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 veterans.

Topics

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

5:50 p.m.

NDP

Robert Aubin Trois-Rivières, QC

Mr. Speaker, knowing that several members wish to address this matter, I will be sharing my time with the hon. member for Burnaby—New Westminster.

Last week, I had the opportunity to experience one of the rare moments of unanimity in this House, when we all agreed to support Shannen's dream. These kinds of issues should always have our unanimous support, because their importance is indisputable. The same goes for how we should treat our military and RCMP veterans and their families.

I would remind the House that politicians do not take part in combat or peacekeeping operations, but we are the ones who decide on the missions that, quite often, jeopardize the health, if not the very lives of our men and women in uniform. Our soldiers defend our values and our freedom on behalf of all Canadians, because that is what we ask them to do. All members in the House carry a great deal of responsibility on their shoulders when they decide to send our troops into a foreign operational theatre, and members should be particularly careful about the respect, treatment and consideration our soldiers deserve.

We owe it to our veterans to remember, and this duty goes beyond the respect shown at Remembrance Day ceremonies. Our respect should be shown through concrete actions that constantly reflect the sacrifices made by our veterans so that we can all live comfortably in a world of freedom and justice.

I am very surprised at our government's attitude toward our veterans. The government has been making one funding announcement after another related to its plans to celebrate a war that happened a very long time ago. Our ministers seem much more interested in commemorating the War of 1812 and the soldiers who died in it than they are in the reality of today's veterans. We are uncomfortable with the extraordinary emphasis the government is putting on that long-ago conflict and the money it is spending to celebrate it. Nation-building means recognizing those who are currently contributing to Canada's presence on the world stage by participating in our diplomacy and military action.

In another sphere of activity, RCMP veterans also deserve recognition through action, not just words. We are just weeks away from a federal budget, but it seems the Conservatives have once again chosen equality over fairness. I will use a very simple example to explain the difference.

If a teenager and I share a pizza equally for dinner, we each get half. After dinner, the teenager is definitely still going to be hungry because he needs more food to fuel his growth, while I will probably have eaten too much and raised my cholesterol level. Equal shares may have seemed like a good idea at the time. Were we to do things differently and share the pizza fairly, neither the teenager nor I would still be hungry at the end of the meal.

Why choose that example? Because for months, the message the government has been sending is that everyone has to fork over their 5% or 10% contribution to the national treasury. Applying such a simplistic formula is not a courageous political agenda. Governing is not just about doing a little math to come up with a budget. It is also about making fair choices to meet the needs of every group and explaining why it is fair. The government must behave courageously.

A simplistic approach might be to say that every veteran who passes away should correspond to a decrease in the credits on this budget line, but that would be to forget that Canadians want a fairer society. They want the government to be there for those who served and even sacrificed their lives. What is more, the needs of today's veterans are very different from yesterday's veterans. War has changed and when veterans return, they need the appropriate care and services for each individual: both veterans and their families.

We are dealing with a new generation of veterans, many of whom are coming home with new psychological disorders. Indeed, this costs money, but that budgetary effort should be a given. A new generation of veterans means a new kind of care for them. Here are some ways the reality is so different: the declining average age of soldiers needing services and the rising number of years during which they need those services; the consequences of choosing combat missions over peacekeeping missions; the growing use of reservists; I will stop there because I do not have enough time.

The NDP is making very reasonable requests and showing increased sensitivity toward veterans and RCMP veterans, while remaining aware of the current economic situation. That is what it means to make choices.

As a result, the NDP is making two requests. First, it is asking for a guarantee that the Department of Veterans Affairs will be exempt from the cuts in the 2012-13 budget. Second, it is asking for a guarantee that all military and RCMP veterans and their families will have access to programs and services in a timely and comprehensive manner.

I would like to remind those who think this measure is excessive that, in 2011, the President of the United States, Barack Obama, committed to not making any cuts to programs for veterans at the very time when Congress and the administration were seeking to balance the budget. The United Kingdom and Australia did the same, so why not Canada?

In addition, according to all the government ministers and many economic analysts, Canada is the G8 country that fared the best during the economic crisis. The budget cuts that the government has been announcing for many months are controversial. It even seems that they may not be very effective or even useless. Given these circumstances, we certainly have the means to recognize military and RCMP veterans.

In addition to our two requests, we also have a number of recommendations to make to improve services for the clients targeted by this motion, such as developing health care centres of excellence for modern veterans, more access to veterans' hospitals, reforms to the new veterans charter, an increase in funeral expenses—a last show of respect if ever there was one—and action on veterans’ homelessness.

In short, the NDP wants to implement a system that will change with the changing needs of military and RCMP veterans. In this case, as in many others, the Conservative government is unfortunately the champion of half measures.

Although the Prime Minister promised, when he was the leader of the opposition, that a Conservative government would immediately extend the veterans independence program to all widows of World War II and Korean War veterans, regardless of when the veteran died or the period in which he received benefits before he died, the measures that have been put in place have resulted in the creation of two categories of widows.

The same approach has been taken with Agent Orange. Not only has the government created different classes of victims—with some receiving benefits and others not—but effective December 31, 2011, the department is no longer accepting applications for lack of program funding. Can we really put a deadline on compensation owed to victims suffering from medical problems associated with the use of Agent Orange?

The same battle is being fought by veterans exposed to radiation, and the list goes on.

At a time when the government is preparing to spend recklessly, without even batting an eyelash, to equip the military with a plane that is unproven and whose costs that continue to spiral upwards, should we not ensure that our soldiers who return home are treated as well as they have served our country abroad? That is the recognition and the respect that we owe our men and women in uniform.

The people we represent are all waiting for this type of action, which allows them to believe in their institutions and, above all, in the value of the politicians they have elected.

I am pleased to have joined in this discussion, and I hope that together we will find the means to meet the expectations of our military and RCMP veterans and their families.

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

6 p.m.

NDP

Claude Gravelle Nickel Belt, ON

Mr. Speaker, I would like to commend the hon. member for his speech on this very important day in the House of Commons.

Like me, the hon. member must certainly return to his riding for Remembrance Day, and I am sure that he has noticed that the number of veterans of past wars is getting smaller each year.

I would like the hon. member to tell me what will happen to our current military personnel when they need services if the Minister of Veterans Affairs makes the cuts we have been talking about today.

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

6 p.m.

NDP

Robert Aubin Trois-Rivières, QC

Mr. Speaker, this year, when I went to participate in the Remembrance Day ceremonies for the first time as a member of Parliament, the biggest surprise for me was to feel as though I were being welcomed as a hero when the veterans are the ones who deserve all the credit.

In most of the informal conversations that I had with new generation of veterans after the ceremonies, they told me that they were concerned because they have trouble obtaining services and they have to justify the health problems they experience as a result of wanting to serve their country. It is completely unacceptable.

I hope that the government will have the decency not to cut the services provided to veterans or the department's budget.

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

6:05 p.m.

NDP

Matthew Dubé Chambly—Borduas, QC

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the fact that my colleague reminded us that last week, the House adopted a unanimous motion concerning Shannen's dream. As he so aptly put it, the same principle applies here when talking about issues that should transcend politics.

However, we are being accused of fearmongering on this issue. The Conservatives assure us that there will be no cuts. However, they refuse to tell us whether, yes or no, they will vote in favour of the motion and that there really will be no cuts. Everyone should be able to vote in favour of the motion.

I wonder if my colleague could comment further on the very serious implications of any budget cuts regarding veterans.

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

6:05 p.m.

NDP

Robert Aubin Trois-Rivières, QC

Mr. Speaker, perhaps our friends know more about the budget than we do on this side of the House. It is very difficult to speculate on the contents of the budget that will be presented on March 29. However, what matters to all Canadians is that there are as many unanimous votes as possible in this House.

If the government really does not have any cuts planned in its budget that will affect veterans, why not prove it immediately and use this motion as an opportunity to show all Canadians, once again, that it is possible for us to work together in this House, in the best interest of our citizens?

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

March 5th, 2012 / 6:05 p.m.

Conservative

Ben Lobb Huron—Bruce, ON

Mr. Speaker, I suggest to the member across the way that he take a look at the main estimates. He could come to the veterans affairs meeting tomorrow afternoon to take a look. It is not a secret. It is $3.5 billion. Ninety per cent of the money in the budget goes toward benefits and services. It is no secret. It is right there.

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

6:05 p.m.

NDP

Robert Aubin Trois-Rivières, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the hon. member for the invitation. Unfortunately, I have to attend the Standing Committee on Official Languages at that time. Otherwise, I would have been happy to go and examine the issue.

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

6:05 p.m.

NDP

Peter Julian Burnaby—New Westminster, BC

Mr. Speaker, we have debated the important issue of veterans all day. The hon. members for Sackville—Eastern Shore and Québec began the debate this morning. Evening has come and no one on the government side has clearly said whether the government will support our motion, which is designed to prevent cuts to services for veterans.

Mr. Speaker, I will go through you to ask these questions of all the members on the government side. Why are they so reluctant to support a motion that is just common sense? Why are they taking so long to clearly state that they fully support the motion, which requests that the same level of services for veterans be maintained in the budget? This is a legitimate question that must be asked. Why have they not answered? We have been debating this issue for eight hours and we have not received an answer.

On this side of the House, we are concerned. It is certain that veterans' families are concerned. People in veterans' hospitals, in families and in homes where veterans live are all surprised at the government's lack of clarity.

The hon. member for Sackville—Eastern Shore asked some questions in the House today. I am tempted to ask the Conservatives whether or not they support veterans. It is a legitimate question to which we still have not had an answer and that is quite worrisome.

It is not just the NDP that supports veterans. All the veterans organizations around the country, like the Royal Canadian Legion, to which a number of NDP MPs and I belong, fully support this motion and this debate today to support veterans. The union of veterans' affairs employees and the veterans ombudsman also support this motion.

Why is the Conservative government not prepared to support this motion after eight hours of debate? All they have to do is stand up and say they agree with the NDP that the services provided to veterans need to be protected.

Quotes were read earlier and I will also read one in these few minutes I have to devote to veterans. Patricia Varga, Dominion President of the Royal Canadian Legion, said:

It is time that our federal leadership owned up to the moral debt they owe to the veterans and their families. They can do that by saying cut if you can but do not touch programs or operations that have any effect on Canada’s veterans.

Guy Parent, the veterans ombudsman, said roughly the same thing. He said that if the United States and the United Kingdom can exempt veterans' programs, Canada should do the same. He added that either the Conservatives should do the same thing or they should ensure that cuts are kept to a minimum.

It is very clear. There is consensus throughout the country, among the people watching today, in the NDP, and among all veterans' organizations. We must ask the following question: do the Conservatives support veterans or not? It is a fairly simple question.

I want to continue talking about the incredible moral debt Canadians owe to our veterans.

I grew up in a family that sent two individuals off to the second world war. My grandfather and my uncle are placed at the monument in front of New Westminster City Hall in my community of New Westminster. They both gave their lives for their country. As with so many Canadians, we feel deeply and profoundly about the debt that we owe the veterans who came back.

As the House well knows, war comes with huge physical, mental, often psychological consequences to our veterans. One cannot go to those kinds of situations and come back unscarred. These brave men and women who have served overseas in the second world war, in the Korean conflict, in multiple peacekeeping operations that Canada has undertaken or in Afghanistan deserve only the best that Canada has to offer. They put their lives on the line. Many of them gave their lives. Those who come back are entitled to the full support of our nation. That is why we find it so perplexing that after seven hours of debate here in the House today the Conservative government has not even signalled yet whether it is going to support the motion or not.

Every year on Remembrance Day I go before the New Westminster cenotaph--

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

6:10 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Bruce Stanton

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. member for Burnaby--New Westminster. There is too much noise in the chamber. I would humbly ask members to carry on their conversations in their respective lobbies.

We will give the hon. member for Burnaby--New Westminster the floor.

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

6:10 p.m.

NDP

Peter Julian Burnaby—New Westminster, BC

Mr. Speaker, I am saddened that some members are not listening to this debate. I know that many Canadians and many veterans value this debate. Without our veterans, we would not be having this democratic debate on the floor of the House of Commons. We owe it to them to listen very attentively. We owe it to them to listen to their needs.

All of the major veterans organizations have come forward and said the government should be supporting the NDP motion, every single one without exception. They understand the contributions that veterans have made to building the country and to preserving the right to a democratic debate in the House of Commons. Veterans who have given their lives or have come back profoundly scarred, sometimes physically, sometimes psychologically, have the right to get the best possible services from a grateful nation.

Every Remembrance Day I go to the George Derby Centre in Burnaby and visit the veterans. I listen to their stories. I see what has happened over time. It is a slow but steady deterioration in the funding that is allocated to that veterans hospital and other veterans hospitals across the country. It is clear and unmistakable. That is why we brought forward the motion today. We understand that the slow, steady and insidious cuts to funding cannot be permitted to continue. We have to provide full support for our veterans, wherever they are in Canada. We do this today with the full support of those veterans organizations.

As members know, in the estimates there were cutbacks. The government would say that it only cut back certain categories, but unmistakably, and we have raised this in the House of Commons, there were cutbacks of millions of dollars in funding to Veterans Affairs. The government is aware of this. It has said even further that it will be looking to make major cuts in ministries, including the Ministry of Veterans Affairs. We could be talking about tens of millions of dollars.

How does that translate? That translates into fewer services available to veterans. It translates into fewer services available anywhere veterans are now receiving the support of a grateful population, whether that be the George Derby Centre in Burnaby, British Columbia, or Ste. Anne's Hospital in Quebec. We will draw that line in the sand to stop further cuts. We want to maintain those services. We want to put forth a motion to the House of Commons that unambiguously states that the cuts, as insidious as they may be, shall stop now, and that the next budget will provide full funding for veterans. We are standing up for veterans in the House of Commons because we can do so. We can stand in the House of Commons and debate because of their sacrifice.

Today we are asking for support from every single member of Parliament to say yes to veterans, to say no to cuts, and to say yes to maintaining the funding for our veterans who have given their lives and often their physical health for this country. They are owed that debt. We owe them no less than full funding in the next budget and no cuts.

We hope that all members of Parliament will support this motion.

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

6:15 p.m.

Conservative

John Weston West Vancouver—Sunshine Coast—Sea to Sky Country, BC

Mr. Speaker, as someone whose uncle, “Smokey” Smith, was the last surviving Victoria Cross holder in Canada, and whose father was a prisoner of war, I have listened very carefully to this debate. I know there is a lot of truth in what the hon. member said. Certainly, my father returned with what I would say are psychological scars. The fact that he carried on a very successful life and was a hero to me and a lot of other people does not take away from that sacrifice.

At the same time, I would ask the hon. member to consider the following and answer the following question. Of course veterans are near and dear to the hearts of most Canadians. Apart from that, is he excluding the possibility that there may be savings in that department as there are in other departments? In times of austerity, we have to look at making those savings so that we can support our veterans in a more effective way. I would put to my hon. friend that this is not to take away from our veterans but to stand up for the very values that they care about. We need to preserve the treasury so that we can serve them and all Canadians better in every possible respect.

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

6:20 p.m.

NDP

Peter Julian Burnaby—New Westminster, BC

Mr. Speaker, I thank the member for his question. Certainly the members on this side of the House share his family's sacrifice and contribution to Canada's roles overseas.

That being said, I must say as a former financial administrator that I am beside myself with the priorities I see being advanced by the government and where it wants to spend money. The F-35s were untendered. They have grown from a budget of $9 billion to $30 billion, perhaps $40 billion. We have no idea. No one on the government side or the opposition side of the House has any idea of how many tens of billions of dollars those planes will cost. They were not even tendered. The prison agenda put forward by the government at a time when the crime rate is falling has been evaluated upwards of $19 billion.

Those are expenditures we believe can be cut back on. Those are expenditures that we believe have to be fine-tuned, certainly re-tendered. There should be a tendering process for the F-35s, the F-18 replacements. That is what needs to happen. However, we are unalterably opposed to cutting back on services for our veterans.

I believe the member is in good faith. We hope that he will vote in favour of this motion that we are bringing forward in the House tomorrow.

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

6:20 p.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

Mr. Speaker, my hon. colleague mentioned the hospital in his riding. Here is something that the Conservatives have yet to admit, but it is a fact. When the last Korean overseas veteran dies, the 10,000 contract beds in the hospital the member spoke about will no longer be available for all those veterans from 1953 onwards. Ste. Anne's Hospital, the last federal veterans hospital, is being transferred to Quebec. There go 1,300 federal jobs--gone. Plus, an estimated 500 jobs will be gone.

We have thousands upon thousands of veterans who will be requiring long-term care. What will happen? The government, although it will never admit it, will download that responsibility onto the backs of the provinces. So when the government says that it is not cutting, that is simply not true.

I would like my hon. colleague's comments on that please.

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

6:20 p.m.

NDP

Peter Julian Burnaby—New Westminster, BC

Mr. Speaker, first I would like to praise the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore. There is no stronger advocate for veterans in this country than the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore. He proves that every day. He proved it again today in question period and in his presentation in the debate. He is aware of how insidiously we are seeing the government cut back.

When I go to the George Derby Hospital, I see those men and women who have given so much for this country. I see the insidious ways that things are gradually deteriorating, how things are gradually being cut back. I say that the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore is absolutely right, there are more cuts to come unless members of this Parliament take a very clear decision to tell the government that we do not want any more cuts. We want to preserve services for veterans. They deserve our respect. We owe them no less than providing those services each and every day.

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

6:20 p.m.

Liberal

John McKay Scarborough—Guildwood, ON

Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to participate in this debate. I do not know, but is there some sort of irony in the fact that we are debating cutbacks to veterans in the middle of the so-called robocall scandal? If we were to ask veterans why they went to war, what the point was of going to war or what were they trying to achieve, the greater likelihood is they would say that they went to war to preserve democracy. What is more core to a democracy than a legitimate vote, not a suppressed vote but a legitimate vote? It strikes me as highly ironic that we are having a debate about cutbacks to Veterans Affairs in the context of, arguably, the biggest vote fraud scandal in our nation's history.

If I were a veteran, I would be asking myself how my sacrifice contributed to the preservation of our democracy and therefore the preservation of our vote. A vote is a genuine expression on the part of a citizen to elect his or her representatives. We all know what a sham vote. We saw that happen in Russia this past weekend, where no impartial or fair-minded observer would ever say that vote was a genuine expression of the citizens of Russia.

I do not want to get too high-minded, but the suppression of a vote by misdirection is a fraud perpetrated in the name of Elections Canada. I was very pleased to hear over the course of the weekend senior Conservative officials saying that they were as upset as anybody and that they wanted to get to the bottom of it as much as anybody. I would like, as would all members of the House, to take those words at face value. It is kind of hard to square that with the way in which Elections Canada is constantly marginalized, why its own budget is being reduced and its resources being cut back.

At this point, 31,000 people have filed complaints with Elections Canada. We can only imagine that is the tip of the iceberg because there are literally thousands of Canadians who have either forgotten or did not make note of these calls on election night.

We are now debating a motion on veterans, whose sole purpose of putting themselves in harm's way was to preserve our way of life, our democracy and, central to that, the vote.

Let me share an anecdote. I am sure that your office, Mr. Speaker, as have many other MPs' offices, has been inundated with emails, telephone calls and various other communications from people saying that they now remember getting telephone calls and thinking it was a little strange at the time. In fact, there was—