. Actually we are having a good discussion with the Quebec government, but at this point in time there are no agreements in principle, nor any agreements. So at this very moment, I really need the full amount for the current fiscal year, so that we are able to provide first-quality services to our veterans.

As you know, we have a high level of service for our veterans. It's important that we keep on providing those services. In the meantime, I must tell you that, as a minister, it is important for me to move forward with our negotiation with the Quebec government for two reasons. The first is that, as the population is declining, we have had a hard time.... We have a skilled workforce and to make sure that we are providing this workforce with all the challenges it needs, we need to have a....

We close a floor every month, so my first priority is to maintain high-level service to veterans. That's why we are looking for opportunities with the Quebec government, and of course, those employees. They are a great staff. They are skilled personnel. I think they can provide service to the Quebec community. That's why we'll be moving forward, but at this point in time, I need all the money.

You've addressed the red tape issue, and I would like to come back to the tribunal. I think the member will be given the opportunity. I understand that in the near future the chairman of the tribunal will be here.

There are three things I would like to say regarding the tribunal. As you know, this department is processing more than roughly 40,000 requests a year. Most of these requests are accepted at a ratio of, let's say, 3:4. Some of those requests are not accepted by our department, and I find it important for our veterans to have the tools so that they can revisit these decisions. This is exactly what the tribunal is all about, as you're well aware. As of last year, when they would revisit a decision, 50% of those decisions would be rendered in favour of the veterans.

The tribunal is important for veterans, not necessarily for the minister and not for the members. It is important that we have an effective tribunal, and that's why within this tribunal, as you know, there are skilled and competent members who are appointed. They are RCMP veterans. They are military. They are experienced medical personnel. They are people with some background in judicial or other jurisdictions. So it's important that we have an effective tribunal because it is helping our veterans a lot.

There are certainly improvements that can be made, especially to make sure our veterans are not caught in a too-long procedure. One aspect of the tribunal that I think is important is that it has this veterans “colour”, and this is something I think our veterans cherish.

Regarding the Bomber Command, that's a good point. That's part of the centennial of the First...even though it's the Second World War. That's part of commemoration, and do we have the capacity as a government to invest abroad? I have received requests from Gallipoli, of the First World War. There was a human sacrifice made in Passchendaele in the First World War, and there is a museum at a house in Passchendaele, which I'm told is mostly about Canadian history. Those people are coming to see us, Canada, as a government, and asking if we can provide them with some funding. Now the Bomber Command is for the Olympics in London. It relates to these great

air force pilots who carried out bombings in Germany, during World War II.

So it is actually important to come up with mechanisms. We now have mechanisms to encourage commemoration here in Canada, through activities or cenotaphs. But we don't have the tools to respond internationally. We obviously still have to focus on commemorating activities in our country, but there are some activities that we can't really afford to miss. I definitely want to look into that over the next few months.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Greg Kerr

Thank you, Mr. Minister.

Between the two of you, we're allowed to go a little over, but we're going to have to push along now. Thank you.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

Steven Blaney Lévis—Bellechasse, QC

Sorry. Thank you.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Greg Kerr

We will now hear from Ms. Adams for five minutes.