House of Commons Hansard #89 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was literacy.

Topics

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

3:55 p.m.

Liberal

Sean Casey Charlottetown, PE

Mr. Speaker, I wish to thank the member for Huron—Bruce for his comments. I serve on the veterans committee with him and share his interests in service delivery and improving it. The member is genuinely concerned about that, regardless of partisan or non-partisan overtones, and I commend him for that.

One of the things he said toward the end of his speech was that we cannot do enough for veterans, that we cannot say this is the established level and that we are not going beyond it. In fact, is that not precisely what the proposed amendment wants to do? The proposed amendment refers to our “maintaining” veterans' benefits, so the status quo is good. However, the main motion that we are debating would allow for the moneys no longer being spent on dying veterans to be reinvested. Therefore, the very thing he advocated at the end of his speech is in fact the substance of the motion.

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

March 5th, 2012 / 3:55 p.m.

Conservative

Ben Lobb Huron—Bruce, ON

Mr. Speaker, I think what the member is trying to do is actually to twist around what I said, because what we are really talking about here is service. We are maintaining the benefits that veterans receive, and that is the most important thing. However, on the service side, with the delivery of those benefits, the sky should be the limit. We and the people in the department should strive every single day to think of better ways to deliver those services to the veterans.

Down the road, as veterans' needs evolve and we look at the new veterans charter and there need to be changes or enhancements, let us go for it. I do not think there is anyone in this House who would vote against improvements to the veterans charter. It has been a year since we looked at it and in the next year or two, it will be time to take another look at it. As time moves on, let us take a look at it to see where we can make improvements. Let us find out about the needs of our vets returning from Afghanistan.

There are a lot of opportunities and I think is one. This is why Veterans Affairs works, because it is not partisan. We are all in this together. I would like to see things move along.

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4 p.m.

NDP

David Christopherson Hamilton Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, I would like to share my time with the hon. member for Dartmouth—Cole Harbour. I hope that is acceptable.

I will begin my remarks by saying how sad it is that this debate is even necessary. Here I want to thank the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore, not the minister, not the government, not the Prime Minister, but this member who has been the leading voice standing up and fighting for veterans, RCMP and their families, day after day. We thank this member for bringing this forward and giving us this chance.

As I said, what a shame and sad commentary on the government that we still have uniformed citizens in the theatre of war, whether a declared war or not, who are dying. That is the only reality that Canadians care about, and the government can put any label it wants on it.

There is not a Canadian, short of a mom who does not have milk and food for her baby, who is prepared to say that the health care, respect and dignity of those fellow citizens who don that uniform and go into harm's way on our behalf should not be given every single support necessary to give them that life and dignity, assuming, indeed, they return back home alive.

How sad it is that in this context we have to bring forward a motion, on bended knee, “Please do not cut the benefits to our veterans”. How shameful it is that we would have to do that. It is not being done in the United Kingdom. It is not being done in the United States. It is not being done in Australia. However, here in Canada, we have to have a debate about whether or not our veterans' services and benefits will be protected from the austerity budget that is coming at us.

We have listened to the Conservatives on any given day for years when they were in opposition or in government, and no one short of my friend from Sackville—Eastern Shore can stand up and mouth the words of respect and dignity and service and loyalty and all the great attributes that are well deserved to be heaped upon our veterans.

The Conservatives are really good at the words, and they are even better at doing the saluting when the ships are going off from our shores. There are lots of flags, lots of bands, lots of support, lots of words about how wonderful these Canadians are.

However, what really matters for those of us who are here, who are not in government and cannot do anything other than say thanks, is to be sure that the one thing we can do as Canadians is to give our voice and our support to a policy that says the government will not cut veterans' programs, it will not cut veterans' benefits, and it will not harm their families.

The Conservatives make the speeches, but let us never forget they have the power and the money and could make this whole argument redundant. If we listen to their speeches, we should be in this place right now questioning whether or not they are pandering to veterans by giving them so much. To listen to the Conservatives' speeches, the veterans are the most important people in the whole nation.

When the bands are gone and the ministers and senior military officials are gone and the veterans are coming home, if they are lucky enough to come home, and they have needs, where will the band be for them then? Where will all the parades be for those who are suffering with mental health issues, whose physical lives have changed forever, who cannot breathe right, who cannot walk right, or who do not have a sexual life, all of those things that are real and they live with when they are alone? It must seem so much more lonely when the person does not even think the government is on his or her side. That is the shame of why we are here today.

The Conservatives are great at making speeches. They are great at taking credit when they are prepared to buy big military assets and beef up the military budget. Why are they not standing up for veterans, the women and men, the reservists in uniform, who do the biggest thing that a country can ask of a citizen, and that is put on a uniform, take a gun and fight? They are not expected to ask why or what it is about. They cannot question whether or not to be there. They are expected to just go there and do the job, and that is what our armed forces do with pride.

In return for that blind support, all they are asking for is to be cared for when they come home, that their families be given a chance to get back on a normal path, that their families be taken care of if they do not come home. While the rest of us benefit from what they have done, they ask for decent dignity. This is about that.

The government says that it just needs to change a few red tape rules, that bureaucracy is the problem, that red tape is the problem. The government does not think the budget is to blame. If that were the case, these galleries would be filled with veterans who agreed with the government's idea of cutting red tape. They would be telling the government to ensure that the austerity program would be front and centre at Veterans Affairs, that they knew if the government got rid of the red tape, they would then the get the benefits. They are not here saying that and they are not going to be here.

We just need to ask legions how they feel about this idea. There is a voice that actually represents our veterans. They are both angry and terrified at the prospect of what little benefits our veterans will get beyond the chopping block.

We have tried on a number of occasions, again thanks to the leadership of the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore, to help our veterans. We brought in an NDP veterans first motion in 2006, and as I recall, the government of the day, the Conservative government, was quite pleased to stand and support it. Conservative members probably gave all the right kind of speeches, but they did not do it.

Words are cheap. Programs and benefits cost money and bureaucrats have to be hired to administer the programs. We can call bureaucrats evil or fantastic, depending on whether they have the programs to administer to help the veteran at the end of the phone, or at the end of the computer hookup or standing right in front of them.

This is not about red tape. This is not about bureaucracy. This is about a political will that either the Conservatives have or do not have. This is about standing up to their highfalutin words about what they say about our veterans. This is about whether they are prepared to put real money behind that.

We demanded before, and we will continue to demand, but at this point, nobody has demanded any great expansion of programs. Our veterans were willing to give up their lives and in many cases they did. All they and their families and their representatives are asking is for the government not take a meat cleaver to the veterans affairs ministry. They are asking for the same respect that the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia have shown to their veterans.

I end with passionate remarks. I am saddened and border on disgusted that we would even need to have a debate like this. It will be interesting to see how government members vote. If they do support the motion, it will be interesting to see whether it finds its way into policy. Who knows? The Conservatives talk one game and do another.

I am proud to stand here in support of the motion. I am proud to let the veterans of Canada know that they are not alone, that the vast majority of us in the House do support them and are prepared to say so on any day we are called to.

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:10 p.m.

Mississauga—Brampton South
Ontario

Conservative

Eve Adams Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Veterans Affairs

Mr. Speaker, as the minister and I have said repeatedly in the chamber, benefits to our veterans will be maintained. There is no debate or discussion. Nobody has ever once suggested that benefits to our veterans will be reduced. In fact, it is our Conservative government that has brought in the most sweeping improvements to veterans' benefits in some 60 years through the new veterans charter.

The opposition parties voted against funding for the new veterans charter. Perhaps the hon. member opposite could explain why he chose to vote not to fund improvements to the new veterans charter to assist our veterans.

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:10 p.m.

NDP

David Christopherson Hamilton Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, those are nice words and people get the impression everything will be fine. If that is the case, then why at his last news conference did the former veterans ombudsman, whose job it is to speak for veterans, say this:

It is beyond my comprehension how the system could knowingly deny so many of our veterans the services and benefits that the people and the government of Canada recognized a long, long time ago as being their obligation to provide.

We agree with that. Why does the government not?

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:10 p.m.

Liberal

Sean Casey Charlottetown, PE

Mr. Speaker, we heard in question period that the apparent enemy of veterans was red tape and that we really needed to not pass the NDP motion so we could get at the red tape, which leaves me a little confused. I would ask the hon. member if the elimination of red tape within the Department of Veterans Affairs is inconsistent with the spirit of the motion.

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:10 p.m.

NDP

David Christopherson Hamilton Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, is cutting red tape inconsistent with the cuts? I think I understand where the member is coming from. Every ministry should be constantly reviewing for efficiencies and redundant red tape as a matter of course. I have been through the Mike Harris years and I know a red herring when I see one. This is all about pretending that red tape and bureaucracy are the problem. We can all understand that. It is pretending there is some bottleneck and if we could just remove that, all the great benefits would flow forward.

This is not just from me. The former veterans ombudsman has said that currently the benefits are not getting through and that there are not enough benefits and services. Therefore, we are going to ignore this red herring and focus on the real issue, which to, at the very least, maintain the veterans ministry that now exists to serve the people who we hold in the highest regard: our fellow citizens in the armed forces.

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:10 p.m.

NDP

Claude Gravelle Nickel Belt, ON

Mr. Speaker, 90% of the departmental budget is allocated to delivery and legislated benefits and services. Now the government is going to cut anywhere between $170 million and $300 million out of the $900 million budget. By cutting that much money out of the budget, how can the government not cut services?

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:10 p.m.

NDP

David Christopherson Hamilton Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, the answer is it cannot. There is no way one can remove that much money from a budget that already has such a large percentage. I am not on the committee, though I am sure it is close to 90%.

Regardless, any amount of money cut out of supposed red tape at the end of the day is going to leave some veteran or family member without a service or benefit to which he or she is entitled. That is not acceptable and this motion is to say that the government is not going to make it worse, under the guise of austerity, by going in with a meat cleaver and start hacking away. Every dollar out of that ministry means some veteran is not getting a service he or she is bloody well entitled to and the rest of Canada wants the person to get.

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:15 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Barry Devolin

It is my duty pursuant to Standing Order 38 to inform the House that the questions to be raised tonight at the time of adjournment are as follows: the hon. member for Saanich—Gulf Islands, The Environment; the hon. member for Trinity—Spadina, Airline Safety; the hon. member for Scarborough—Guildwood, National Defence.

Resuming date, the hon. member for Dartmouth—Cole Harbour.

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:15 p.m.

NDP

Robert Chisholm Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, NS

Mr. Speaker, I am please to speak to an issue as important as this. I am somewhat intimidated to have to follow the member for Hamilton Centre, who speaks on issues as important as this with a level of passion to which we all should pay some attention.

I am pleased to speak in support of the motion that was introduced by the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore, which reads:

That, in the opinion of the House, the government should: (a) honour the service of Canadian military and RCMP veterans and their families by committing to not cut Veterans Affairs Canada in the upcoming budget; and (b) provide programs and services to all military and RCMP veterans and their families in a timely and comprehensive manner.

I have been paying attention to the debate today and listening to members on the government side talk about how everything is fine. They are saying that there is going to be cuts, not to programs and services, but to red tape or to the bureaucracy and that this will not affect the services and programs. I find that hard to believe on a couple of levels.

First, 90% of the funding in Veterans Affairs Canada goes to programs and services. Therefore, if the government is going to cut that department by 5% to 10%, then I would like to see how it would do that without affecting programs and services.

Second, government members are arguing this point in a way to suggest that everything in the department right now is fine. We have heard my fellow colleague from Nova Scotia talk in the House repeatedly about the problems that our veterans are facing in trying to deal with this department. Again and again, cases come forward that are denied for no reason or there are non-sufficient reasons given. Senior veterans who are now in a frail condition need support and services, whether that be health care or otherwise, but they are either unable to get them or they are put through such a wringer of a process that it just adds to their burden.

It has been said by others much more eloquently than I that these are the women and men who have fought and served on behalf of our country and in defence of our country, democracy and the UN. They have made unbelievable contributions to Canada and to generations for many years. However, the government seems to be turning its back on them.

It is not just this government. This has been going on since 1998. The auditor general said first in 1998 that claims were being denied repeatedly without sufficient justification and that veterans were not getting the services and supports they deserved. Here we are in 2012, and it is continuing apace.

In February, Guy Parent, the Veterans Ombudsman, said in a new report that veterans were not being given adequate reason for why their requests for disability benefits were being turned down and that they were not getting timely and comprehensive services and programs.

We heard from the former ombudsman and auditors general. However, the problem continues to exist in our country.

I appreciate the members opposite getting up and talking with their hand over their heart about how much they support and believe in veterans and people who serve in the military and the RCMP, but that is not good enough. We need to do more than that. We need to work harder. We need to be committed to putting the money and resources in place for these men and women who the government has been quite prepared to send and put in harm's way in different parts of the world. These people have gone willingly and, in many cases, made the great sacrifice, and we are not prepared to support them and their families when they return. For that kind of commitment. I do not understand it. I cannot fathom it. it is wrong and we are trying to do everything we can to turn it around.

We have heard the government say that there are fewer veterans, that they are dying off. In fact, there are more veterans. The veterans are continuing. The government may remember that it dedicated women and men to fight in Afghanistan . Recently, the chief of army staff, Lieutenant-General Peter Devlin, stated before a Senate committee on national defence that over 40,000 Canadian Forces members have deployed to Afghanistan since 2011. They have examined the situation and they have suggested that 30% of those people studied receive some form of mental health care, 8% of those were diagnosed with PTSD and a further 5% with some type of Afghan-related operational stress injury. What about those people? Do they not deserve support and services from the government? We need to do something. We need to take a stand in this House to ensure the government does the right thing. Its allies in the United States and in the U.K. have said that their veterans will not be subject to austerity.

I would suggest that if the government is so convinced that its red tape review will have the kind of effect that will recognize a savings, then it would be prepared to exempt this department and find the money elsewhere through those kinds of red tape.

I will talk about the kinds of services and the fact that services are not available. I have an 86-year-old constituent, David Kurts, who has been trying for two years to get services from the government and this department. This is somebody who has served in the navy, the merchant marines and the merchant navy, who has contributed to the public service, has been a contributor and has been denied services for two years. He, undoubtedly, will need to go before an appeal board to get any action. The member for Sackville—Eastern Shore is keeping an eye on this file as I will and we will try to ensure we get a positive resolve.

In light of the government's willingness to consider protecting some of this budget, I want to move the following motion, seconded by the member for Saint-Jean. I move:

That the motion be amended by deleting all the words after “should” and replacing them with the following:

honour the service of Canadian military and RCMP veterans and their families by: (a) committing to not cut Veterans Affairs Canada benefits in the upcoming budget; (b) committing every dollar identified through the Strategic and Operating Review of the department to programs and services for military and RCMP veterans and their families; and (c) providing programs and services to all military and RCMP veterans and their families in a timely and comprehensive manner.

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:25 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Barry Devolin

It is my duty to inform hon. members that an amendment to an opposition motion may be moved only with the consent of the sponsor of the motion. Therefore, I ask the hon. member for Sackville—Eastern Shore if he consents to the amendment being moved.

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:25 p.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

Yes.

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:25 p.m.

Lévis—Bellechasse
Québec

Conservative

Steven Blaney Minister of Veterans Affairs

Mr. Speaker, I would like to remind the member for Dartmouth—Cole Harbour that for the last five years our government has increased its investments for veterans by more than $200 million and is expected to invest even more in our veterans next year.

The veterans would certainly agree with me that it is important to maintain our benefits to veterans.

I would like to ask the hon. member about his third amendment, which is about responding to our veterans in a timely and comprehensive manner. We agree. Would the member agree that we do not want our veterans to be hindered by red tape? We do not want our veterans to be hindered by a wasteful bureaucracy.

Does the member agree that we need to do the best for our veterans and, in order to do so, we need to streamline our processes, as we are willing to do and as this government has been consistently doing for the last six years by investing in our veterans, not in bureaucracy and red tape?

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:25 p.m.

NDP

Robert Chisholm Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, NS

Mr. Speaker, when the minister pats himself, his department and his government on the back, it flies in the face of the words of the veterans ombudsman in February 2012 who said that veterans were not being given adequate reason why their request for disability benefits was being turned down and that they were not getting timely and comprehensive services and programs.

That was not said by the member for Dartmouth—Cole Harbour. That was said by an officer of this Parliament who is responsible for dealing with this issue on behalf of veterans. He has said, as did the previous ombudsman and as have auditors general, that the government was not up to snuff.

Even so, my amendment has said that if the government is convinced that it can get savings through operational review, then it should do it but ensure that the services and the programs for veterans in this country do not get cut.