Evidence of meeting #46 for Veterans Affairs in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was we've.

A video is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

General  Retired) Walter Natynczyk (Deputy Minister, Department of Veterans Affairs
Michel Doiron  Assistant Deputy Minister, Service Delivery, Department of Veterans Affairs
Rear-Admiral  Retired) Elizabeth Stuart (Assistant Deputy Minister, Chief Financial Officer and Corporate Services, Department of Veterans Affairs
Bernard Butler  Assistant Deputy Minister, Strategic Policy and Commemoration, Department of Veterans Affairs

3:35 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Neil Ellis

I call the meeting to order.

Good afternoon, everybody. We are meeting pursuant to Standing Order 81(5) regarding supplementary estimates (C) 2016-17, votes 1c and 5c under Veterans Affairs, referred to the committee on Tuesday, February 14, 2017.

Appearing today in our first panel of witnesses is the Honourable Kent Hehr, Minister of Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence. Joining him from the Department of Veterans Affairs is Walter Natynczyk, deputy minister.

We'll start with them for 10 minutes, and then we'll go into questions.

Welcome, gentlemen. The floor is yours.

March 8th, 2017 / 3:35 p.m.

Calgary Centre Alberta

Liberal

Kent Hehr LiberalMinister of Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence

Thank you very much.

Good afternoon, Chair Ellis and members of the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs.

I am pleased to present the 2016-17 supplementary estimates (C) and the 2017-18 main estimates to Parliament on behalf of Veterans Affairs Canada.

I'd like to thank the members of the committee for their dedication to veterans' issues, particularly for their recent focus on mental health and their study of service delivery.

Our government is committed to ensuring that eligible veterans, retired Royal Canadian Mounted Police members, and their families have access to the mental health support they need, when and where they need it. No doubt the work of this committee will add to our knowledge and understanding of how we can do better in this regard.

Our government continues to focus on increasing access to mental health care and expanding outreach to ensure improved supports and services for veterans at risk of suicide. That is why I am working closely with my colleague, theMinister of National Defence, to close the seam between our two departments and to ensure a smoother, easier transition for releasing military members.

Turning to the subject of this meeting, the 2016-17 supplementary estimates, I'd like to point out that the largest increases are for the earnings loss benefit and the disability award. Furthermore, the number of disability claims submitted to Veterans Affairs increased by 19% in fiscal year 2015-16. This is a good thing. It means more people are coming forward to get the help they need.

I will now turn to the main estimates for the 2017-18 fiscal year.

The Prime Minister charged me with ensuring that we honour the service of our veterans, reduce complexity, and do more to ensure the financial security of Canada's veterans. I can say with pride that we have made lots of progress. The main estimates before you today reflect many of our accomplishments to date. In fact, they reflect a net increase of $1.06 billion over 2016-17. This is nearly 30% more than that in the previous fiscal year. This demonstrates that we have dramatically increased financial security and access to services for veterans and their families, and we are not done yet.

As of April 1, the disability award will be increased from $310,000 to a maximum of $360,000 and will be indexed to inflation. We will issue a top-up payment to anyone who has already received a disability award, meaning more money in the pockets of ill and injured veterans. Furthermore, this change will be retroactive to 2006, when the disability award was first introduced. This demonstrates our commitment to “one veteran, one standard”.

Also beginning this April, changes to the permanent impairment allowance will ensure that veterans are more appropriately compensated for the impact of service-related impairments on their career. The benefit will be renamed the “career impact allowance” to better reflect its intent of assigning different gradients to adequately reflect how an individual might have moved through their career had they not become ill or injured.

Increasing the maximum of the disability award and expanding access to the permanent impairment allowance were recommendations made by the Veterans Ombudsman, Mr. Guy Parent. I always value the ombudsman's feedback, and I am proud to be implementing substantive changes that were recommended to us by the ombudsman. Our ombudsman has indicated that this move has moved the marker forward in regard to access to fair compensation. We will continue to work towards building a veteran-centric model that supports a seamless transition from military to civilian life.

One increase in the operating expenses you will note is for the reopening of Veterans Affairs offices. I am very proud to say that our government has already opened seven of the nine offices closed by the previous government. This May we will reopen the remaining two, plus an additional office in Surrey, British Columbia.

We also expanded outreach to veterans in the north. VAC staff will visit northern communities every month to meet with veterans and their families and to connect them with services and benefits.

Commemorating all the brave men and women who serve is a core responsibility of Veterans Affairs Canada. Honouring the service of our brave soldiers, sailors, and aviators is essential to ensuring that we as a nation never forget their dedication and sacrifice.

The Canada Remembers program keeps alive and promotes an understanding of the achievements of and the sacrifices made by those who served in times of war, military conflict, peacekeeping, and beyond. Our government is investing approximately $11 million to commemorate the 100th anniversaries of the Battle of Vimy Ridge and the Battle of Passchendaele, as well as the 75th anniversary of the Dieppe raid. We will continue to pay tribute to and acknowledge those who have made Canada the country it is today.

Over the last year and a half we have accomplished a great amount for Canada's veterans. We increased the earnings loss benefit from 75% to 90% of a veteran's pre-release salary. This will be indexed to inflation. This ensures those undergoing rehabilitation have the financial support they need during their recovery.

We've simplified the approvals process for a number of disability claims, such as PTSD and hearing loss, allowing us to respond to more claims faster. In fact, compared to the year before, we made 27% more decisions in the last fiscal year.

We are well on our way to delivering on our commitment to hire 400 new employees, with 381 of them hired to date. This includes 113 new case managers. We are making great progress in reducing the average veteran-to-case-manager ratio from 40:1 to 25:1.

In October we increased the amount of the survivor's estate exemption for the funeral and burial program so that more veterans and their families have access to dignified funerals.

While we have achieved a lot, we recognize that there is much, much more to be done.

We continue to dedicate resources to finding ways to improve the mental health services and supports available to veterans and their families. I know that this is the focus of your current course of study and that there is an increased awareness of this important issue. I maintain that we can always do better, and I recognize that while the majority of veterans receive the mental health support they need, we can do more to reach those who do not. I am looking forward to hearing your recommendations as to how we can continue to improve.

There is still work to be done to develop a lifelong pension, an option for that. We will continue to consult with stakeholders and parliamentarians to develop the best approach.

A crucial area where VAC can and must do better is in delivering timely benefit decisions. We are pursuing this on a number of levels. I am working with the Minister of National Defence to close the gap between National Defence and Veterans Affairs by reducing complexity, overhauling service delivery, and strengthening partnerships.

Veterans Affairs has done an extensive review of its service delivery model with the goal of putting veterans first in programs and services, making things simpler and easier to understand, and facilitating improved access. We consulted widely with veterans, staff, external experts, and Canadians, and we'll publish a final report that outlines key recommendations. We will have a plan to put 90% of the recommendations into action within three years and the full suite of changes in five.

The physical, mental, and financial well-being of our veterans is our overarching goal. Veterans Affairs Canada has done much, and with the estimates delivered today, we will be able to fulfill many of our promises.

Thank you so much.

3:40 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Neil Ellis

Thank you.

We will begin our questioning with Mr. Brassard.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

John Brassard Conservative Barrie—Innisfil, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you, Minister and General, for being here today.

One of the items that is noticeably missing from the main and supplementary estimates is one of the main things, which is a campaign promise that was made by the Prime Minister as he stood in Belleville. It's part of your mandate letter as well, Minister. It's to establish lifelong pensions as an option for injured veterans. I don't see that anywhere in here, and I'm asking why.

3:40 p.m.

Liberal

Kent Hehr Liberal Calgary Centre, AB

We remain fully committed to providing an option for a pension for life for our veterans who have been injured or have become ill as a result of their service in the military. This is part of our campaign commitment. It remains part of the to-do list. I know that we have accomplished much in terms of financial security in moving $5.6 billion last year in improving the ELB and improving the disability award, all of these things that will flow into a better system of financial compensation for our veterans.

I can say that we are committed to this. It will be delivered.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

John Brassard Conservative Barrie—Innisfil, ON

Can I ask what timeline you're committed to for this, Minister?

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

Kent Hehr Liberal Calgary Centre, AB

We have a timeline that we are elected as a government for a four-year term. Of course, that—

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

John Brassard Conservative Barrie—Innisfil, ON

So when can veterans expect this promise to be kept?

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

Kent Hehr Liberal Calgary Centre, AB

Your veterans can expect this promise to be kept within the four-year term of the Liberal government. I will be proud to stand up and say we have delivered that pension option for our veterans.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

John Brassard Conservative Barrie—Innisfil, ON

The next question I have is with respect to the issue you spoke about before. We're currently going through a mental health study on PTSD. One of the issues we're consistently hearing about is the transitional aspect out of the military into civilian life, and the challenges that exist with that. One of them is employment challenges.

Over the course of the last week, I've received several letters from veterans. In one case, his application to work for the public service sat in the queue for a year. There was another case in which a 26-year veteran was actually willing to move to get work. There seemingly is a vacuum right now that exists with respect to hiring veterans.

I'm asking, where is VAC today with respect to hiring veterans in the public service? I'll remind you, Minister, that in December you told the committee that VAC was focusing on hiring opportunities for veterans, not only in VAC but in other departments in the public system. Right now we see the current levels of veterans being hired at 2.2% in the public service.

What has VAC done with other departments, including Veterans Affairs, to promote priority hiring of veterans?

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

Kent Hehr Liberal Calgary Centre, AB

I'd really like to thank the member for his question. This is an area I have flagged in my department as one we would like to see better results in, both in hiring people within the public service as well as in seeing more success of our veterans once they transition out of military life. I know some of that work is starting with closing the seam with Minister Sajjan. I know we're putting an increased focus on some of his work within my department.

For more details on that, I think, General, perhaps you could enlighten us.

3:45 p.m.

General Retired) Walter Natynczyk (Deputy Minister, Department of Veterans Affairs

Mr. Chair, ladies and gentlemen, we are certainly focused on engaging veterans and getting them into the government, and indeed finding them their new purpose. We know, as you mentioned, that as part of mental well-being, veterans need to have a purpose and a focus and they need to move on. Many of them get out of the Canadian Armed Forces at the average age of 37, so they have many years to serve.

Based on the minister's direction, I and Deputy Minister Forster from National Defence have reached out to all of the deputy ministers. We actually gave a presentation to all of the deputy ministers across government. The minister has also authorized the creation of a veterans hiring unit inside Veterans Affairs that will work with the human resources departments of all of the departments and match those veterans seeking employment with those departments.

We've also sent letters to agencies such as Parks Canada because they have special hiring rules, and we nee to ensure that veterans have access to those rules. We're ensuring that it's not only Ottawa-centric but also coast to coast, keeping in mind that we have parks across the country and Correctional Services has offices across the country and Revenue Canada has offices across the country. It has to be more than just Ottawa.

We're working with the rest of the government to enable all of that. Also, we're working with companies. We're going through Canada Company, the military employment transitions program, so that veterans have the appropriate skill sets and the right resumés to get into commercial companies.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

John Brassard Conservative Barrie—Innisfil, ON

I may come back to that if I have time.

Within the supplementary estimates, there's a line item of $2.5 million for advertising—advertising what?

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

Kent Hehr Liberal Calgary Centre, AB

As you're aware, we had a very robust year in our first year of government, opening offices, providing information about changes to benefits that were coming down, and even moving forward on giving veterans a better burial. There was much information that needed to be shared with our veterans and the people who were out there.

To get more specifics on that, I'll turn it over to General Natynczyk.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

John Brassard Conservative Barrie—Innisfil, ON

Can you break down what the advertising is for, General?

3:45 p.m.

Gen Walter Natynczyk

Mr. Chair, ladies and gentlemen, we get the advertising from a central pot for the Canada Remembers program. This is something that is organized out of the Privy Council Office. We make a bid so that for Remembrance Day and so on we can get access to that.

When my chief financial officer is up here, she could probably expand on that answer.

3:50 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Neil Ellis

Mr. Eyolfson is next.

3:50 p.m.

Liberal

Doug Eyolfson Liberal Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia—Headingley, MB

Thank you, Chair.

Thank you, Minister, and General, for coming.

You were talking about the reopening of the Veterans Affairs offices. I had the honour of taking your place to open one of them in Brandon, Manitoba. It was quite an honour to be able to do that.

Obviously this happened before your mandate started. Was it ever made clear to you why these were closed in the first place?

3:50 p.m.

Liberal

Kent Hehr Liberal Calgary Centre, AB

My understanding is that this was part of the deficit reduction initiative under the former government's direction. Of course, when you cut taxes, you obviously many times have to cut services. In my view, Veterans Affairs was the department that got hit, in many instances in terms of a reduction in front-line staff. At one point there was close to a one-third reduction in front-line staff in my department as a result of the directives of that initiative. As well, there was the closing of offices, and there were some things that we found didn't get moved on that in our view should have gotten moved on.

That was how that happened. Nevertheless, we've now recommitted to veterans. We've found that it's important to have these service locations for veterans and their families to have points of contact, to come in with their concerns, to share their stories, to find information, and to be able to better their lives. I'm proud to say that seven of the nine have been opened, with a view that more people are using those services. I know that when we've gone back to communities where they were closed, from Corner Brook to Brandon and everywhere in between, people have been very excited. They look at it not only as a place where people can get help but as a way we honour the men and women who have served our military, and in fact honour the 2.3 million Canadians who have served since Confederation in our armed forces.

I'm very proud of this government's achievement and of what we've all done to make this happen for our veterans and those who have served.

3:50 p.m.

Liberal

Doug Eyolfson Liberal Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia—Headingley, MB

Thank you.

Further to that, I understand that when these offices were closed, staff was laid off. Where are we in getting the staff for the ones that have opened up to get to the staffing levels we need?

3:50 p.m.

Liberal

Kent Hehr Liberal Calgary Centre, AB

For the exact details of this, I'll kick it over to General Natynczyk.

3:50 p.m.

Gen Walter Natynczyk

As the minister said in his opening remarks, sir, we have hired 381 employees across the country. Of that number, 113 are case managers. Office by office, we're staffing up in all of them. In some parts of the country, it is a challenge to find the right skill sets—the social workers, the psychologists, and so on. At the same time, we're also seeing that people do want to join the Veterans Affairs team. Our mission is noble and they want to serve our veterans, so we have great quality to choose from.

We'll continue to staff right up to the mark. At the same time, the ratio of veterans to case managers, as the minister mentioned, is declining, which is all the better for the service to our veterans.

If you wanted information office by office on who we have out there, we could have Mr. Michel Doiron, the assistant deputy minister for service delivery, give you that breakdown.

You mentioned visiting the Brandon office. When I was visiting the Kelowna office recently, I was thrilled to see these folks who are so keen there, to see veterans there, and to see a master corporal, a former medic who served in Petawawa, as a case manager in Kelowna now. I'm just thrilled to see that kind of experience and to see those skill sets applied to our mission.

3:50 p.m.

Liberal

Doug Eyolfson Liberal Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia—Headingley, MB

Thank you.

Further to the increase in services with these offices opening, can you give us a general idea of how the service is being improved for veterans who are in the northern and more isolated communities?

3:50 p.m.

Liberal

Kent Hehr Liberal Calgary Centre, AB

I have one thing to add to what we said earlier. We're also rapidly approaching our 25:1 average for case managers to veterans. This is a very important milestone that we're close to reaching. Social work best practices say we need an average of 25:1 to best serve our veterans who need that additional support, so I'm very proud of that as well.

With regard to our veterans offices in the north, of course we have many indigenous as well as other people in the north who have served in the military. We're very proud of that. We've never had a Veterans Affairs presence up there. That has entailed oftentimes long travel time to cities far away and time away from family, which we thought was unnecessary and unfair.

We acted on those concerns. We've now allowed for a mobile VAC operating unit. It's a mobile operation, because it's a vast territory to get around in. They are up there on a once-a-month basis. They travel around communities finding veterans who need to sign up for services, supporting those who are already on VAC services, and making sure that veterans get the timely help they need even in our northern and remote areas.

3:55 p.m.

Liberal

Doug Eyolfson Liberal Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia—Headingley, MB

Thank you.

There was a reference to our strategy in developing mental health services. In the half minute we have left, what would you say, in general terms, are the biggest challenges to improving mental health services for veterans?