Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Thank you very much. It is good to be back here. I remember fondly, in my first year in Parliament, being a part of this standing committee. It's good to see you and the clerk. Some of the members of the opposition were at the committee at that time, as were some of my colleagues in the Conservative caucus. It is an honour for me to be back appearing before you as minister, particularly after a profound period of progress and reform in the last number of months.
I'm also joined, as you said, by my deputy, retired General Walter Natynczyk. You stole my joke, Mr. Chair, about the retired general being deputy to an average retired captain. I'm very fortunate to have Walt, and I have long known about his passion for military families and for veterans.
Also, from my department I have some senior leaders here who will have additional information should the committee require it. I have Bernard Butler, director general of policy; Michel Doiron, the ADM for service delivery; and, Maureen Sinnott, director general of finance.
I want to start my remarks by saying that my time on this committee was formative in my development as a parliamentarian and with regard to the knowledge base I'm working from as Minister of Veterans Affairs. Your reports, both those from the time I served on the committee and the report on the new veterans charter, have been formative in my consideration of legislation and reform. I want to thank all 54 of the witnesses who appeared before this committee as part of your intensive look at the new veterans charter. Some are here in the audience today.
Then there's my background before Parliament. As many people know, I did serve 12 years in the Canadian Armed Forces in the Royal Canadian Air Force. I'm proud of that time. When I left the uniform, I worked in the non-profit and “support our troops and veterans” area with my Legion, Branch 178, and with the True Patriot Love foundation, which I, along with some other passionate Canadians, helped create. I've also worked alongside amazing Canadians from coast to coast, some who have served and some who have not served, in groups organizing walks, with Wounded Warriors, Treble Victor—I'm wearing their pin today—and Canada Company.
This is the background I bring and this is why I was so honoured when the Prime Minister asked me to serve in this role.
My team has worked with veterans groups, the veterans ombudsman and the Department of Veterans Affairs. The work done by the deputy minister, the former Chief of the Defence Staff, General Walt Natynczyk, is really something to behold.
I want to thank all parliamentarians and all veterans groups for giving me your priorities and working with me going forward.
Your study on the new veterans charter was an important one, and the most important finding, beyond your 14 recommendations, was that the approach to wellness, transition, and support for the veterans and their families is sound. In fact, I think on page nine of your report you urged keeping the new veterans charter and its approach to transition, but you clearly said that there needed to be a better charter with fixes.
I'm sorry, it was on page two. It works for most veterans, as you said, but “'most' is not enough”, to quote your report.
I agree that most is not enough. The new veterans charter was brought in by the last Liberal government, implemented starting in 2006 by the Harper government, reformed in 2011 by the Harper government with the addition of the Permanent Impairment Allowance supplement, leading up to Bill C-58 now before Parliament, which was introduced at the end of March and is the most comprehensive update to address some of the issues in areas in which the new veterans charter was not meeting all needs. It was meeting most, as your committee report showed, but we need to fix gaps to make sure that it serves veterans and their families and strives for excellence in that regard.
I am very happy that Bill C-58, the Support for Veterans and Their Families Act, has been introduced in the House of Commons. It makes essential changes to the New Veterans Charter.
Bill C-58 builds upon the work of this committee in your study on the Veterans Charter and addresses some of the gaps that were highlighted over the last few years by the ombudsman, by several veterans stakeholders, and last June by this committee.
I'll go through those briefly, now; they are before Parliament awaiting approval.
The retirement income security benefit is perhaps the most urgent fix needed for the new veterans charter, highlighted clearly by the ombudsman, highlighted by the Royal Canadian Legion, naval veterans, and a range of other stakeholders. It was a problem on the horizon, Mr. Chair.
Very few to no new veterans charter veterans are 65 now. But it was clear that as some of them hit the age of 65 and lost their earnings loss benefit, they would have a steep decline in their income in their retirement years post-65. That was an unintended gap in the new veterans charter, when the income supplement of earnings loss ended. We've remedied that gap, particularly for those who served in the military, were injured, and did not have pensionable time to provide them with pensionable income at that stage of life.
The retirement income security benefit will kick in at 65 to ensure that in retirement there's a predictable amount of financial security for the rest of that veteran's life, based on 75% of their pre-65 Veterans Affairs revenue. Important to note, the survivability is sound in this. The surviving spouse gets some financial security on the death of the service member, something that did not exist with the exceptional incapacitation allowance under the old system, Mr. Chair.
So we're learning. We are very proud that we've addressed that with a retirement income security benefit.
The second benefit in Bill C-58 is the critical injury benefit. That's a benefit that will pay $70,000 to a veteran who has been injured in a sudden, traumatic event. This is another area in which the new veterans charter did not foresee all circumstances of men and women injured from service. The disability award in the new veterans charter—the so-called lump sum—is calculated when the recovery of that veteran takes place and their permanent disability over a lifetime is assessed.
What that disability award did not take into consideration was the pain and suffering of recovery: the multiple surgeries, time in intensive care, and time in recovery themselves after these surgical interventions. There was no recognition of that, and no pain and suffering compensation for it. It's a gap that the critical injury benefit will address.
Also in Bill C-58 we provide the family caregiver relief benefit for the most seriously injured. When a caregiver in the home—a spouse, or even an adult child—is really becoming the informal caregiver to that veteran. Veterans Affairs will often pay for a professional, contract caregiver in a home and for support. But we all know that those are nine-to-five accommodations. The new normal for families living with a serious injury changes their life. This will give relief by providing that family member almost $8,000 tax-free per year to use in any way that helps them overcome some of the challenges of caregiver fatigue.
We know that all families bear the stresses of an injury, mental or physical, in the household. We've been trying to address that through additional counselling for family members for operational stress injury support for the families and use of the Family Resource Centres for veterans and their families upon release.
This latest family caregiver relief benefit is yet another benefit intended to help the families of the most seriously injured. This is an area I will continue to explore as minister, because I know the critical role that family plays in the wellness of a veteran.
We've also expanded and made eligibility criteria easier for the permanent impairment allowance, adding approximately 305 new veterans to that lifetime permanent impairment allowance payment. That's another element that was recommended in your standing committee report last June.
We've also implemented what I called respect for the reserves, to remind Canadians that without the men and women who serve in our reserve units across the country, we would not have the capability of the Canadian Armed Forces that we have today. We've ensured that class A and class B reservists earn the same earnings loss benefit entitlement as regular force, or class C.
It's about respect. Just a few days ago, it was a year from our National Day of Honour celebrating the 12-year mission in Afghanistan and honouring the sacrifice. Twenty-five percent of those people were reservists. We have also added at least an additional hundred case managers and a hundred benefit adjudicators to deal with some of the backlogs.
These changes represent fundamental improvements to many systems, services, supports and programs that veterans need in order to successfully make the transition to civilian life.
I could go on, Mr. Chair, but I see my time is up.
Colleagues, I urge support of Bill C-58. I want to thank the standing committee, the ombudsman, and the veterans. I appreciated that you came together with your recommendations. Since we've moved on many, I hope we can pass Bill C-58, and I look forward to your questions.