Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Honourable members of the committee, thank you for allowing me to say a few words today. I know that you have a very full agenda, so I will be brief.
I have followed with great interest the discussions in the House of Commons pertaining to Bill C-55, the act to amend the Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-establishment and Compensation Act and the Pension Act. As the Veterans Ombudsman, as a veteran myself with 37 years of military service, and as the proud father of a son who has served in the Canadian Forces and in Afghanistan, I am grateful to all members of Parliament for their commitment to do right by veterans and still-serving members of the Canadian Forces.
The men and women who put on the uniform implicitly agree to risk their lives to defend our country and the values that we hold dear. In return, they have the right to expect from their government an integrated series of measures to support them throughout their careers and beyond. This country has a moral obligation to provide the very best support to them—particularly when they sustain career-ending, service-related injuries or illnesses—and to their families, who, in my opinion, do not get sufficient recognition for the sacrifices they make in support of their loved ones' military careers.
There is broad if not unanimous support among parliamentarians, veterans organizations, and others for the spirit of the Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-establishment and Compensation Act, better known as the new Veterans Charter, in regard to its focus on wellness and transition to civilian life, compensation, and its more holistic approach to the needs of veterans and their families. The new Veterans Charter was seen when it came into force on April 1, 2006, and continues to be characterized as a significant improvement over the Pension Act.
Based on recent discussions on Bill C-55 in the House and elsewhere, I venture to say that this support for the spirit of the New Veterans Charter remains strong. However, there are also questions and concerns about the effectiveness of some of the programs and measures implemented under the charter and there is certainly room for improvement.
Over the past five years, there have been consultations, and sustained efforts by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs, the Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs, the New Veterans Charter Advisory Group and other advisory groups, veterans organizations and the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman, to identify shortcomings and improvements.
The New Veterans Charter is complex. Because it was difficult to anticipate in advance its shortcomings or unintended consequences, the government made a commitment to continuously review its programs and services and to amend the legislation, if necessary, to address emerging needs or unanticipated consequences. In this way, the New Veterans Charter was intended to be a “living charter”, and I believe that the principle of a “living charter” is as important as “the spirit of the charter” itself. However, it has taken five years for this principle to become reality.
On November 17, 2010, the Honourable Jean-Pierre Blackburn, Minister of Veterans Affairs, introduced Bill C-55 in the House of Commons, which is now before this committee for review. I urge you to return it to the House for third reading as quickly as possible. Some may view Bill C-55 as modest in scope because it does not address all the shortcomings of the charter, but it is a very important step in setting the precedent to make the charter a truly “living” document, as envisioned by you and your fellow parliamentarians five years ago.
Bill C-55 may not be as comprehensive as some would like, but by passing Bill C-55 you will immediately affect the lives of the most seriously disabled veterans receiving disability benefits under both acts, those who could not receive the permanent impairment allowance or the exceptional incapacity allowance because of a technical flaw in the charter. This change, combined with the introduction of a monthly $1,000 supplement for permanently and severely injured veterans, represents significant improvement.
There is of course much debate about the disability award and whether or not the payment options provided under Bill C-55 go far enough to address the concerns around the lump-sum payment. They don't, but it is important to remember that Bill C-55 is the first opportunity to make changes to the new Veterans Charter; it is not, nor should it be, the last of your opportunities.
The discussion about improvements to the disability award and financial benefits is an extremely important one, and it must continue. The issues raised are complex and, in order to make informed decisions, cannot be reduced to a comparison of the disability award and the disability pension in isolation of the charter's other programs and benefits. It may be that the next series of amendments to the new Veterans Charter will address improvements to the charter's dual compensation approach. That would certainly be consistent with the principle of the charter as a living document.
Bill C-55 is a small but important step in making the charter a living document and bringing about changes to the legislation to better address the needs of Canada's veterans and their families. It should be considered as the beginning of the promised ongoing renewal process that is needed to afford veterans the care they deserve. Other steps must follow, and soon. Waiting another five years to bring about further improvements to the new Veterans Charter would be unacceptable.