Mr. Chair, ladies and gentlemen, veterans, good afternoon. My name is Jerry Kovacs.
Good afternoon, everyone.
Thank you for inviting the Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans association to this meeting this afternoon to discuss the Veterans Review and Appeal Board. Our position, shared by others, is that systemic and decision-making problems at this administrative tribunal are having negative emotional, physical, and financial impacts on veterans and their families.
I represent Mr. George Beaulieu, our president, and I speak on behalf of the executive and members of ANAVETS. I am substituting for Mr. Lorne McCartney, our Dominion Command secretary-treasurer.
ANAVETS was formed in 1840, 172 years ago. Our organization is older than Canada. A royal proclamation signed by Queen Victoria created our first unit in Montreal. The original members of ANAVETS served in the War of 1812, in Wellington’s army, and in the royal navy of the Napoleonic Wars. ANAVETS was incorporated by a special act of Parliament in 1917.
Our 20th century members served in South Africa, World Wars I and II, Korea, and in NATO campaigns, such as that in the former Yugoslavia. In the 21st century, our members have served in Afghanistan, Iraq, and peacekeeping missions worldwide.
Presently, although we're smaller than the Royal Canadian Legion, at 15,000 members we are located across the country in seven provinces under seven commands in 68 units.
ANAVETS is a non-partisan organization. Our motto is “Shoulder to Shoulder”. Our members stand shoulder to shoulder in serving their communities, promoting camaraderie, and advancing advocacy issues on behalf of veterans across Canada. Safeguarding and promoting the rights and benefits that veterans have earned and deserve working for Canadians at home and overseas is an important part of our job.
That’s the big picture.
Now permit me to address today’s subject. Why are we here? Our focus today is on the role, responsibilities, and performance of VRAB with respect to serving veterans.
One of our major concerns is the treatment of military personnel who, while on duty, have suffered physical, psychological, and emotional injuries. We believe that the Canadian government has a duty and an obligation to provide the best possible care and support for those injured in the line of duty. VRAB plays an important role in ensuring that injured veterans are treated fairly with regard to their appeals for benefits that have been reduced or denied by Veterans Affairs Canada.
What are the issues? They are numerous.
One is the performance of VRAB. Another concerns appeals of VRAB decisions where not enough information is provided to appellants, where appellants need to know but do not know why their applications have failed, and where appellants should know where adjudicators erred in decision-making.
Third is a review of Federal Court decisions.
Number four is the length and cost of the process to veterans. Anybody who appeals a decision in court has to go through a lengthy process that costs them money and that is sometimes very emotional. It takes up to a year for VRAB decisions and up to three years for appeals to the Federal Court. Veterans can pay as much as $40,000 out of their pocket to appeal their case, because they have to hire a lawyer.
Number five deals with the reasons for the process. Adjudicators should adhere to the legislation, as has already been mentioned by our comrades from the Royal Canadian Legion here. The process should involve a liberal interpretation of the legislation that favours veterans and ensures that the benefit of the doubt is always in favour of veterans.
Number six is the publication of VRAB decisions, which encourages transparency.
Number seven is a review of processes and service standards. That has been discussed.
Number eight involves retroactively compensating veterans at the end of a lengthy appeal process.
Number nine has already been mentioned: veterans representation on VRAB.
Where have these issues been discussed? It is right here, in the Veterans Ombudsman's report dated March 2012: “Veterans' Right to Fair Adjudication”. The work has been done for you, ladies and gentlemen.
What are the recommendations? Quite simply, they're found on page 20. There are seven of them. I'm sure that our good friend Mr. Guy Parent has sent your offices a copy of them. It's a comprehensive report. He even hired lawyers from Ottawa to conduct an objective review of VRAB decisions that have been appealed to the Federal Court.
I'm going to take 10 minutes to say something very simple here. I feel embarrassed.
ANAVETS agrees entirely with these recommendations, which you undoubtedly have had a chance to read during the past six months. We wish to make a number of additional recommendations that reiterate and support those contained in the Veterans Ombudsman's report.
With all due respect to our colleague Mr. Stoffer, we do not believe that VRAB should be abolished. It is a higher quasi-judicial authority that, if it functions properly and effectively, ensures that veterans receive a fair shake.
The same as in the courts, the same as in a civil or criminal court, when judges make good decisions at the lower level, there is less chance of an appeal to a higher level. The same thing applies at the departmental level: good decisions in the Department of Veterans Affairs should result in fewer appeals to VRAB.
VRAB must focus on its purpose and objectives and adhere to its legislative mandate. You've heard numerous references made to the sections of the act that apply; VRAB needs to meet its mandate and meet the same legal requirements as other quasi-judicial administrative tribunals that serve Canadians.
We also believe that a veteran should be on every VRAB panel. I conducted my assessment from the VRAB website, and I looked at the 24 members. Oh, my gosh, what a surprise; quelle surprise. There are seven lawyers, two nurses, two teachers, and no psychologists or psychiatrists, no social workers, no court case workers, no paralegals, no law professors, and no families of veterans. There are lawyers, civil servants, former Conservative politicians, tribunal members, a couple of teachers, and some political advisers and assistants, although it doesn't say for whom they were advisers.
VRAB decisions should be available online to the general public for increased transparency. We do this in our court system. Anybody can walk into a courtroom on Elgin Street or into the Supreme Court of Canada or the Federal Court and observe. Increasing transparency and accessibility should result in better decisions, as was already mentioned.
Appellants must know the reasons for the decisions. They must know how to prepare their cases, what documents are required, and how others are treated in similar situations.
We've heard a little bit about this next point already. We've been pushing VRAB to publish its decisions on its website, and there are some very good reasons that it doesn't want to. VRAB has published 19 decisions on its website this year, because they say that the cost of publishing decisions would be $2 million to $3 million.
Okay. There is an alternative called the Canadian Legal Information Institute, which is funded by the law societies across Canada. They publish legal decisions on their website for free, or my favourite word en français, gratuit. To date, CanLII, for free, has published 189 VRAB decisions on their website.
Therefore any concerns that VRAB has about the cost of publishing decisions are mitigated by the fact that there are some law societies across Canada, CanLII, who are willing to publish all of them—all of them—for free. What a sweet deal. For any of you who are in business, if somebody came to you and offered to do something for you for free to enhance the nature or quality of your business, would you say no?
Our opinion is this: your job is very easy here. Monsieur Guy Parent, the Veterans Ombudsman, has done the work. He's made seven recommendations and conducted an in-depth study of appeals to the Federal Court. All you have to do is say, “Monsieur Parent, thank you very much for all the work you've done on behalf of veterans” and accept his recommendations.
In closing, I'd like to ask a few rhetorical questions.
In 1998, almost 15 years ago, the Auditor General of Canada brought to the attention of the Government of Canada systemic problems at Veterans Affairs. Since then there have been ombudsmans' reports, stakeholder meetings, Veterans Affairs committee meetings, a veterans bill of rights, a new Veterans Charter, and numerous lawsuits, and appeals started by veterans who were denied rights and benefits entitled to them by law.
Why do you need to invite representatives from veterans organizations to your committee meetings to tell you what you already know? Why do you need to invite bureaucrats from the department to fly here from Charlottetown, at taxpayers' expense, to tell you there are problems that you already know about? Why do you need to invite VRAB management to come to Ottawa, when they know what needs to be done but cannot provide you with the information or statistics to prove they are solving problems when you asked them two weeks ago today? Why do individuals such as the Veterans Ombudsman and veterans groups such as ours, who are continually sending email messages and letters and making phone calls to VRAB, need to bring to their attention, and now to yours, systemic problems that everyone is aware of? Why do veterans need to engage in long—years' long—expensive, protracted lawsuits against the Government of Canada to obtain financial awards and benefits to which they are entitled by law? Why, why, why do we need to push and pressure civil servants, who are supposedly working for Canadians and who know their job descriptions and what is going on in their department or tribunal, who are paid to do the right thing—why do we need to tell them? Why is it so hard to do the right thing for veterans and their families?
We are all here, I hope, to serve the best interests of veterans, people who have made significant contributions to Canada and Canadians. Our response should not be to engage in administrative appeals and litigation that involves winning or losing. This is not about winning or losing. Our response should be supporting veterans—all of them, all of the time.
Sometimes I tell people that for many veterans the real war starts when they return to Canada and have to fight their government for disability benefits they are legally entitled to receive. Serving Canada by fighting enemy forces and insurgents overseas in the defence of the freedoms and values we cherish is honourable; coming home and being forced by your government to fight Canadian government lawyers is disgraceful.
In conclusion, we want to know why. You should be asking the same questions: Why has VRAB not been implementing all of the Veterans Ombudsman's recommendations? What does it take for Canadians working at Veterans Affairs Canada and VRAB to get things done and do things for veterans every day?
During an era of federal budget cuts that negatively affect veterans, why is it necessary to force veterans into a position in which they must hire expensive lawyers at the appellate level to fight their government for services and benefits that they are legally entitled to receive?
We are all sitting here around this table, shoulder to shoulder, as Canadians who care about our country and about how veterans are treated. Let’s all work together to ensure that the legal obligations to deliver services and benefits to veterans become a reality.