Debates of Sept. 22nd, 2000
House of Commons Hansard #120 of the 36th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was pornography.
- Business Of The House
- Civilian War-Related Benefits Act
- Fuel Taxes
- The Late Luc Durand
- World Alzheimer's Day
- Karen Cockburn
- Police And Peace Officers
- St. Lawrence River
- Crime Prevention
- Olympics 2000
- Organized Crime
- Aboriginal Affairs
- École Des Hautes Études Commerciales
- Leader Of Canadian Alliance
- Crime Prevention
- The Environment
- Young Offenders Act
- Fort Lawrence
- Veterans Affairs
- Fuel Taxes
- Employment Insurance
- Young Offenders Act
- Transport Of Mox
- Gasoline Pricing
- Official Languages
- Grain Transportation
- Employment Insurance
- The Environment
- Points Of Order
- Order In Council Appointments
- Government Response To Petitions
- Questions On The Order Paper
- Civilian War-Related Benefits Act
- Criminal Code
- Business Of The House
- Criminal Code
Nelson Riis Kamloops, BC
Mr. Speaker, I have two petitions to present this afternoon.
The first petition is from a number of constituents from Kamloops who point out a number of concerns they have with the Criminal Code of Canada. Their fundamental concern is to ask the Government of Canada to amend the criminal code to prevent persons convicted of serious crimes from being released from custody pending the hearing of their appeal, except in very exceptional circumstances.
Nelson Riis Kamloops, BC
Mr. Speaker, in the second petition, the petitioners are concerned about the U.S. national missile defence program. It is a $60 billion plus program that Canada has been asked to participate in.
The petitioners are calling upon parliament to declare that Canada objects to the defence program of the United States of America and ask the government to play a leadership role in banning nuclear weapons and missile flight tests.
Questions On The Order Paper
Derek Lee Parliamentary Secretary to Leader of the Government in the House of Commons
Mr. Speaker, I ask that all questions be allowed to stand.
Questions On The Order Paper
Is that agreed?
Questions On The Order Paper
Some hon. members
John Maloney Parliamentary Secretary to Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada
Mr. Speaker, I would like to take this opportunity to respond to a question of privilege filed by the member for Wentworth—Burlington, if you are prepared to entertain the government's response.
Yes, I am. I will set the stage for you. This was a point of privilege which was brought up before parliament adjourned for the summer. This is a response to that time. The hon. parliamentary secretary.
John Maloney Erie—Lincoln, ON
Mr. Speaker, you may recall on June 15, 2000, the hon. member for Wentworth—Burlington raised a point of privilege concerning the defeat of his private member's bill, Bill C-206, an act to amend the Access to Information Act at second reading.
The question of privilege alleges that the Department of Justice may have wilfully deceived MPs by means of a document marked exhibit A, which MPs received on their desks in the House prior to the June 6 vote on Bill C-206. The documents stated that “the privacy commissioner had expressed concerns that, under Bill C-206, 30 year old records would be made accessible resulting in the potential release of personal information held by the government”. It is alleged that the document falsely attributed these concerns to the privacy commissioner.
It is also claimed that the privacy commissioner's concerns were misrepresented in a talking points document dated May 26 to cabinet ministers, which was marked exhibit B. This document, which was provided to cabinet ministers for discussion purposes, stated that the privacy commissioner considered Bill C-206 to be “a serious threat to the privacy of Canadians”.
I will demonstrate that exhibits A and B are a fair representation of the privacy commissioner's concerns regarding Bill C-206.
According to the hon. member for Wentworth—Burlington “The problem is the privacy commissioner was not in official communication with the Department of Justice on Bill C-206 until 10 days after the May 26 memo outlining his position and never described his concerns as a serious threat, nor ever provided the example cited in the document above”. In fact, those concerns were exposed and expressed in different forums long before May 26.
There appears to be some misunderstanding of the facts. From October 1999 to June 2000, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner consistently indicated that Bill C-206 raised privacy concerns. Let me illustrate.
In October 1999 the executive director of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner called a meeting with Department of Justice officials. Officials from the privacy commissioner's office indicated that they had two major problems with the changes proposed in Bill C-206.
First, they were concerned that the changes proposed in clause 14 of Bill C-206 would “eviscerate” the Privacy Act by imposing a mandatory obligation to disclose personal information. The example used was that data collected by Revenue Canada is shared with HRDC under section 8 of the Privacy Act. Changing the discretionary “may” disclose to “shall” disclose would result in all the income tax returns of Canadians for the last 10 years being accessible.
Second, they were concerned that the proposed 30-year rule, which would release virtually all documents after 30 years, would have privacy implications. The confidential information collected by the government continues to be sensitive even after 30 years.
Justice officials took the concerns of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner very seriously.
On May 16, 2000 the privacy commissioner tabled his annual report in which he referred to, at page 75, the bill by the hon. member for Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Aldershot, Bill C-264, which was the predecessor to Bill C-206. He indicated the bill could have “negative privacy impact” and that the proposed disclosure of information older than 30 years would, in his view, “completely disregard the protections of the Privacy Act”. Furthermore, he expressed concern over the removal of the critical discretion that the Privacy Act gives heads of federal institutions to determine whether to disclose individuals' personal information to third parties.
Based on these statements, the document marked exhibit B was prepared for cabinet ministers. It concluded that “The privacy commissioner believes Bill C-206 is a serious threat to the privacy of Canadians”. This statement is clearly a fair representation of the views expressed by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner during the October meeting and in the privacy commissioner's annual report of May 16, 1999.
Furthermore, in a letter to the Minister of Justice dated June 5, 2000, the privacy commissioner confirmed what his office had previously flagged. The privacy commissioner stated at line 2 in the second paragraph of the letter “while I support the ultimate goal of a more transparent and accountable government, I fear the bill will have, perhaps unintentionally, a detrimental effect on the Privacy Act”.
As you know, Mr. Speaker, the Privacy Act protects the private information of Canadians held by government institutions. Therefore, anything that would have a detrimental effect on the Privacy Act would be a threat to the privacy of Canadians.
There was no deception on the part of the Department of Justice. The privacy commissioner's office expressed serious concerns about clause 14 and the 30 year rule in October 1999. The commissioner's annual report of May 16, 2000 reaffirmed in a more general manner these concerns.
On June 5, 2000 the privacy commissioner officially indicated that the same clauses would have a detrimental effect on the Privacy Act. From October 1999 to June 2000 the message to the Department of Justice from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner was the same: Bill C-206 represented a serious threat to the privacy of individuals. The examples used indicate the nature of that threat.
I would like to remind the House that at the beginning of the previous parliament the government indicated that private members' business would be subject to free votes. Each member must assess the long term implications of any private member's bill or motion and vote accordingly.
The Minister of Justice simply and correctly expressed a legitimate concern about Bill C-206 and shared the information she had with her colleagues.
I want to review the transcript of what has transpired not only today, but want to put in juxtaposition what happened last June. I have a request from another member who wants to speak to this particular point of privilege. I will of course reserve judgment until I hear from the member if indeed he wants to intervene.
At this point I will take both the submission of the member for Hamilton Mountain and your own submission. I will hear from at least one other member and then I will come back to the House with my decision.
I also want the House to be apprised that I received a message earlier from the Deputy Prime Minister asking to rise on a point of order but we had the fire alarm. He is not here, but I will hear whatever point he wants to bring up when the House convenes on Monday or after question period. I want that to be on the record.
The House resumed consideration of the motion that Bill C-41, an act to amend the statute law in relation to veterans' benefits, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Civilian War-Related Benefits Act
Gordon Earle Halifax West, NS
Mr. Speaker, it is an honour for me to address Bill C-41, an act to amend the statute law in relation to veterans' benefits.
I am going to provide the House with some background information. This bill proposes to provide benefits for civilian groups that served Canada overseas, such as the Canadian Red Cross, St. John Ambulance, the Newfoundland Overseas Forestry Unit, the Corps of Canadian Firefighters and other organizations.
The bill proposes to allow Canadian forces members to receive disability benefits while still serving their country, thereby ensuring equality with those whose disabilities arose in special duty area service and reserve force service.
I am pleased to state at the outset that there may be some issues we wish to pursue in committee. Some of these have been mentioned already by previous speakers, for example, section 46 concerning the RCMP and also the concern of the legions with respect to retroactivity. While we may want to pursue these in committee, the New Democratic Party at this point stands in support of the bill.
I do have some skepticism. My skepticism does not arise from the words in the legislation, but from the government's intent on following through with its commitment to Canada's veterans.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, almost half of the claims received from merchant mariners are still waiting to be processed. These Canadians risked life and limb during the war to deliver fuel, food, goods and people, and were under attack from German submarines, facing casualty and, all too often, death. Every month more of these brave members of our communities succumb to illness and old age.
It has been estimated that merchant mariners are dying at the rate of about 12 per month. The Department of Veterans Affairs reportedly has 45 people working on these claims. Clearly, staffing levels should be increased to meet the demand created by merchant mariners' claims. The decision not to hire more staff likely translates into a decision to let more merchant mariners die without seeing their claims processed and justice done.
Furthermore, if the government wishes Bill C-41 to be taken seriously by the people who would be affected by the bill, it should state here now that it is committed to ensuring that all merchant mariners entitled to compensation will receive their full benefits and that the government will not turn its back on these merchant mariners after the first payments have been made.
The legislation sets out to extend veterans benefits to a number of civilian groups with overseas service and would allow all serving members of the Canadian armed forces who suffer a service related disability to receive disability pensions while serving.
As the New Democratic Party representative on the all party Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs, I am pleased to see that the government is responding to issues raised by our committee in a positive way. Allowing the serving members of the forces who qualify for disability pensions to receive these disability pensions while serving does indeed begin to address issues relating to the quality of life of Canadian forces members.
While I am pleased to see that the government is taking some steps toward addressing the issues raised by the all party standing committee, I strongly suggest that the government could be doing much more to address broader issues relating to working and living conditions for our troops.
Military personnel who live on bases in single quarters or in permanent married quarters must contend with old and deteriorating accommodations that are among the worst to be found in this country. The quarters in some regions were called dilapidated by the committee, and that was being very generous. From leaky roofs to cramped, old, deteriorating spaces, Canada's forces personnel deserve much better from the country they so admirably served, and in particular from the Liberal government that is responsible for these decisions.
Canadian forces accommodation policy cites the need for well maintained quarters, respecting dignity, privacy, safety and security. The Liberal government's policy is “tough luck, you lose”.
The Liberal government had cash on hand to spend $15 million building a brand new armoury in Shawinigan which, by a great coincidence, happens to be in the Prime Minister's own riding.
As I have said, the legislation sets out to ensure serving forces personnel may receive disability pensions while still serving. In other words, troops serving Canadians through assisting with crises, like the great ice storm of 1998, fighting floods on the Red River or working as peacekeepers in Bosnia, would be able to collect a veterans affairs disability pension while continuing to serve the country. This will ensure equity with members whose disabilities arose in special duty areas and reserve force service.
We support the legislation as it would extend veterans benefits to certain civilian groups who served overseas in close support of the war effort. This would include groups such as the Canadian Red Cross, St. John Ambulance, Newfoundland Overseas Foresters, Canadian firefighters, pilots who ferried across the Atlantic and other groups who assisted the military overseas. This move will provide these individuals with greater access to Veterans Affairs Canada income support, disability pensions and additional health care benefits, including the veterans independence program.
The overseas crew of the Ferry Command assisted the war effort by ferrying military aircraft across the Atlantic Ocean from North America. During the second world war, some 340 Canadian and Newfoundland civilian pilots and aircrew were under contract to deliver aircraft from North America to Britain and elsewhere. The members of the Ferry Command, who today number approximately 100 people, have never had access to veterans programs.
The Newfoundland Overseas Forestry Unit assisted the war effort by cutting timber in Scotland, which was then predominantly used in British coal mining operations. Britain quickly realized the increased production of coal was a strategic imperative to fuel the war effort and thus the immediate need for experienced loggers to produce timber for mining was paramount.
Over the course of the war some 3,680 Newfoundlanders served in the Newfoundland Overseas Forestry Unit although many later transferred to the British armed forces or served with the British Home Guard. There are about 1,000 members alive today.
When Canada was negotiating the terms of union several years after the war it was agreed that Newfoundland armed forces members would be eligible for veterans benefits from Canada but members of the forestry unit were not included in that agreement.
During the second world war the Canadian Corps of Firefighters served in the United Kingdom. It served the war effort by fighting fires in Britain that were created by the dreaded blitz.
Also during the war overseas welfare workers, which included members of the Canadian Red Cross and St. John Ambulance served overseas in support of the injured. They have had basic access to income tested veterans programs but limited or no access to pensions for a service related disability and no access to the veterans independence program.
One of the more important aspects of the bill is working to ensure equity of access to services and benefits to all Canadian forces members regardless of whether the injury occurred in Canada or in a foreign deployment.
At the present time Canadian forces members can only receive a Veterans Affairs Canada disability pension for a service related disability if the disability occurred in or resulted from service in a special duty area such as a peacekeeping mission.
For those Canadian forces members who suffer a service related disability while fighting a flood in Canada, for example, their disability can be assessed and their entitlement to a disability pension may be agreed upon while they are still serving. However, no Veterans Affairs Canada disability pension can begin to be paid until after they have left the Canadian forces.
The amendments in Bill C-41 would remove this inequity and allow all Canadian forces members with a related disability to receive a Veterans Affairs Canada disability pension upon application regardless of where the injury occurred.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the legions in my riding of Halifax West for their work not only in support of veterans but also in terms of the incredibly positive role they play in the community.
I have attended many events hosted by these legions. I continue to be struck not only by their camaraderie but also by their social conscience and community support. The legions in my area have sponsored seniors dinners at Christmastime. When we go to those dinners and see the joy on the faces of those seniors, we realize how much these veterans are giving back even yet to their communities in terms of supporting our seniors and helping to bring some joy and happiness into their lives.
I have attended special awards nights where legions honour members who have served for a long time within their organizations. It is important that we honour people while they are still alive. Far too often people are spoken of after they have gone. It is nice when we take the time to honour people while they can still appreciate receiving that honour for the service they are rendering.
I have also gone to events in the Camp Hill hospital in Halifax where legion members go at Christmastime and visit with seniors and people who live in those residences. They take not only material gifts but also the gifts of love and compassion. The appreciation is reflected in the faces of the people who reside in that facility when someone comes around and wishes them a merry Christmas and a happy new year and shows some interest and concern in their state of well-being.
I have a cousin who is a veteran. He unfortunately suffered a stroke many years ago so he is not able to speak. He recognizes me and has a wonderful smile on his face when I go to visit him. The legion from Whites Lake quite often takes the residents from Camp Hill out to its headquarters to a special event for them.
On one occasion when my cousin was there a family with a small infant allowed him to hold the baby. Just seeing the look on his face, the smile, the sense of contentment and happiness at holding that young child, showed that even though he was disabled by a stroke he still had a certain compassion and a certain sense of well-being. His relationship with that infant was something that one had to be there to experience.
This tells us again how important veterans are to our community and what they give back to our community. Even those who may appear to have a disability are still able to give and to appreciate love and respect.
I thank the following legions in my area for their ongoing work: The Beford Royal Canadian Legion Branch No. 95, Lakeside Royal Canadian Legion Branch No. 156, Spryfield Royal Canadian Legion Branch No. 152, St. Margarets Bay Royal Canadian Legion Branch No. 116, and Whites Lake Royal Canadian Legion Branch No. 153.
I want to have it recorded in the House of Commons that these legions provide an outstanding service to their communities and for this we thank them.
As we stand in support of this legislation, the point I want to leave is that anything we can do to advance the cause of equity, fairness and justice for veterans who served our country so well we should be glad to do. It is for this reason that the NDP is standing in support of this legislation.
Civilian War-Related Benefits Act
Bill Casey Cumberland—Colchester, NS
Madam Speaker, it is certainly a pleasure today to speak to Bill C-41 on behalf of the member for Saint John, our veterans affairs critic who has certainly done yeoman service on behalf of veterans.
I am sure she takes a personal interest in every veteran in the country. If veterans fall somewhere and hurt themselves, I often think she feels the pain because she is so much involved with them and so concerned about their welfare. In fact she will drop any issue she is working on if a veteran's issue comes up. She will deal with it first as a priority item. That is a very commendable approach.
Generally speaking we support Bill C-41 for all the good things it proposes to do, but we do it with reservation because of the problems that are already in the system which are not being addressed or not being resolved. We would like to see those problems addressed first before we add additional responsibilities for the department and add new obligations for very lean resources that are not available.
As members of parliament I am sure we all deal with veterans affairs issues. Certainly in my area I deal with veterans on a day to day basis. Veterans have all kinds of challenges and all kinds of problems. In the run of a day if I have nine appointments usually three of them will be Canada pension plan, three might be Revenue Canada, but there will be three with regard to veterans affairs. They are very similar. They are almost all the same. They run along the same lines of a few subjects. It is a repeat event on every visit.
The veterans independence program, the VIP program, is designed to make the quality of life a little better for veteran. It has a very low threshold of income before one is disqualified from access to VIP. That is a problem we have in our area. Many veterans who really need the service, just to improve their quality of life a bit, are denied access.
Also access to pensions for disabilities is an ongoing problem. It is an involved procedure that seems to be dragged out for long periods of time and causes more stress and grief for already disabled veterans. Part of the problem is that medical records in the military are not complete. Often a veteran has a problem. Everyone knows of it, but there is no proof in his or her medical records. When there is no proof it is extremely difficult to convince the Department of Veterans Affairs to acknowledge the problem.
I have heard from veterans who served overseas but there was no record of that service, even though everyone knew they had been there. I have heard from veterans who served in Atlantic waters but still there is no record of it and they were unable to prove they had that service even though their colleagues would acknowledge it and back them up. The benefit of doubt clause sounds good but sometimes it seems that the benefit of the doubt is not given to veterans.
Also there is access to the merchant navy package which passed in February 2000. This was something for which the member for Saint John fought long and hard to try to access. We were all very pleased when it came through, but we understand only half the applications for this program have been addressed. There are a lot of problems in qualifying. Half the applications are not even processed. Of the half that are processed some have received some money but none have received all the money that has been talked about and promised to them.
Every day my office receives calls asking when they will get money from the merchant navy program or when they will get the balance. There seem to be no answers to these questions. That in itself is frustrating and creates more stress for veterans, none of whom are very young.
This raises a question. If the resources are not there to address the program instituted in February of this year, how can we add new programs when we know the resources will not be available to deal with them? The program is good but the resources are weak. That is the problem. There is no point in having the programs if the department and the minister do not have access to the funding. Certainly they do not have the access to funding to deal with the current programs.
Another issue I mentioned earlier was the VIP program. I am certainly glad to see all the important ministers in the House today. I am certainly pleased to see the Minister of Veterans Affairs in particular. I would like to make him aware of an initiative taken by branch No. 10 of the legion from Amherst, a group led by Pastor Harold Higgins which included Russell Clark, Harold Ettinger and Peter Lynd. They developed a motion that was taken to Atlantic command of the legion and then went to dominion command. It was passed all the way through the system. It was to make it easier for veterans to access VIP. This is a good program. It does not cost a lot of money and it increases the quality of life of veterans.
Most veterans are disqualified because the program is income tested at a very low threshold. We would like to see the threshold increased so that veterans can earn a little money, have a little income and still access the VIP program. It is not an expensive program, but it is a good program and it should be expanded to all veterans. Many people think it should include all veterans. At least the threshold should be changed to allow more veterans to participate in it.
The motion went all the way through dominion command and across the country to almost every legion in Canada. They all had a say in it. It started in branch No. 10 at Amherst. I am proud to be associated with that legion. I hope the minister will take note and see if he can access the motion and approve it, as I know he will.
It is very frustrating to be approached by veterans as a member of parliament. We know what they have done. We know the sacrifices they have made. In some cases they have visible disabilities. In some cases we cannot see the disabilities but we know they have them. I can think of several situations that are very trying. These people cannot access pensions because the appeal board or whoever says there is no proof that the injury was incurred while in service. There is no proof how it happened. There are no records in the files.
However, all their colleagues and the veterans involved know. I find it very frustrating to deal with those situations. It is not their fault the records are not complete. It is not their fault the information and the backup are not there. It makes it extremely difficult for them to access these programs. I know of some veterans personally and it is awful to deal with them because we know we cannot arrive at the right solution.
If there is some indication that the veteran is qualified for the pension and some information that says he may not be qualified, the veteran is supposed to get the benefit of the doubt. I find that they do not get the benefit of the doubt. I would like the minister to make note of that if he would.
We support Bill C-41. We are really pleased that the government will recognize the people involved in these conflicts even though they were not directly in the military. These civilians were involved in all kinds of duties and activities which provided support and help to our military people who actually carried arms and were involved in the conflicts.
We are also pleased that Canadian forces members who are still in the service will now be recognized if they have a disability that was incurred while in service. That is most appropriate. It recognizes the contribution they made to our country and to the service.
While we support the bill we are a little skeptical because of the history and the track record of the merchant navy process. That has not gone as well as expected. I understand they have had far more applications than their homework had indicated they would have and this has created a problem.
The bottom line is that there are merchant navy veterans who feel they are entitled to this program and are not able to access it. We hope that this does not happen with the new programs that are included in the bill. It is one thing to have the program but we have to have the people, the resources and the funding to back them up. Otherwise all it does is create more frustration and more difficulty for veterans rather than help them.
On behalf of the member for Saint John, our veterans affairs critic, we are pleased to support Bill C-41. We do hope that the minister has the support of the finance minister to put the resources and people in place to support this.
The last speaker mentioned the involvement of the legions in his riding. My riding has 17 legions and every single one is active as a community organization. They are great organizations which provide all kinds of things like meals on wheels and help to seniors. They provide money for people who have disabilities who are not involved with the military at all. Every single legion in my riding performs an important service to the community. I would like to acknowledge them as the last member did because they are often not recognized for their contributions to the community.
I have watched the minister take notes with every word I said and I am sure he will respond to them exactly as I asked.
Civilian War-Related Benefits Act
David Pratt Nepean—Carleton, ON
Madam Speaker, I too am very pleased to join my colleagues, the Minister of Veterans Affairs, the opposition critics and others to speak in support of this legislation.
This is an omnibus bill and by definition is quite detailed on the various pieces of veterans legislation that it updates. It is not our purpose today to debate the intricate details. I am sure that will be handled well enough by the committee. Today perhaps is the day to agree to the principles contained in the major sections of the bill.
Let us take the extension of benefits to civilian groups who performed wartime overseas service. I hope this is not presuming too much on my part but I dare say that aside from the reference to the Red Cross, most of us do not know of the services performed by other civilian groups such as the Newfoundland foresters, Canadian firefighters or Ferry Command, and if we have heard of them, we do not necessarily associate these groups with the provision of veterans benefits. Yet when we look closer at what they did, their contribution was monumental.
The Newfoundland Overseas Forestry Unit assisted the war effort by cutting timber in Scotland which was predominantly used in British coal mining operations. The British were in dire need of increased production since coal was a desperately needed fuel. Many of the 3,600 Newfoundlanders who served with the forestry unit would later join the British armed forces.
The Canadian Corps of Firefighters represent another hidden story of service and sacrifice. They were called on to help fight the dreadful fires created by the blitz on London and other British cities.
Then there are the overseas welfare workers which included the Canadian Red Cross and St. John Ambulance who served as welfare workers overseas in support of the injured.
And finally there are the overseas air crews of Ferry Command who assisted the war effort by ferrying military aircraft across the Atlantic from North America.
The men and women of these civilian units, like their military counterparts, served their nation and the allied cause with duty and dedication. Like their military comrades from the second world war their numbers are quickly fading with the passing of the years. It does not seem too much to ask for easier access to disability and allowance benefits and through regulatory change to health care benefits.
The issue of clause 46 of the bill has come up. It was mentioned by the hon. member for Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca. It relates to the benefits enjoyed by members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
In speaking with the minister on this issue, it would appear as though there may have been an unfortunate oversight with respect to that clause appearing in the bill. I know it is the minister's desire to have that clause removed. I am prepared to undertake to the House to introduce an amendment to that effect to deal with the concerns that have been raised by members, and which exist as well on the government side, to have that issue dealt with.
Turning briefly to currently serving military personnel, the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs has studied the modern day problems of the regular forces. I have been a member of the committee since the last election and was pleased to work with colleagues from every party in the House who were part of the quality of life study. Each of us came away from that study feeling as though we had made a contribution and a difference in the lives of the men and women serving in the Canadian forces.
The department has taken the recommendations of the committee to heart and has acted in concert with DND to take a more comprehensive approach to dealing with injured or disabled clients. For its part, DND has established five regional operational trauma, stress and support centres located near major military bases across the nation. Veterans affairs clients have access to DND's post-deployment regional health centres for clinical evaluation and assessment purposes.
In addition the department continues to deploy its personnel to bases to deliver briefings on our services and benefits to Canadian forces members across the country.
Where veterans affairs can act to improve access to veterans benefits without changes to the legislation, it is in fact doing so. Where there is a need for legislation of course is in having a level playing field for all members of the armed forces wherever they serve at home or abroad.
As hon. members have heard, this bill fills that gap by allowing all Canadian forces to have equal access to disability pensions and related health care benefits regardless of whether the injury occurred in a special duty area. I know hon. members will have no difficulty whatsoever supporting the provisions of the legislation in that regard.
Nor do I imagine will members opposite have any difficulty supporting the removal of longstanding irritants that veterans have had with current veteran legislation, irritants such as the handling of mistaken overpayments, the correction of the negative consequences of lump sum payments and their effect on war veterans allowance, and the issue of income testing and access to health care. The changes proposed by Bill C-41 will remove those irritants. As a result veterans will feel more secure that their benefits will continue unimpeded by bureaucratic rules and regulations.
One of the things the department prides itself on is the front line service it gives to veterans at its offices across the nation. Staff in the field have developed long term relationships with veterans, some of them spanning the decades. They realize that many of their aging clients can have difficulty navigating the complex and complicated rules and regulations, not only as they exist within veterans affairs but with other federal departments as well.
The department has taken on a full service profile when a veteran walks in the door. Put simply, this client centred approach makes a commitment to design, implement and maintain services from the client's point of view, not from the point of view of the bureaucrats.
Veterans Affairs Canada has been a leader in client centred service delivery. At its best, this type of service means cutting red tape and communicating in plain language. It means making sure that our veterans and all other clients who require our services never feel that they have knocked on the wrong door when looking for our help. Veterans affairs has served clients in this manner for decades now.
Members will notice provisions in Bill C-41 which ensure that the department can continue to render this type of front line service. The provisions have been carefully worded in order to balance service for our increasingly aging clients with their privacy rights.
Finally there are several more specific measures, some of which we have already heard about. They include for instance: permitting both veteran disability pensioners who are married or living common law to receive the married rate; extending remission authority to all types of overpayments of veterans benefits; reformulating the provisions governing the assessment of outside disability benefits, such as dealing with workers compensation or court awarded damages for personal injury; and providing for a one year continuation of a deceased veteran's pension to the guardian of the veteran's surviving children.
Other measures included are: consolidating the provisions relating to service and special duty areas as well as Korean war service directly into the pension act; improving and clarifying the exchange and use of client information, both internally and with other departments; insulating client information from having to be disclosed by public servants in non-criminal legal proceedings; reformulating the provisions governing the amount of income support under the War Veterans Allowance Act when income has declined since the previous year; allowing compassionate awards to be continued to survivors without the necessity of a high level readjudication.
There are also technical housekeeping changes to clarify regulation making authorities, to improve the wording, to ensure the use of gender inclusive language, to correct cross references, and to remove obsolete acts and provisions.
That is quite a list. It is not called an omnibus bill without good reason. Some of the changes are pretty technical and they can be discussed at length during the committee. As a committee member, I certainly look forward to that discussion.
If we keep our eye on the ball we see three distinct parts to the legislation. It provides benefits to previously overlooked civilian groups who provided service to the war effort. It improves access to disability pensions for currently serving Canadian forces members so that the playing field is level for everyone. It makes housekeeping changes that will remove irritants for veterans and clean up or remove outdated parts of the legislation.
I would like to make reference to the issue of the merchant navy special benefit which has been raised by a number of members and provide some up to date information with respect to the processing of those claims. That issue has certainly been raised in the local media around Ottawa and it is essential that members have the most up to date information.
This is the current status of the merchant navy special benefit. As of the July 31 deadline for applications, 13,928 applications had been received. Sixty per cent of those have been processed. More than 4,300 cheques totalling approximately $31 million had been issued by September 14, 2000. The Government of Canada had earmarked $50 million for the merchant navy veterans special benefit and Veterans Affairs Canada is currently doing a statistical sample of the remaining applications in order to project the total cost of the benefit. This information should be available early in the fall.
During the early weeks of August 2000, departmental officials consulted with five veterans organizations that represent the interests of merchant navy veterans. The purpose of the consultations was to provide information to the organizations about the status of processing applications and to seek their advice and input on policy issues that had been previously raised, including dual service in the military, review and appeal process and the requirement for payment of war risk bonus. The discussions were productive and the veterans organizations continue to provide constructive input.
All of that to say that the government is certainly very, very concerned about the status of veterans in Canada. I for one, working with the defence and veterans affairs committee, have sensed a very non-political approach to this by members of the committee. I find it unfortunate personally that some media people have decided to try to turn this into something of a political football.
In conclusion, as far as Bill C-41 is concerned, it has my full and unqualified support. With some changes I believe that the committee can make it an even better bill to ensure that our veterans receive the very best of benefits and care from the Government of Canada.
Civilian War-Related Benefits Act
The Acting Speaker (Ms. Thibeault)
Is the House ready for the question?
Civilian War-Related Benefits Act
Some hon. members