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

12:50 p.m.

Conservative

Steven Blaney Lévis—Bellechasse, QC

Mr. Speaker, the numbers indicate that for the last six years, this Conservative government has increased its investments in veterans and their families. That very member will have an opportunity tomorrow to support another increase in the investment of our veterans at the veterans affairs committee.

I would invite my hon. colleague to update his data and to look at the real facts. We have increased our investments not only over the last five years, but we will increase them for the next year as well. We support budget initiatives that make the lives of our veterans easier, such as the enhancements to the new veterans charter, and the helmets to hard hats initiative.

Will the member support the significant investments this Conservative government has been making for the last six years? He will have a chance tomorrow.

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

12:50 p.m.

NDP

Françoise Boivin Gatineau, QC

Mr. Speaker, I listened carefully to the response given by the Minister of Veterans Affairs to my hon. colleague's question. I am still waiting for the answer. Are we to understand from the minister's speech that the Conservative members opposite will be voting against the NDP motion?

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

12:55 p.m.

Conservative

Steven Blaney Lévis—Bellechasse, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank the hon. member from the province of Quebec for her question. We are proposing a clear amendment in order to maintain the benefits available to veterans. I am proud to invite all of my colleagues to support this motion, but I would like to say one thing. We will do whatever it takes to cut the red tape. I receive letters, emails and phone calls from veterans about this. When I meet veterans, they ask me to do something to make it easier for them to communicate with my department.

Does my hon. colleague agree that we need to cut the red tape? She has an opportunity to do so today by voting in favour of the amendment we plan to introduce to maintain the benefits and continue to invest in the services offered to our veterans.

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

12:55 p.m.

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux Winnipeg North, MB

Mr. Speaker, let the minister be aware that there are hundreds of thousands of Canadians following this debate who are interested in knowing whether the government is committed to Canadian veterans. They are looking for a very simple answer from the minister with the motion that has been put forward.

The Liberal Party values the contributions our veterans have made to our country. We want the government to recognize those valuable contributions with resources through pensions and so forth that are provided to our vets.

Does the government support the motion that is being debated today, yes or no?

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

12:55 p.m.

Conservative

Steven Blaney Lévis—Bellechasse, QC

Mr. Speaker, I have been very clear. We are supporting a motion that would be helpful and that would streamline our processes for veterans. No, we will not support a motion that would prevent us from making life easier for our veterans.

Will the member stand in his place and say that he supports an amendment that would make the lives of our veterans easier?

This government intends to keep on acting and delivering. The member had an opportunity to listen to my speech. We are investing in veterans like never before and we intend to continue to do so.

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

12:55 p.m.

Conservative

Royal Galipeau Ottawa—Orléans, ON

Mr. Speaker, for over six years now, I have been rising in this House alongside my colleague, the Minister of Veterans Affairs, to vote in support of veterans. Every time, I am thinking of my father, who served during the second world war, and expressing my unwavering support for the Royal Canadian Legion.

What does the hon. member think would help veterans more: the demagoguery coming from the other side or voting in favour of improvements to the lives of veterans?

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

12:55 p.m.

Conservative

Steven Blaney Lévis—Bellechasse, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank the hon. member for Ottawa—Orléans for his question. I would like to commend the remarkable work he does for his community, and particularly for the Royal Canadian Legion. I have had the opportunity to take part in events in his riding, to meet with students, for instance, all with one goal in mind: to ensure that we continue to improve the quality of life of our veterans.

His question is simple: does the Conservative government want to continue helping veterans? Of course. Is the opposition making up numbers? That seems to be the case today, since when we look at the reality, our government has invested more in veterans than any other government, and that is what we will continue to do.

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

12:55 p.m.

Liberal

Sean Casey Charlottetown, PE

Mr. Speaker, at the outset, on behalf of my party and my leader, I want to thank the members of Her Majesty's Canadian armed forces and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for their service and dedication to Canada. I also want to thank the hon. member for Sackville—Eastern Shore for bringing this motion before the House today.

The motion is timely as it relates to the unveiling of the federal budget at the end of this month. My friends in the NDP will certainly remember that day last fall when the Liberal Party presented a motion to the veterans affairs committee calling for public hearings into the cuts to the Department of Veterans Affairs. We presented that motion precisely out of concern that the Conservatives were going to continue with more cuts to the department, cuts that will harm our veterans and impact their services, cuts that will make it almost impossible for those who serve veterans to do their jobs. There was an embarrassing moment when the motion came up for debate. The Conservatives were opposed to my motion to have public hearings and voted against it. When the motion came up for debate at committee, some Conservative members did not show up on time for the vote. As a result, the Liberal motion passed. It did so thanks to the support of the NDP members who, I would point out, were on time.

As one might imagine, the Conservatives were very angry at losing a vote in Parliament. Instead of doing the honourable thing by accepting the democratic decision to have public hearings, they took revenge. At the very next meeting, without consulting anyone in the opposition, including me as sponsor of the motion and vice-chair of the committee, the Conservatives brought in their own witnesses who dutifully, one might say robotically, recited the talking points issued by the minister, “Nothing to see here. Move along. All is well. Services will not be impaired”.

However, the minister's witnesses did give evidence that up to 500 jobs, not including the lost jobs due to the budget cuts or the transfer of the last veterans hospital in Canada, would be lost within the Department of Veterans Affairs. Once the Conservative witnesses had their say, they moved to an in camera secret meeting. They emerged from that secret meeting with a motion that shut down public hearings.

I share this background information to highlight the fact that the opposition parties and veterans groups have been on this issue for many months calling on the government to halt its cuts. However, it is not just Liberals or the official opposition who are concerned about the cuts to veterans. The vast majority of Canadians, including young Canadians, want to preserve the benefits and services we provide to our veterans.

Just this past weekend I had the honour of participating in the annual Prince Edward Island model parliament. These young people get it. They understand that veterans deserve respect. They had two days of debate, two days in which to identify their priorities and pass bills in their model parliament. One of the bills passed in those two days was the veterans tax act, exempting veterans from provincial income tax. That displays a deep appreciation from young people for the sacrifices our veterans have made for Canada. These are people whose great-grandparents, three generations removed from them, may know what it is like to be a traditional veteran. Many of them would be shocked to hear that the Conservatives are engaging in a process to cut money from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

If the example of our young people is not enough, let us consider what other countries are doing for veterans. The United States, which is in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, is exempting veterans from any budget cuts. Likewise, the United Kingdom, which also is in the midst of a terrible financial crisis, has exempted veterans from budget cuts, as has Australia. Canadians from all walks of life, from young people to seniors, are wondering why the Conservative government is not exempting Canadian veterans from cuts as well.

The parliamentary secretary and the minister, or whoever else is responsible for reading the Conservative roboscript, will say that the opposition is just trying to scare veterans. That simply is not true.

The proposed 5% to 10% cuts and the ensuing job losses at the department will have immediate and lasting impacts on the quality of service to our veterans. It must stop. The government must exempt veterans from cuts.

The minister's talking points repeat continually, regardless of the question posed, that veterans' benefits are statutory or quasi-statutory, meaning those benefits are automatic and not subject to yearly budget considerations. Again this is false. The fact is that the veterans affairs committee approves the yearly estimates. As the minister himself pointed out a few minutes ago, the money is allocated to the department by Parliament and the committee could at any time decline to authorize those amounts earmarked for benefits. Veterans' benefits are not guaranteed. They are discretionary. That discretion rests with the parliamentary committee and with Parliament.

As indicated, tomorrow the committee will deliberate on the estimates. The committee has the right and power to reject the minister's request for approval of additional funds. Again, the Government of Canada must exempt Veterans Affairs Canada from any budget cuts.

I want to disabuse another falsehood, that being the contention made by government that due to ongoing demographic changes in the makeup of veterans, almost all of the budget cuts will be achieved through attrition. Again, this is misleading. This really means that the Conservatives are on a death watch. They know that upward of 1,500 World War II veterans and Korean veterans, the traditional veterans as we call them, die each month. The Conservatives see the death rate as an opportunity to direct funds previously paid to veterans to other priorities, such as more politicians and bigger jails. If there are to be savings as a result of dying veterans, why would the government not invest those savings into providing better and more comprehensive services for veterans?

For example, it is disgraceful that a Canadian Forces member currently would receive upward of $13,000 for burial costs should he or she die in service, and yet veterans, if they qualify, receive around $3,600 when they die. For years the Last Post Fund has been pressing for an increase to no avail.

An uncomplicated application for a hearing aid from a veteran takes 16 weeks. In Halifax last week we heard from a family doctor who has restricted her practice to caring only for veterans. She has a patient who was recently released from the Canadian Forces. While in the Canadian Forces he was in regular need of nerve blocks. After his release he was treated as any other civilian. The wait period for his nerve blocks is 18 months. This is wrong and it must change.

We also know that the department conducts a national client survey wherein it polls veterans with respect to how they view the services provided. These surveys we now know have very low participation rates among veterans and are now under scrutiny from veterans organizations. I had the opportunity last week to meet with the president of Our Duty, a wonderful veterans organization, which today released a comprehensive examination of how the department conducts its national client survey. People should remember that these surveys help guide the department in how it serves veterans. Suffice it to say there are grave concerns about the very methodology used. I invite Canadians to review the study conducted by Our Duty.

The point I am trying to make is that the notion the government can simply use savings from dying veterans to pay down a deficit which the government created is very offensive to veterans who want better, not fewer, services.

We know well the record of the government when it comes to cuts and providing services. My colleagues from Cardigan, Malpeque and Cape Breton—Canso all remember how Canadians were impacted when services were cut. We all remember how cruelly the Conservative government treated EI claimants this past Christmas, when thousands of Canadians who were expecting their money waited for weeks upon weeks to get their money, all because the Conservatives failed them by cutting staff and services. More recently within that same department, Service Canada, the online service for jobs seekers has been out of service for weeks. We need investment in services to veterans, not cuts.

Consider what great work might be achieved if the government invested, for example, in the veterans transition program at the University of British Columbia. This is a group-based therapeutic program that helps veterans make the difficult transition back to civilian life after physical or emotional injuries suffered in combat. This program is able to survive, thanks to the Royal Canadian Legion, not the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Here, the Department of Veterans Affairs could use the money it apparently is saving as a result of the death of traditional veterans to invest in programs such as this. This program works; the committee saw it first hand. It should be supported by government.

Consider also the tremendous initiative led by Dr. Alice Aitken at Queen's University who, along with her team, has founded the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research, CIMVHR, dedicated to optimizing the health and well-being our veterans and active military personnel through world-class research.

Does the government not think that providing financial support to these efforts might result in new understandings and treatments for such issues as post-traumatic stress disorder, and in doing so provide better services for our veterans?

Some Conservative backbench members of Parliament know these cuts are wrong and will hurt veterans. I wish they would stand up and be heard.

I will close by suggesting that in the midst of this debate on cuts, there really is a meaningful context. Just two weeks ago, I spoke in the House about the life of the last surviving World War I veteran. Her name was Mrs. Florence Green and she died this past September. She was 110 years old when she passed away. I expressed at the time how deeply meaningful it was to consider the sacrifice made by so many to fight tyranny and to defend the liberty, freedom, democracy and, yes, the right to vote without impediment. Tens of thousands of Canadians have given their lives for these rights. I really do believe that sometimes we forget that. We work and are busy with life and sometimes we forget that we really do owe our veterans a debt of gratitude.

I would end by just saying this, and I hope my colleagues will remember it: We say to all those Canadians who have served in our military in conflicts past and present, they have already made their sacrifice. They stood for us and now we must be there for them, and we say no to any cuts.

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

1:10 p.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

Mr. Speaker, I thank my hon. colleague from Charlottetown, whose riding hosts the headquarters of Veterans Affairs Canada. This hon. member knows many of the people who work at DVA. He understands, just like anyone else, that the men and women who serve their country face an unlimited liability when they serve, and we as parliamentarians, regardless of which party, government or opposition, have the ultimate responsibility for their needs.

Dan Slack told me something very poignant today. He said that we send our very best over to Afghanistan. We give them the very best training. We give them the best equipment. We give them the best mission in which to pursue the goals that are asked of them. They are the very best. We hear that time and time again. Yet when they come back, they do not get the very best of services afforded to them if, indeed, they require help from Veterans Affairs.

Steve Dornan, whom the hon. member knows very well, was a sergeant in the military. He has cancer, possibly contracted from depleted uranium according to the doctors and specialists. Does the hon. member think it is fair that Steve Dornan had to go to Federal Court and fight nine years to finally get a benefit from the Department of Veterans Affairs? Alternatively, could he have received that benefit almost instantaneously if the department had given him the benefit of the doubt in deciding whether to help him and his wife? Does he think that is the way we should be going?

Finally, will the Liberal Party be supporting our motion?

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

1:15 p.m.

Liberal

Sean Casey Charlottetown, PE

Mr. Speaker, there were a couple of questions and I will deal with the last one first, which was whether the Liberal Party would be supporting the motion. The answer is yes, most certainly. Here I thank and congratulate the hon. member for Sackville—Eastern Shore for bringing this motion forward. He is well aware that we have been wanting a public discussion on the budget cuts for months. We tried to get that discussion to happen on the floor of the committee and were eventually shut down. This is a debate that is needed, welcome, overdue, and we will be wholeheartedly supporting the motion.

With respect to Mr. Dornan's case, the legislation calls for a veteran to be given the benefit of the doubt. The problem is that the interpretation of the benefit of the doubt within the department is not plain, which is what it should be on its face. That needs to change either by a directive within the department to truly give veterans the benefit of the doubt or a change in the legislation that would make it absolutely crystal clear that the present interpretation being given to those words is not what it should be. That would prevent the tragic cases my colleague spoke about, including of someone having to deplete his life savings and put up the fight of his life lives for nine years in court to get what is rightfully his.

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

March 5th, 2012 / 1:15 p.m.

Liberal

Joyce Murray Vancouver Quadra, BC

Mr. Speaker, I have a question for my colleague. The minister claimed there were no cuts. The Conservative member, however, for Ottawa—Orléans has said, “there may have been some cuts to veterans programs, but it can't hurt the dead”.

My colleague made the point that many services were underfunded. At the time, I was on the Standing Committee on Health, where members heard about veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder who were unable to get the services they needed, that there were no clinical psychologists employed by Veterans Affairs Canada and that health human resources were woefully inadequate.

I would ask my colleague this question. What would be the impact on these needs if there were further cuts to Veterans Affairs' budget?

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

1:15 p.m.

Liberal

Sean Casey Charlottetown, PE

Mr. Speaker, this has been an affliction within the Conservative Party since we started talking about budget cuts. It does not matter what the question is: the answer is that there will be no cuts to veterans' benefits. If the question is, “Will you be cutting the budget of the Department of Veterans Affairs, yes or no”, the answer is that there will be no cuts to veterans' benefits.

What we have here is a play on words. There is absolutely no question, as we know from the evidence before the committee, that separate and apart from the budget cuts being discussed here today, there will be 500 fewer jobs within the Department of Veterans Affairs. That will affect services. The $226 million that has been saved because of the death rate of veterans should be reinvested in understanding the more complex problems of the modern-day veteran.

Therefore there is absolutely no question that cuts are coming. We can see it in the minister's reticence to support this motion. Cuts are coming and there will be an impact on veterans and those who serve them. People should not believe otherwise for a minute.

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

1:15 p.m.

NDP

Andrew Cash Davenport, ON

Mr. Speaker, many in the House today, including of course the hon. member for Sackville—Eastern Shore and member from Québec, have enumerated some of the most egregious cases of neglect on the part of the government. The government loves to whip Canadians with the stick of anti-patriotism and of our letting down our brave servicemen and women, and yet in Toronto, for example, we do have homeless veterans. There are many homeless people and among them is a community of homeless veterans.

I am wondering if the hon. member would like to speak to this issue and what it says about the government's real commitment to our men and women in uniform.

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

1:20 p.m.

Liberal

Sean Casey Charlottetown, PE

Mr. Speaker, the veterans affairs committee did have occasion to visit a homeless shelter in Toronto, the Good Shepherd Ministries, and there is some excellent work going on there. While we were there, the minister sent an employee to tape-record the meeting. That is where the priorities are.

Within the Good Shepherd Ministries, the amount of money being invested by the Department of Veterans Affairs to help homeless veterans in Toronto is zero. There is an embedded employee, so there is an employee who physically has an office there instead of in some other building, but the problem of homeless veterans is real, it is here, it needs greater support and greater funding.

Support for this motion would be an excellent way to make a contribution to that problem, a contribution that is now minimal, if not non-existent.

Opposition Motion—Veterans Affairs
Business of Supply
Government Orders

1:20 p.m.

NDP

Randall Garrison Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca, BC

Mr. Speaker, I will I am splitting my time with the member for Abitibi—Témiscamingue.

It is a great pleasure today to speak to the opposition day motion put forward by the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore. I want to start by recognizing the fact that the member has been a tireless advocate for veterans, despite some of the comments the minister made in his speech, asking him to stand up for veterans. That is exactly what he has been doing since the day he was elected to Parliament, whether it is in this opposition day motion or in the many private member's bills that he has brought forward for the consideration of the House, all of which have been opposed by the Conservatives. There is no question about who has been standing up for veterans and certainly the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore is one of those.

I also want to thank veterans' organizations across the country that provide many services to veterans, whether they are funded directly through Veterans Affairs or through their fundraising, through bingos and other charitable events. In my riding veterans' organizations raise a lot of money for programs supporting veterans and also for other community organizations in my community.

I also want to thank the front-line staff at Veterans Affairs. I know they do the best they can to try to provide the best services for our veterans.

I want repeat something I have said in the House before. I honestly thought the Conservatives would be different than the Liberals when it came to the treatment of our veterans. If the Conservatives support this motion, that will finally prove to me that they have had a change of heart, that they have finally seen that our veterans deserve the full support of all members of the House of Commons.

In opposition, the Conservatives talked a good line. They talked about extending the veterans independence program to all widows. They talked about holding a public inquiry and ensuring there was full compensation for all the victims of agent orange. They talked about opposing the unfair reduction of veterans disability insurance payments, known as SISIP. However, the their record in government has been much more modest. In fact, it has been a record of only partial success.

The minister likes to talk about the continual expansion of the budget, which he apparently intends to undo in a single year. His proposed cuts will actually devastate service for veterans. It is a kind of new speak to imagine that we can have cuts up to $220 million and somehow magically none of the services for veterans will be affected by those cuts. We have numbers being tossed around in various papers, some public and some not, of 300 to 500 staff reductions in Veterans Affairs. How in the world can veterans expect to get the services they are entitled to as a result of their service to our country with those kinds of cuts to the personnel serving them?

The minister and the government have tried to justify these reductions by pointing to a decline in what are now called “traditional veterans”, those who served in World War II and those who served in Korea. However, what they are doing, in a way, is devaluing what I would call the modern day veterans, those who have served in peacekeeping operations around the world and those who have served in operations in combat, like in Afghanistan. It would also ignore those whom I had the privilege of welcoming home last weekend on the HMCS Vancouver, which returned from seven months in an active combat zone in Libya.

How are these modern day veterans somehow less entitled to veterans benefits than what are called the traditional veterans?

This new budget planning exercise we have been going through with the government reveals the real program of the Conservatives, and this is, as I mentioned, cuts of somewhere, and we do not know the exact figure but we will soon find out, between $150 million, $170 million and maybe as high as $350 million out of a Veterans Affairs budget of $900 million, cuts from somewhere between 300 and 500 jobs. In a kind of new speak, we are asked to believe that this will somehow result in better services for veterans.

Just the other day in the House, when it came time to vote on Bill C-215, which was also proposed by the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore and which I had the honour of seconding, the Conservatives voted against it. The bill would end the unfair clawbacks of pension benefits for veterans and members of the RCMP, benefits which they had paid for throughout their careers by paying into CPP. The clawback would result in reductions of up to $800 a month for some of these veterans and RCMP veterans, $800 a month which would go a long way for those veterans in maintaining their independence in our communities and not having to rely on provincial or federal government services.

Again, the Conservatives have been clear and they continue to make the point that somehow veterans should get by on their own, that they do not really deserve the kind of support that veterans have traditionally received.

Now that the Conservatives have a majority, they seem to be on course to cut that support. However, allies like the United States and the U.K. have exempted their veterans affairs departments from the across-the-board government cutbacks, recognizing that a general cut in government spending ought not to apply to those who have risked their lives in the service of their country.

In contrast, what would an NDP program for veterans look like? We would start by ending the clawback for retired and disabled Canadian Forces and RCMP service pensions. We would extend the veterans independence program to include RCMP veterans and all widows. In the case of marriage after 60, we would grant pensions and health benefits. We would provide better care for those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, shorten wait times for disability applications and eliminate or reform the Veterans Review and Appeal Board.

There is a large number of things about which I could talk. This is something which may seem small, but it has been a very big problem for many veterans and their families in my riding, and that is the lack of an increase in funeral benefits over the last decade. Even in death, we place a hardship on veterans by refusing to increase those benefits.

The hon. member from Toronto who sits in front of me raised the question of veteran homelessness. I think there is probably no greater shame for a country than for those who have served their country in our forces ending up on our streets without the dignity of a home to call their own.

I find it somewhat surreal to hear that one of the priorities of the minister is to come up with clearer language for the veterans who get a denial of benefits so they will understand exactly why those benefits have been denied. We ought to be working on ways to ensure veterans receive the benefits to which they are entitled rather than to find better ways to tell them why they are not entitled to those benefits.

There is also a disturbing tendency on the other side when it comes to seniors as a whole, and many of our veterans are seniors, to refer to them as a burden on our society. We heard this is the discussions about health care transfers, where it was argued that seniors were taking more than their fair share of health care services. We heard it in the discussions on the necessity to reduce the OAS, where somehow seniors who worked and contributed all of their lives would have to take less in the future. Once again, this is being applied to veterans in that somehow those who have served their country are not really entitled to fair treatment when they come back from that service.

I began my speech by talking about veterans' organizations, and all the things they did in their communities, and the staff of Veterans Affairs. I would point out that many legions across the country do incredible work in their communities. In my community, one very good example is the charity fundraising that the Royal Canadian Legion of Esquimalt does. We have Esquimalt Neighbourhood House, which provides service to both military and other families in our community. When the Esquimalt Neighbourhood House needed a new roof, the veterans of the Royal Canadian Legion stepped up and made a grant to the house in order to help it put on a new roof so it could continue its services to families.

Like all seniors in our country, veterans continue to contribute in their community, they continue to volunteer and they continue to raise money for charity. I would like to see us recognize the service they have given and continue to give across the country.

I want to conclude by thanking all those who have served their country, whether in the Canadian Forces or the RCMP. It is something I will try to remember to do on all the appropriate occasions and not just once a year on Remembrance Day. I invite all members to join me in those attempts to ensure that it becomes built in to our Canadian culture to recognize the sacrifices made both in times of war and in peace in terms of defending our country.

Today I do so by rising to support the opposition motion. In the budget consultations that went on previously, every veterans' organization called on the minister to back away from cuts to them. I hope when it comes times to vote on this, we will see the unanimous support of all members in the House in recognition of the service veterans have given to their country.