House of Commons Hansard #137 of the 40th Parliament, 3rd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was military.

Topics

Enhanced New Veterans Charter Act
Government Orders

4:55 p.m.

Liberal

Hedy Fry Vancouver Centre, BC

Mr. Speaker, I take my hat off to my colleague who has been a champion for so many things, especially with veterans when she was the critic and now that she is on the committee.

Veterans have spoken to me over and over. We have all agreed on the lump sum and we have all talked about post-traumatic stress disorder, but I have heard from veterans that the system, per se, that is supposed to serve them is not working. I am speaking as a British Columbian now and what we have found that the veterans have no call centres in British Columbia. So if they have to phone back east and if there is a weather problem that they cannot get through because lines are down, they do not know what to do. They wait until things are better. They have no facility. The closest facility for rehabilitation is in Alberta. They jump through hoops all the time.

Does the member feel, as suggested earlier by our colleagues from the Bloc, that the system and how it works to serve veterans is something that her committee can look at?

Enhanced New Veterans Charter Act
Government Orders

4:55 p.m.

Liberal

Judy Sgro York West, ON

Mr. Speaker, I have to say in the two years that I have been on this committee, we have heard from so many different people about their frustrations, whether it is with the Veterans Appeal Board or whatever, when it comes to getting a chance to have a hearing, how many cases are overturned and how they have difficulty accessing it. We have had the officials from the department before our committee countless times.

Our committee works in a very non-partisan way, which I think is a tribute to the people and to the veterans society. Clearly, the people who work for Veterans Canada have a tremendous interest in actually being able to solve the problems. However, we continue to hear those problems and we continue to have the bureaucracy come before us to answer to us, to listen to the concerns that are raised.

Clearly, in British Columbia, there are probably a lot more issues because of the fact of distance and time, as my hon. colleague mentioned. There is still a lot of work to do.

We have a new group of what we call veterans who are very young, who are looking for service and for help. It is up to us to make improvements so that they get the recognition and support that they clearly deserve.

Enhanced New Veterans Charter Act
Government Orders

4:55 p.m.

NDP

Irene Mathyssen London—Fanshawe, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am most grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate concerning the courageous men and women who serve and have served in the military.

When our country was in danger during World War I, World War II and Korea, or when our country called upon them to be peacekeepers in places far from home, like Somalia, Bosnia, Lebanon, Cypress, East Timor, Suez and now in Afghanistan, when they were sent to serve in NATO, or when our country asked them to help communities jeopardized by floods, earthquakes, ice storms, forest fires, our courageous men and women did not hesitate. They did what they were asked to do. They did their duty in World War I, World War II, Korea and a multitude of deployments since.

In the course of that duty our country made a covenant with them. Canada made promises that the men and women of the armed forces would not be forgotten. Our governments made and continue to make promises assuring these men and women that they would be remembered and honoured by a grateful nation. That is a wonderful sentiment.

I know without a shadow of a doubt that the people of Canada are grateful and that they truly remember and honour our servicemen and women in the Canadian Forces and the RCMP. I see it every day from my constituents in London—Fanshawe.

Sadly however, what has become painfully obvious is that the government neither honours our veterans, peacekeepers and those currently serving, nor is it willing to unconditionally provide the services, pensions, programs and special care to which these veterans, the members of the armed forces and their families are entitled.

I am extremely disappointed that after four years the government was unable to incorporate more substantial changes to the veterans charter. The changes proposed in Bill C-55 are merely cosmetic and do not go far enough.

Bill C-55 states that the minister may provide career transition services; may provide rehabilitation services and vocational assistance to veterans' survivors; may on application pay a permanent allowance to a veteran. “May” is not good enough. The word must be “shall”.

Veterans have waited long enough. The Government of Canada has an obligation to ensure that after veterans have put their lives on the line they are treated with dignity, honour and respect.

Sadly, Bill C-55 is a lost opportunity. The act itself is full of equivocations. We have report after report that show the total inadequacies of an overly complex and ineffective Veterans Affairs program.

The government ignored the vast majority of recommendations regarding changes to the veterans charter, the lion's share of which came from the Gerontological Advisory Council as well as the former veterans ombudsman and the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs, all of whom produced significant studies on the veterans charter.

I would like to highlight some of the problems that this new legislation ignores.

I am sure members know about the pension clawbacks that retired members of the Canadian Forces face when they reach age 65. In 1966, when the CPP was introduced, it was integrated with the Canadian Forces Superannuation Act and the RCMP Superannuation Act. Members of the Canadian Forces were unaware that there would consequently be reductions to their pensions.

During their working years, CF members face health hazards, long periods of time away from family and frequent moves. The negative impact of these stresses are often felt most acutely in later life. Cancelling the clawback is the best way to acknowledge the commitment and service of veterans. The government has however not been receptive to this imperative.

When a veteran dies, his or her spouse is allowed only 50% of the pension of the deceased. Many of these spouses face real hardship and as a result, legions across the country have tried to make up for what the government takes away. Legion sponsored funds attempt to support widows and widowers and their families as well as possible. The legion has fundraisers with raffles and poppy sales, dinners and hall rentals, but the legion too is falling on hard times. Its members are aging. Its numbers are in decline and it is having difficulty making ends meet.

Legions have recommended that survivor pensions be two-thirds of the original pension. That would be a tremendous help to spouses, many of whom are elderly women.

Unfortunately, the government is not interested in such a change. Even worse, if a veteran marries after age 60, the widow or widower is entitled to nothing. The Canadian Forces Superannuation Act calls them gold diggers and refuses to recognize any entitlement, refusing to recognize the importance of the love and comfort they gave to their partners. It is a sign of disrespect.

Nowhere is such disrespect more evident than in the situation faced by many ex-forces members if injuries sustained during service do not fully manifest themselves until after retirement.

Just this fall I had an extended conversation with a master sergeant. While serving overseas, he sustained injuries from a significant fall in a training exercise. He was hospitalized with a spinal fracture, and after he recovered he returned to active duty. Now some 30 years later, he suffers from neck pain caused by the fracture. He survives on expensive medications not covered by his benefits. When he asked Veterans Affairs for help, he was denied. The reason given was that he had not been injured in combat. In other words, despite medical records showing injuries from a serious accident during his service career, his veracity and the value of his service were called into question and he was refused benefits.

Bill C-55 does not provide a remedy for this injustice. The corporate insurance mentality of those administering the program within Veterans Affairs hurts those who have served their country, and hurts their families too. That mentality has to go.

Did members know there is a homeless shelter for military veterans and a food bank in Calgary set up specifically for veterans?

Last April, the Prime Minister visited that food bank, had a media photo op and talked about how wonderful it was that the community was helping veterans. Well, it was, except that a research study conducted by London based researchers, Susan Ray and Cheryl Forchuk, shows that in southwestern Ontario alone there are dozens of homeless veterans. I wonder if it occurred to the Prime Minister that it is an outrage that the people we pledged to honour and remember are homeless and forced to survive by going to a food bank.

Even with Bill C-55, veterans and retired CF personnel still face reduced pension, may have pension benefits denied and are not entitled to help for non-service-related injuries. The experience of homelessness and hunger among veterans is a common occurrence.

It certainly does not seem like a grateful government or a responsible Department of Veterans Affairs.

Finally, I want to talk about the situation at Parkwood Hospital in my riding. Parkwood was at one time the regional veterans hospital. I can remember visiting my uncles, both veterans of World War II, at Parkwood whenever they were hospitalized. Parkwood was also a long-term care facility for veterans whose injuries were so serious they would never live independently or with their families again.

Back in 1979, Parkwood and veterans hospitals across the country were turned over to the provinces and Veterans Affairs contracted for beds and care for the World War I, World War II and Korean War vets. The agreement entered into with the province contained no provisions for modern day veterans or the estimated 200,000 peacekeepers who have served on missions since Korea. Many of these retired or soon to be retired Canadian Forces members feel they have been overlooked by their country. While there are private care homes available to them, many feel they should receive the same level of care and have the same access to hospitals like Parkwood that previous generations had. Unfortunately, the beds at veterans hospitals will close as World War II and Korean War veterans pass away. Once these beds are gone, they will not re-open.

The Government of Canada should change the mandate of veterans hospitals and allow those coming back from Afghanistan and the aging post-Korean service personnel to have access to federally supported beds. I say this because the care of veterans is a federal responsibility, a part of the covenant that I talked about at the beginning of my remarks.

These veterans have earned their pensions, their benefits, their services and programs and they have earned the right to expect their government to fulfill all of the promises made. It is time for the government to go back to the drawing board. Bill C-55 does not fix the problems with the veterans charter. The bill needs extensive amendments.

Our veterans deserve much better than what they are receiving. Let us honour them with the dignity and respect they deserve.

Enhanced New Veterans Charter Act
Government Orders

5:05 p.m.

Jonquière—Alma
Québec

Conservative

Jean-Pierre Blackburn Minister of Veterans Affairs and Minister of State (Agriculture)

Madam Speaker, I listened to the hon. member's comments and I found that her judgment was too harsh. We are in the process of making significant changes to support our veterans, particularly our modern-day veterans who may come back from Afghanistan wounded.

We are in the process of implementing three measures that will help them in their lives. If they participate in a rehabilitation program, they will receive $40,000 per year for the duration of the program. In addition, if they are seriously wounded and are unable to return to work, they will receive a minimum of $58,000 per year plus the lump sum payment that, with the new changes, can reach up to $285,000 depending on the extent of the veteran's injuries. They can receive this money in cash or spread it over the desired number of years; they have the choice.

There was a unanimous vote in this regard in 2005. Our soldiers are still in the Canadian army for two or three years after they return from Afghanistan, during which time they receive their full salary. It is only in the past few years that we discovered weaknesses in the system. That is why we are proceeding in this fashion now; we are going to improve things for them.

The Royal Canadian Legion and the other seven veterans organizations that we consulted think that we are on the right path and that we have set the right priorities. Does the hon. member not think that we are doing something really good for veterans?

Enhanced New Veterans Charter Act
Government Orders

5:10 p.m.

NDP

Irene Mathyssen London—Fanshawe, ON

Madam Speaker, I thank the hon. minister for his question. I do, however, have to go back to Bill C-55.

I am very disappointed it is so very weak. Clause after clause indicates that the minister “may” provide support, not “shall” but “may”. To me, this equivocation means that veterans are once again going to be put at risk.

The minister is quite right in terms of the living document that appeared in this House four years ago. Unfortunately, I feel that it took far too long for the needed changes to even be proposed.

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to comment on the announcement made a couple of weeks ago by the Minister of National Defence, in which he talked about five places where veterans could go in order to have the services and support they need. While it is an important step in the right direction, I would suggest that only five centres spread across this huge country are not enough.

A great many of the veterans that I come in contact with are unsure and need support, and they could never manage to get to one of these centres. I am pleased to see that the centres have been brought forward. Establishing them was one of the NDP suggestions that we fought very hard for for a very long time.

Again, however, veterans need more.

Enhanced New Veterans Charter Act
Government Orders

5:10 p.m.

Liberal

Larry Bagnell Yukon, YT

Madam Speaker, I have two quick points to make that I raised on November 23 in the debate on pensions. I have not heard back from the government, so I just want to make these points again.

The first one is that the public service superannuation plan used to be administered by the Yukon government for federal employees in the Yukon. They moved it to New Brunswick with disastrous results, with waits of four or five month sometimes. It is just not working, and I hope the government has moved on that since my request on November 23.

The second thing is that I wonder if the member has heard what I have heard from military members and reservists, that they wait months to have their requests to buy back pension time. They can buy back certain pension time in a particular role or job, but of course they need to know how much it is to be calculated. They are waiting months for that type of service.

Is that the type of administrative service our veterans should be getting? Does that show that the government is making the administration of benefits to veterans a priority?

Enhanced New Veterans Charter Act
Government Orders

5:10 p.m.

NDP

Irene Mathyssen London—Fanshawe, ON

Madam Speaker, my colleague underscores what I am most concerned about, that there will only be five centres available for veterans if they need help and support. His point about the problems caused by services being moved to a distant area also underscores the situation we are facing.

Many of the veterans who come to talk to me about their situation are extremely fragile. They have depended on the military for most of their adult lives in their decision-making and they find it very difficult when things get complicated or complex. Many of their needs are significant. As we know, the pay received by the average Canadian Forces person is not significant, and he or she cannot wait months and months for a buyback or some kind of financial support. We can do far better. We promised this.

When I made my remarks, I talked about the covenant between our service personnel and RCMP and this country. We ask them to do terrifying and important things for their country. They have stood and done those things, and we owe them the respect and dignity due by making sure that whatever they need will be provided. Unfortunately, Bill C-55 does not do that, at least not in its present state, and I am hoping that we can amend it to make it stronger and make it work because we are far past the point where we can tolerate any more wasted time.

Enhanced New Veterans Charter Act
Government Orders

5:15 p.m.

NDP

Jim Maloway Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Madam Speaker, when the minister made his presentation on the bill some time ago, he indicated the changes to be brought about by the bill but insisted that the lump sum provisions would be kept as an option. The NDP's argument has been that when we are dealing with injured people, particularly younger injured people, they have a great temptation to take a lump sum payment.

Not only has the federal government presented this option but also the Conservative government in Manitoba a number of years ago brought in the same option for workers' compensation. It was basically a way for it to walk away from the problem. If people signed off on a lump sum payment, the government avoided liability at a very low cost, because while the lump sum looks like very big amount of money, the reality is that disability lasts a lifetime. These are young people who are going to live many years.

The government is deluding itself if it feels that somehow it is solving the problem by offering lump sum payments because at the end of day, when all of that money is spent, and in a lot of cases it will be spent very quickly, the people who are disabled are going to feel shortchanged by the government and will come back and ask for more.

Therefore, I do not think we should be offering a lump sum, whether for workers' compensation or this situation here.

I would like to ask the member if she has any comments in that regard, because I sense that the Liberals and the government want to keep the option of a lump sum.

Enhanced New Veterans Charter Act
Government Orders

5:15 p.m.

NDP

Irene Mathyssen London—Fanshawe, ON

Madam Speaker, the lump sum payment is certainly a significant issue. My colleague from Sackville—Eastern Shore and I have discussed this.

When it comes to older veterans, the lump sum may well make a good deal of sense, inasmuch as they may wish to retire soon or may have expenditures to make, such as paying off their mortgages or their children's educations. In these cases, the lump sum payment might make sense. If their health is good, that is an option that should be available.

However, as my colleague has pointed out, younger veterans have a whole lifetime ahead of them. They have families to support, they may have medical challenges to deal with and physiotherapy and expensive drugs to pay for, as the young master sergeant explained to me. For those people, the lump sum does not make sense: they need a secure pension. The former ombudsman, Mr. Stogran, pointed that out quite clearly.

Enhanced New Veterans Charter Act
Government Orders

March 2nd, 2011 / 5:15 p.m.

Liberal

Bryon Wilfert Richmond Hill, ON

Madam Speaker, I am delighted to participate in the debate on Bill C-55.

From the outset, I want to point out that I support Bill C-55, as the son of a World War II veteran who served at D-Day and went through the battle of the Falaise Gap and Caen. My father came home with shrapnel in his legs and that was there until the day he died. He lost hearing in one ear. I know what it is like to live with a veteran who had to seek services from Veterans Affairs. I know what it is like for someone who, through no fault of his own, did not come back the same person as when he left for the war. Yet my father would say every day that he would do it again.

At the end of World War II, no country treated their veterans better than Canada, bar none.

As the vice-chair of the national defence committee and the vice-chair of the Afghan committee, I have had the opportunity to visit Afghanistan on three occasions and meet with our soldiers in the field. I have had the opportunity to meet with veterans here. As a member of the Royal Canadian Legion in Richmond Hill, Branch 375, I have talked to veterans. All they want and deserve are services that will respond effectively to their needs.

When a veteran, in his eighties, needs a new pair of eyeglasses and it takes months to get a response, that is unacceptable. When a veteran needs a new hearing aid and it takes months, that is unacceptable.

Whether these amendments are made or not, the charter still does not deal with the issue of customer service. We need to respond more effectively and efficiently to the needs of veterans. As more and more people come home from Afghanistan, we will have a larger number of veterans. The defence committee last year did a post traumatic stress disorder study. We found that there was a discrepancy in the country between east and west in terms of the services available for veterans.

I wrote the Minister of Veterans Affairs on October 25 about the $4,100 currently paid for burial. That is about 70% less than a normal burial in our country and one-third of what it would be if one was killed in action in Afghanistan. That is unacceptable. Some families do not have the money to cover full burial costs and the government only provides $4,100. I hope the minister will respond effectively on that issue.

There is no question that the bill before the House tries to address some of the issues. We know that the Royal Canadian Legion, for example, is supportive of these changes. Our party has no intention of holding up the bill. We want to ensure we move forward as fast as possible.

The charter was passed in 2005, and this is a living document. It is too bad that it has taken four years to come to this point. We need to act quickly to deal with some of the issues that are before the House and get this done.

One of the issues the government did not deal with effectively was on the lump-sum payment. That is surprising, given the minister's departmental study found that 31% of veterans were unhappy with the lump-sum payment. Although the minister said that he would improve the system, under this legislation, all the minister has really done is divide up the payment differently. Veterans have not been asking for that. That is not what that study showed.

Clearly dealing with the issue of partial payments over a number of years for recipients or a single lump-sum payment still does not address the issue that many veterans have articulated. That should have been addressed in the legislation. Again, the minister has had four years and nothing has really been done to address it.

In fact, if we look at Australia, the Australian veterans receive an average of $329,000, whereas the British receive up to $1 million. We need to address this kind of issue for our veterans.

Pieces of the legislation address the concerns of a number of people and a number of associations, such as the proposed legislation dealing with $58,000 per year for seriously wounded or ill veterans, an improvement, and for those too injured to return to the workforce, a minimum of $40,000 per year no matter what the salary was when serving in the Canadian Forces for those receiving the monthly earnings loss benefit. Again, that is an important change.

These changes are necessary but, again, it is the ability of veterans to access these changes. It is the ability of veterans to get the services they need in a prompt and efficient manner.

A larger disability award is needed in line with what is provided in Australia, which is also provided to disabled civilian veterans who also receive assistance. Again, these are things we could do. I mentioned burial costs, again things we could address.

In the House we always say how important veterans are, yet when it comes to action, we have waited four years for changes, which, again, particularly because of pressure from all opposition parties, now almost at the eleventh we get this.

The new veterans charter advisory group and the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs have indicated, insistently, the need for changes and for those changes to happen quickly. Again, it is disappointing that we have waited.

On the issue of homeless veterans, it is absolutely shocking in our country that we have veterans who are homeless, who are on the streets, who have come back to a lack of support. Again, it is a national disgrace that we have homeless veterans.

Only now are the media, members of Parliament and others actually looking at this, not only as a social issue but also as a moral issue. We have a responsibility to deal with those individuals. Again, I find it very sad that we have what I call homeless heroes on the street who have no ability to deal effectively with finding work, health benefits, et cetera. We have to deal with that.

It is encouraging that many national veterans' organizations are in support of this. It is encouraging to note we are moving forward with the legislation. Some people are talking about an election. I guess that will up to the government. It only governs by the will of Parliament and hopefully maintains the confidence of Parliament. If the government is really serious, hopefully we will be able to address these issues, both now and in the upcoming budget, which the Minister of Finance has announced will be presented on March 22.

It is important that we not only respond in this way, but also that we provide more people in the field, in terms of caseworkers who deal with our veterans. We are going to see a significant increase in the numbers of veterans coming home, because of Afghanistan, and that is going to have an impact.

The number of psychiatrists and psychologists in the Canadian Forces is actually low. In fact, the services are much lower and much less effective in eastern Canada because many of those bases are further away from some of the major cities versus those in western Canada. We need to address that problem.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is not something that is always discovered on a veteran's return home, or three months later or two years later; it can be up to five years later. Again, are we ready to respond to that?

From our studies at the defence committee, the answer is clearly no. We are not ready to respond to that. On that point, I plead to the government to put the resources in to ensure we can attract the professionals to help in that regard and to help the families of those individuals.

About 10 years we did a quality of life study at the defence committee. It really responded to many of the key issues on wages, housing conditions and benefits for people. It is time we started another review and respond in terms of updating the quality of life. We ask people to go overseas and put their lives on the line, while their families are here. Do the families have the right support while those people are away? Do those people have the right support when they come home?

The answer is we do not. We have fallen a long way since the end of the Second World War when we provided the best benefits to veterans coming home after that war.

I was part of a Parliament that addressed these issues and addressed them effectively for future generations. Although we talk a lot about our responsibility to veterans, I would hope that we really show it to them, not only financially but in the other ways that I have pointed out.

I trust we can move this legislation along very quickly. Although some people have reservations, the reality is not only do we have to act at least on those changes that have been made, but we have to keep pushing on the others as well. If we do not, it will be another four years before we see any action.

Our party has pledged to do that. We are party that brought in the charter. We are the party that said it was a living document. It is too bad that it sat on the shelf for four years. Ultimately we are all collectively responsible for ensuring our veterans have the best.

The House resumed from March 1 consideration of the motion.

Citizenship and Immigration
Committees of the House
Routine Proceedings

5:30 p.m.

NDP

The Acting Speaker Denise Savoie

It being 5:30 p.m., the House will now proceed to the taking of the deferred recorded division on the motion to concur in the eighth report of the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration.

Call in the members.

(The House divided on the motion, which was agreed to on the following division:)

Vote #189

Committees of the House
Routine Proceedings

6:10 p.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Peter Milliken

I declare the motion carried.

The House resumed consideration of the motion that Bill C-42, An Act to amend the Aeronautics Act, be read the third time and passed.