Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to be here as the critic for Veterans Affairs on behalf of the NDP, and I want to thank my friend and colleague from Barrie—Innisfil for tabling this very important bill.
Bill C-378 recognizes what all Canadians know and believe. Specifically, this bill recognizes that our veterans, as well as their dependants and survivors, should be treated with dignity, respect, and fairness, and that the uniqueness of the person's profession and the obligations and sacrifices such a profession demands also impact the experiences of their families, and that any decision regarding the care, treatment, or re-establishment in civilian life of the person and the benefits to be provided to them be made in a timely manner. On these points, we will find little disagreement among Canadians and certainly not among New Democrats.
However, this bill, as well intentioned and agreeable as it is, represents somewhat of a missed opportunity to state unequivocally that the government, acting on behalf of the people of Canada, recognizes that we have a sacred obligation to our veterans. Canadians, of course, love our veterans and their families, and we thank them for their service and sacrifice. At one time, this love and respect was obvious in the treatment bestowed upon veterans by the government. Lifelong pensions, the creation of Wartime Housing Limited, and complete coverage for all disabilities incurred during service were once the ways this love was shown to veterans by the government on behalf of all Canadians.
Indeed, it is widely agreed that at one point in time, the government firmly believed that it had a “sacred obligation” to veterans and their families. This obligation was a clear acknowledgement that when a woman or man entered into the service of our country and put their health and lives on the line for us, the government would be there to care for them for the rest of their lives. I say that we believed that at “one point in time” because I am no longer sure this is the case.
The Harper Conservative government made an effort to modernize the rights, services, and benefits provided to Canada's veterans, but in reality, it inadvertently made life worse for many. In the 2015 campaign, the Liberal Party promised to make things right for veterans. The Prime Minister, before he was Prime Minister, made lofty goals and raised expectations for so many people in need, but sadly, the government is failing to live up to its own commitments and the expectations of Canadians who put them in government to finally make things right. We can and must do better, and New Democrats will always work with other parties in the best interests of veterans.
Bill C-378 also fails to address in any way the many specific issues facing veterans and their families today. There are, of course, limits to what legislative bills or amendments can be tabled, debated, and adopted by individual members, but it would not have been impossible to explicitly recognize some of the specific injustices perpetrated upon military personnel and veterans over the course of many governments.
We must never forget our own collective failings as a society and a government to take care of and look after veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange, nuclear radiation, and other lethal and debilitating toxins and agents in the course of their service; the horrific sexual trauma that has been endured by many military personnel, particularly women, over the course of their military service; the serious psychiatric side effects associated with the use of the anti-malarial drug mefloquine; the widespread prevalence of operational stress injury and post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological challenges faced by active and retired armed forces personnel; and the unconscionable transition gap, which denies benefits to so many veterans who are transitioning from active duty to civilian life.
Veterans Affairs Canada acknowledged late last year that there were about 29,000 applications for disability benefits in the queue waiting to be processed at the end of November, and nearly half of those cases took longer than 16 weeks to process. That is a 50% increase over the last eight months.
A particularly stark example of how governments have changed the way they serve veterans is with housing. Today, veterans are camping out just blocks away from here, in the cold, to raise awareness about veterans living on the streets of our country. Wartime Housing Limited was created after World War II to transfer 30,000 affordable homes to veterans, but today there are more than 770 veterans that the government classifies as homeless and living on the street. However, the number we hear from Veterans Affairs Canada is over 5,000 and, shamefully, we know that number is rising with the current housing crisis in our country.
Improving support programs for families and dependants of veterans who are also suffering and who also carry a very heavy burden on behalf of our country is another unaddressed issue, as are the unintended and negative consequences experienced by veterans as a result of changes under the new veterans charter, including the ongoing court battle with Equitas and its effort to re-establish lifelong pensions for veterans, which began under the Harper Conservatives and which the Liberal government has now adopted.
The list of challenges and injustices facing veterans today that could have been referred to explicitly in this bill goes on and on. In spite of all these omissions, I would like to thank the member for Barrie—Innisfil for tabling this bill, which we will be supporting at second reading.