Once again, it's a great pleasure for me to appear in front of this committee to speak to you on behalf of the Aboriginal Veterans Autochtones and its partner organization the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples veterans, as well as the first nations veterans of Canada.
I've been asked by this committee to comment specifically on division 17 of part 3 of Bill C-59, which amends the Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-establishment and Compensation Act to:
(a) add a purpose statement to that Act; (b) improve the transition process of the Canadian Forces members and veterans to civilian life...; (c) establish the retirement income security benefit to provide eligible veterans and their survivors with a continued financial benefit after the age of 65 years; (d) 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 a permanent disability; and (e) establish the family caregiver relief benefit to provide eligible veterans who require a high level on ongoing care from an informal caregiver with an annual grant to recognize that caregiver's support.
The Aboriginal Veterans Autochtones believes that this portion of Bill C-59 as it deals with veterans requires us to examine it more closely as to the substance of what will be contained in that bill and what that actually encompasses. We feel that there needs to be a substantive commitment and positive action to prove to veterans, the veterans community and their families that this government and this nation does care for those they have sent into harm's way.
I will now briefly acknowledge the details of division 17 of part 3 and offer our words on these.
Aboriginal Veterans Autochtones and its partners are in full agreement that this looks like a step in the right direction for the Government of Canada and Veterans Affairs Canada. Transitioning of Canadian Armed Forces members and veterans and the services that have been mentioned in broad terms must include a sound and effective communication plan. There cannot be any misunderstanding as to what services are available and the benefits prescribed through Veterans Affairs. Therefore, effective communication is the key.
An issue previously brought forward to this committee by the Aboriginal Veterans Autochtones was this very issue of effective communication to rural and remote communities of aboriginals, including first nations, Métis, and the Inuit. We must consider veterans living in remote areas and develop ways to remove barriers due to location and possibly a lack of technology and to improve outreach to those veterans.
The retirement income security benefit and its establishment cannot be commented on fully at this time as we require to see the content of the proposal. We can only hope that whatever will be proposed will be acceptable to meet the needs of those veterans and families requiring this assistance and that we will not struggle later on to obtain the services for veterans or survivors.
The establishment of the critical injury benefit is another positive step forward to respond to the needs of those who suffer severe and/or traumatic injuries related to their service. Again, we must ensure that the content of this will meet the needs of the affected veterans.
During a recent trip that I took with 28 veterans of the Italian campaign—heros of Canada—I heard horrific stories of battles fought, friends lost, and pain endured. I was humbled to be included with these individuals. The stories I heard were stories that had never been talked about. They were stories of tragic events, happy occasions, and remembrance of good old friends. It certainly gave me a better understanding and an appreciation of the need to ensure that veterans are properly looked after due to their personal contributions, their personal sacrifices, and their abilities to move forward.
I was informed by some of these outstanding veterans of suicides of friends, of alcohol abuse, and of family problems suffered by returning veterans.
I also heard of how some were able to tackle the demons and to become successful in whatever they decided to do. There are two comments that stand out in my mind that were shared by these veterans with me.
The first one is that we had a number of aboriginals who were in our units. They were all good soldiers and we lost more than a few of them. It is too bad they were not looked after when they returned home.
Two, if it was not for the Afghanistan veterans, we veterans would not have gotten the benefits that were denied to us long ago. We can certainly see the similarities between what earlier veterans had gone through in the past and what our current veterans are going through today. Today's veterans have also suffered deeply, both physically and mentally, from recent conflicts.
Today's veterans are forced to rely on the dedicated and steadfast efforts of caregivers who in some cases are spouses, who gave up careers, took a reduction in income, and faced financial hardships, and which for some, led to a strain on relationships and a breakdown in relationships. These caregivers ensure the best of care is given. They are the ones who assist the injured while leading to the ultimate survival of the heros. No one could ever take for granted these what I term front-line defenders of our injured.
Compensation to caregivers who sacrifice everything in order to provide much in the therapeutic recovery of our veterans should not be undermined, and they must be recognized for their selfless contributions. If there is a need to continue support beyond age 65, then this should never be questioned, as we are talking about individuals who have given a great deal of themselves for the freedoms enjoyed by other Canadians.
We must also remember that as a country, Canada has sent these soldiers, sailors, air men and women to places of turmoil, conflict, and outright horror. That being the case, we should never accept the shirking of the responsibility we have for looking after injured Canadian Forces members and veterans.
In closing, I echo the comments made by both the Veterans Ombudsman and the Royal Canadian Legion. The new Veterans Charter and the enhanced Veterans Charter are considered living documents. This means that as a living document it requires review and adjustment in order for it to meet the needs of its recipients. As I have stated before, the new Veterans Charter was introduced in the House and all parties accepted it, as did the Canadian Armed Forces and a vast majority of the veterans groups. The new Veterans Charter has a number of issues and problems, but it is the job of our politicians to look to and listen to organizations that are providing good advice and offering solutions to the problems associated with veterans.
ADA stands behind the Royal Canadian Legion and the ombudsman for their tireless efforts to move forward on behalf of all veterans. ADA has always taken the stance that we will support only those organizations or groups that are for positive movement forward on veterans issues.
A final thought from one of my partner organizations is that veterans should probably be the labour force at Veterans Affairs Canada and also appointees to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board.
On behalf of myself, my partner organizations, and all Canadian veterans, I offer sincere thanks for allowing me to attend this committee.