I would like to thank all the subcommittee members on this panel for offering the group I am here to represent, 31 Combat Brigade Veterans Well Being Network, an opportunity to present to you here today.
When the original new veterans act legislation was brought into law, it had all-party support and the blessing of the Royal Canadian Legion. I raise this point simply to draw attention to the whole issue itself. It is vital that this subcommittee find a way to look past the upcoming election in October 2015 and treat this issue as a national issue, and beyond simply a party issue.
The men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces proudly wear a Canadian flag on their uniform, and its incredibly disheartening to many when they see needs of veterans and their families unnecessarily politicized and positive changes held up for purposes other than what is required to uphold the dignity and respect that our veterans have rightfully earned.
A transitioning is happening with the demographics of veterans around our country. The traditional image of the last generation was an elder veteran from either the World War II era or the Korean War. These veterans served with great distinction in our country and our country recognized their service unequivocally. A transition is now happening amongst the citizens of this country where the image of a young veteran is now being recognized, and unlike the greatest generation before, this image is not fully understood and there are social issues now surrounding it that are a source of mental health issues confronting both veterans and active serving members of the Canadian Armed Forces.
The sacrifices made on behalf of this nation over the past generation have not been felt or borne by the general population and this has led to a serious disconnect between what we have asked of our soldiers, sailors, and airmen, and the true cost that results from being recognized as a major international nation on the world stage.
Federal dollars expended by itself will not solve the primary issues that have been the result of the Canadian Forces being deployed almost without respite for over a generation now.
I would like to look at this issue for the next few minutes framing the issue from the bottom up and from there, as our elected representatives it is your decision to make, how you see the federal government living up to its commitment that took place when each of us swore the oath of service.
The first issue I'd like to address is stigma. Stigma is a social issue. It's not an individual issue. To truly improve outcomes for our soldiers and veterans, this I believe is the number one priority that needs to be addressed. 31 Combat Brigade Veterans Well Being Network was created to support a network for the much more dispersed veterans in our communities who do not have the support network in place to alleviate the isolation and alienation many of these veterans feel in their home communities. Stigma is the reason they withdraw into the isolation and begin the downward spiral. There are excellent supports in place that provide veterans the life skills to interact fully and lead meaningful lives in their post-service years. Some of the supports include: service dogs, OSI support groups, and one program in particular that my wife Shellie and I attended was Can Praxis in Alberta.
31 Combat Brigade Veterans Well Being Network has proven exceptionally valuable in the response time it takes for a veteran or a spouse to reach out at any hour of the day, holidays included, and literally within seconds, there is a response from one of more than 700 people involved now with our group.
I can't believe there's any other support network in this country that is that responsive and it costs the federal government precisely nothing.
32 Brigade, which is in the Toronto area, has been so impressed by the group that they're now modelling it for their own area. In less than a week, they have over 500 members.
The success of this has now spawned a second brigade level and the goal is for it to hopefully expand more nationally. There are five division areas in this country and all it takes is leadership in one of those areas and literally, we have a ready-made template that could be replicated. Again, it costs nothing to the federal government.
The role of these veterans well-being networks is not to provide direct services per se. It's there to support and stabilize the veterans and to make sure that they do get to the services that the federal government has provided and are in place.
Just so there's clarity, for a lot of those agencies, if you don't call during business hours, you're not going to get the help you need, but for a lot of these veterans, as long as we can touch base with them immediately, we can help build that level of trust so they can come forward and overcome that stigma.
Stigma as a social issue needs to be addressed directly toward the general Canadian population. I believe a two-tier approach is necessary. A sustained general awareness campaign over several years can have a huge impact in changing the mindset of the general population toward veterans with PTSD, OSI, or TBI. However, a general awareness campaign also requires local leadership in every municipality where veterans in need are located. Veterans Affairs Canada case managers must be empowered to directly assist a veteran in his community or place of employment, to educate and inform colleagues and employers. This is urgently needed.
The Dominion Command of the Royal Canadian Legion could be empowered to have a mandate where no local VAC service office is located, to advocate for that veteran in need. This should also be addressed. It's incredibly damaging when the mass media report an incident and the label of PTSD veteran is the lead. To be fair to Canadian media, they have been more responsible than other media that also broadcast into Canada. The federal government does need to look at how incredibly damaging and debilitating it is for all of us to see a fearmongering label attached that ferments an outcome that divides us from the general population we served.
Veterans issues are inseparable from family issues and the ultimate goal for the new Veterans Charter, as you reform it, is I believe we have to look not only at the veteran but at the veteran's family as well, because they're the ones who truly support that veteran the most.
I cannot stress enough the more you support the family as a whole unit, the better the health outcomes for the veteran in need. Spouses and children need to be reflected by more than a simple line in the equation. Much can be done in this area and a holistic approach is required to supporting these veterans and their families.
On retraining and career choices, I believe much work has been done with the new Veterans Charter, but even more work can be done, providing more opportunities in the retraining and career choices of soldiers transitioning. I fully believe that a great deal of work can be accomplished in this area. When I look back to a year ago, I looked at this issue in great despair, seeing such a waste of human potential and the incredible amount of talent being unused and unvalued in the civilian sector. I do want to give credit to the federal government; in the last year, some significant changes have been made. More could be done but at the same time at least we're seeing movement on this issue, and I applaud you for that.
On the federal hiring initiative, the Canada Company, one initiative in particular I'd like to raise is a local initiative called Delta Company and it's located in Windsor within our area of responsibilities, within 31 combat brigade. I would like to draw special attention to something I believe would be of great value that currently is not in place.
Many soldiers have been attached to the joint personnel support units at various Canadian Forces bases in this country. These injured soldiers still have much to offer our nation. Some will return to their home units after they recover from their injuries. Others will need to transition to other career paths. My civilian career after my service has been one where I teach adult learners, and I also run the original pilot program of the Canadian Forces cooperative education program. I took over the reins of this program in 2002 from its original creator who was Lieutenant-Colonel Wayne Hill of the Lincoln and Welland regiment.
Since 2002 I have recruited junior and senior high school students into the Canadian Forces primary reserve. About 30 of them served most recently in combat roles as infantrymen or gunners in Afghanistan. I recognize the post-deployment changes from some of my own experiences, and I believe we owe it to this youngest generation of veterans to do our best to reintegrate them fully. They and their families should not suffer from a lack of understanding and awareness as many veterans before them have. That used to be the norm and not the exception.
Many of these soldiers in the joint personnel support units by their own choice may be better served by reintegrating them into their chosen post-service communities where they will be provided support by the local reserve unit and area. But I want to stress it's important that the Canadian Forces regular force budget still absorb that.
A 6- to 12-month transition from being employed full time by the reserve unit initially, where their self-esteem and skills honed can be upheld and shared with less experienced soldiers, that transitions towards the end to full-time civilian employment opportunities within the private or other public sectors by the end of the transition period. In a sense, we created a program to bring civilians into the military. We could easily create a program to take soldiers and veterans and bring them out of the military back into a civilian career and retrain them.
Local relationships need to be developed between the home units, educational institutions, local employers, labour councils, and municipal governments. It needs to be flexible, and adaptable to the needs and interests of the veterans and their families. The federal government's role here is really to get out of the way and encourage local leadership to happen. Not every fix comes with a big cheque from Ottawa or the provinces involved. This is where I mention the perspective from the bottom up for the veterans most in need.
One of the reasons why I didn’t come forward for 23 years is, as any veteran knows, there’s always someone worse off than you—there always is—and you always step aside to make sure they get the services they need. That’s just part of the military ethos.
The local reserve units can provide these soldiers with the social support and networking opportunities they will not have being kept on one of the main bases and shown to the gate on the final day of their contract. It is also about developing the long-term support contacts they will need that extend well beyond the end of their regular force employment contract. This is about long-term best outcomes and not short-term fixes.
I reflect on the work of several members of Parliament here and how they have helped veterans in their home communities. There are many of you, but to illustrate a point, a close friend of mine, Blair Davis, was helped by MP Peter Stoffer, in the House of Commons itself. Equally admirable was my MP, Rick Dykstra, who went above and beyond, at my request, to assist a veteran in distress neither of us has ever met, but reached out on our 31 CBG Veterans Well Being Network to identify the need. I was able to coordinate with his office staff to assist a veteran in Alberta by contacting the appropriate member of Parliament.
The reason I raise that is that I don’t think that story gets told enough about how you guys do cross party lines. This really is a national issue, not a partisan issue. Hopefully, it will not be a wedge issue in the next election.
This is reflective of good governance, and no one party has a monopoly on it. We elect our representatives to stand up for us, and all too often the good work gets overlooked. Much needs to be done, but much has been done, and I am here asking for you to look at this issue from the bottom up instead of just the top down. You will find more reasonable and prudent outcomes when you change the perspective.
I have had issues of stigma myself within my own work environment, and still currently do. I do not fault any one person or agency there. Stigma can be overcome by education, awareness, and courage. People fear what they do not understand and the Government of Canada has made a conscious decision over many governments of both parties to allow the disconnect to grow between our small professional armed forces and the primary reserves that augment them and the general population that requires their services for both internal and international commitments. If we don't close the gap on the disconnect, the issue of stigma will not be resolved, more needless lives will be lost, and more families will suffer.
The federal government does have it within its ability to close this disconnect. We need this government to tell our stories, to advocate for us when fear, ignorance, apathy, and indifference lead to stigma. No veteran should ever be left behind in this society. When you make changes to the new Veterans Charter, the hope is that is what will happen.
Thank you very much for your time.