Honourable Chair and members of the committee, good evening, and thank you.
I do agree with you, Chair, that 632 is the friendliest branch in all of Ottawa.
It's a great pleasure to appear once again in front of the committee. I'm pleased to speak on behalf of our Dominion president, Mr. Tom Eagles, and our 300,000 members and their families.
This evening, we will do our presentation in English. However, we have provided a copy of our brief in both official languages.
The legion has been asked to discuss specifically division 17 of part 3, which amends the Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-establishment and Compensation Act to add a purpose statement to the act; improve the transition process of Canadian Forces members and veterans to civilian life; establish a retirement income security benefit to provide eligible veterans and their survivors with a continued financial benefit after the age of 65 years; establish the critical injury benefit to provide eligible Canadian Forces members and veterans with lump-sum compensation for severe, sudden, and traumatic injuries or acute diseases that are service related, regardless of whether they result in permanent disability; and finally, to establish the family caregiver relief benefit to provide eligible veterans who require a high level of ongoing care from an informal caregiver with an annual grant to recognize that caregiver's support.
The division also amends portions of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board Act as a consequence of the establishment of the critical injury benefit.
Please note that our comments are directed specifically to this section of Bill C-59 and not to the entire omnibus bill.
The Royal Canadian Legion is the only veteran service organization that assists veterans and their families with representation to Veterans Affairs Canada and the Veterans Review and Appeal Board.
The legion's advocacy program is core to our mission, and we have been assisting veterans since 1926 through our legislated mandate in both the Pension Act and the new Veterans Charter. Please note that veterans do not have to be legion members to receive our assistance; we provide it free of charge.
Our national service bureau network provides representation, starting with their first applications to Veterans Affairs Canada and through all three levels of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board. Through the legislation, the legion has access to service health records and departmental files to provide comprehensive yet independent representation at no cost.
Last year our service officers prepared and represented disability claims on behalf of over 3,000 veterans to VAC and the VRAB. There is no other veterans group with this kind of direct contact and interaction with, provision of support to, and feedback from veterans, their families and, of course, the caregivers.
When it comes to serving veterans and their families, the legion continues to be the only veterans organization in Canada advocating for and providing assistance to all veterans.
The legion recognizes that progress is being made for veterans and their families in this budget and recommends that the NCVA provisions of Bill C-59 be passed as soon as possible. Is it everything we have been advocating for? Does it answer all of the 14 ACVA recommendations? No, it does not, but it is a very positive step forward.
This bill lays out important enhancements that will improve the care and benefits provided to veterans and their families, especially for our veterans who have turned or will be turning 65 in the very near future. We need to ensure that they have financial benefits beyond age 65 for life, including that provision for their survivors as well.
However, we do have many questions on how the retirement income security benefit, the RISB, is calculated, and until we receive and review the complete policies on the RISB, the critical injury benefit, and the family caregiver relief benefit, we will not see how adequate these benefits will be to our veterans and their families.
Our principal concerns remain that the maximum disability award must be increased to be consistent with what is provided to injured civilian workers who receive general damages in law courts. As well, our concern with the family caregiver relief benefit is that it does not adequately compensate a spouse who has to give up a full-time job to become a caregiver. What is proposed is a respite benefit. Most families today are dual-income families and sometimes that service member works two jobs to support the family, so in essence when he gets injured three full-time wages are lost. We would prefer to see something akin to the Pension Act's attendance allowance reinstated.
As I previously stated, Bill C-59, in division 17 of part 3, does not answer all of the 14 ACVA recommendations. The Royal Canadian Legion will not rest until all these recommendations have been addressed and adopted, and we will not cease in our efforts to push the government to honour its obligations.
We have not shied away from making our stance on these issues known. We have shared our position paper, “Veterans Matter”, with all Canadians to encourage an informed debate on veterans' issues in the future.
I want to address the issues of communications and accessibility.
The new Veterans Charter was developed to meet the needs of modern veterans. It is based on modern disability management principles. It focuses on rehabilitation and successful transition.
It must be stated that the legion, while endorsing the new Veterans Charter as it was adopted in 2006, has also been steadfast in our advocacy for its change to better meet the lifelong needs of our veterans and their families. We all have an obligation to understand the complexities and interrelationships, and to inform about and explain the new Veterans Charter for the people who it concerns. Our veterans and their families deserve absolutely nothing less.
The new Veterans Charter and the enhanced new Veterans Charter Act are comprehensive and very complex. Our veterans and their families need to know what programs are available to assist them and how to access them, whether they are financial, rehabilitation, health services, and/or family care programs. The government needs to ensure that resources and programs are in place to meet their needs and to review the accessibility to these programs, while ensuring that front-line staff are available—and knowledgeable—to assist veterans and their families. This can never become a self-serve system.
Most veterans and their families do not have a good understanding of the new Veterans Charter. I would suggest that this highlights the ineffectiveness of the government's communication of the programs and services available under the new Veterans Charter for our injured veterans and their families. What is required is proactive communication to all veterans across this country to ensure that they are aware of the financial compensation, rehabilitation programs, health care services, and the family care programs that are available and of how to access them.
Lastly, it is also time for all of us to understand the new Veterans Charter and the Enhanced New Veterans Charter Act. This should be a priority. Our veterans need to know not only the weaknesses of the programs but the strengths behind the legislation: the programs, the services, and the benefits. We, too, can help our veterans and their families.
Since commencing our advocacy in 1926, the legion's advocacy and programming efforts continue to evolve to meet the changing demographics while supporting our traditional veteran community. However, notwithstanding the capacity of the legion, we certainly believe that the Department of National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada have a responsibility to ensure that policies, practices, and programs supported through a sustainable research program are accessible and meet the unique needs of all veterans, with a goal of enabling the healthy transition of all our veterans and their families through this very challenging, changing, and sometimes difficult life course.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention our World War II veterans and post-World War II veterans who are now seeking assistance through the legion for access to the veterans independence program. These veterans are often frail, and they are approaching the end of their life. They are a very proud group of people who have never applied to the government for any type of disability benefit assistance, and now, because they want to remain independent in their own homes rather than going into a long-term care facility, they cannot access the VIP and benefits for frailty because they do not have an established eligibility for a disability or a lower income.
Last October, we sent a high-priority list of resolutions to the Minister of Veterans Affairs, including a resolution that all veterans be deemed eligible for VIP benefits based on need, irrespective of their having established disability entitlement or low-income status. We urge the government to action this resolution without delay. We understand that the response to these resolutions will be forthcoming from the department very soon.
We agree that the passage of Bill C-59, and particularly those provisions that affect the new Veterans Charter, is a step in the right direction. Let me thank the committee for the work it does on behalf of our veterans. The legion appreciates the opportunity to come before the committee to brief you on our perspective on issues of concern to Canada's veterans.
I would also at this time like to extend to the committee the opportunity to visit our national headquarters, which we call Legion House. It would be opportunity for us to provide you with a full brief on how the legion is one of Canada's great institutions, and how we support Canadians, our veterans, and our communities.
Once again, thank you. Merci.