Evidence of meeting #72 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 military.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

David Pedlar  Scientific Director, Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research
Barry Westholm  As an Individual
Brad White  National Executive Director, Dominion Command, Royal Canadian Legion
Ray McInnis  Director, Veterans Services, Royal Canadian Legion
Heidi Cramm  Interim Co-Scientific Director, Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research
Allan English  Professor, Queen's University, History Department, As an Individual
Deborah Norris  Associate Professor, Mount Saint Vincent University
Hélène Le Scelleur  Veteran Ambassador and Head of the Mentoring Program, Supporting Wounded Veterans Canada

February 1st, 2018 / 11:35 a.m.

NDP

Gord Johns NDP Courtenay—Alberni, BC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I'm a new face on the committee, and I just wanted to state that it's an honour to have the opportunity to serve the military and RCMP veterans and their families. I consider myself to be an advocate and an ally. I cherish the work and sacrifice that the NDP will do and continue to do for them and their families to make sure they have justice, dignity, and comfort.

That said, I want to thank the panel for your testimony today and certainly for your commitment to being advocates for veterans.

I also want to acknowledge Jessie Greene, who is in the audience today, and pass my condolences on behalf of all of us for her late sister, Private Greene.

That said, I'll start with retired sergeant major Westholm. Maybe you could talk a little bit more in terms of understanding the system that failed Private Leah Greene throughout the process of transition. Maybe you could tell the committee more about that—not just about her, but maybe also on the family level, where were the challenges?

11:35 a.m.

As an Individual

Barry Westholm

I'll go right to the joint personnel support unit again. I don't have to go far from that particular unit. It is the unit that is supposed to bridge the gap between civilian and military. That's the bridge.

As I mentioned earlier, a priority six is the lowest priority that the Canadian Forces can give. So that says something. The manning at the JPSU was just so overwhelmed that it couldn't cope with the basic needs of the people who were at the JPSU. Leah Greene was a complex case. She had a very complex injury that required house modifications and things of that nature that were also complex. The people at JPSU had no training to do those sorts of things. They sort of winged it. When you're winging something around like that, a person's home, they could get very upset if you don't know what you're up to, and they had no clue. That's when I stepped in to help Leah Greene get that sorted out.

That put a lot of pressure on Leah. The fact that she didn't get much contact with the JPSU staff for up to a year made her feel very set aside and isolated. Because of her medication and all those other things that she had to put up with, the family unit started breaking down. It was one thing after another. It all goes back to the fact that the unit that was in charge of that person, Private Greene and so many others—including the Desmond family, by the way—was totally understaffed and poorly managed, causing all sorts of negative impacts not only on the person but on the family, the finances, everything.

11:40 a.m.

NDP

Gord Johns NDP Courtenay—Alberni, BC

Thank you.

It's veterans' stories that are going to make the difference so that government can answer those questions, hopefully, so we can better serve veterans.

I have more questions.

In terms of the main challenges of mental health, can you talk about what those main challenges are?

11:40 a.m.

As an Individual

Barry Westholm

Well, they mention stigma quite a bit, and that is a challenge.

I have PTSD. As a sergeant major, I was diagnosed late, in 2007 or so. Part of being at that rank level is that you have to be able to approach somebody to let them know, “Hey, I'm a sergeant major and I have PTSD.” The reactions I got were quite phenomenal. Sometimes there was an interest in what I went through and all that, which was great—lots of questions—and sometimes the other guy would shut right down. We're talking about senior officer level, where they didn't even want to talk to you about it and they sort of shunned you.

That has to be broken down. You should be able to talk about PTSD like you're talking about a sprained ankle. You have to get it down to that sort of casual thing, because it's very frightening. It's very frightening to be diagnosed with that. It throws you for a loop.

It's a leadership issue for sure, and that is with sergeants, warrant officers—right up. They have to lead the charge. They have to say it's okay, and no joking around with it, so that the men and the women feel comfortable coming forward. That has to start there.

11:40 a.m.

NDP

Gord Johns NDP Courtenay—Alberni, BC

Can you maybe elaborate on some of the main financial challenges and how that interconnects?

11:40 a.m.

As an Individual

Barry Westholm

The financial challenges with—?

11:40 a.m.

NDP

Gord Johns NDP Courtenay—Alberni, BC

The main barriers that veterans must overcome in terms of the challenges they face when they have those gaps, and how that intersects with—

11:40 a.m.

As an Individual

Barry Westholm

I'll tell you one challenge that I hope they've maybe fixed already.

For example, say you have a private and a colonel in the same vehicle and the vehicle gets into an accident. They have identical injuries. Both people must have their houses modified. The private has a house worth $60,000, and the colonel has a house worth $500,000. The private gets $60,000 max to modify the home. The colonel gets $500,000 to modify the home, because he's been in for 30 years, he's gone up the chain, and he's making a lot of money. They base it on the value of the home. There's no way that there's going to be parody there. This person here has to go through a lot of hoops to try to get their house modified where the other person doesn't.

That's a biggie that should be taken care of. I suggested that they use the mean house value in Canada rather than messing around with that. In the case of Leah Greene again, I wasted all the time talking about what they had to do because she had a very, very low-value home.

That's one thing I would say has to be done, because the stressors involved with trying to work through the machinations of that equation are nuts.

11:40 a.m.

NDP

Gord Johns NDP Courtenay—Alberni, BC

Thank you.

How much time do I have, Mr. Chair?

11:40 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Neil Ellis

Forty-five seconds.

11:40 a.m.

NDP

Gord Johns NDP Courtenay—Alberni, BC

Okay, I have a really quick question then for Mr. Pedlar.

You talked about the framework that's necessary. Can you elaborate a little bit more on that?

11:40 a.m.

Scientific Director, Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research

Dr. David Pedlar

Yes.

I think that having a framework is really important, as we don't take a comprehensive look at this problem. In past transition efforts I've seen a tendency to focus on one area or another area, but not to look at the big picture.

With employment, we get into the issue of purpose and best practices in employment programs. In health, we know that veterans have higher levels of chronic mental and physical conditions. They are released into the provincial health care system, so there are a lot of issues around integration of care.

We have just discussed finances, which are also a key area to well-being. There is housing. Social integration is also important. When a military person leaves service, they will enter civilian spaces like a workplace. There are often issues around reintegrating into their new environments, and also how accepting communities are. Part of the discussion that I've heard today has been around provincial health care systems, but to what extent is the community engaged with veterans in Canada? I think there are a lot of opportunities for us to improve community engagements.

When people go to war, the whole country makes the decision to engage in war, so I think everyone needs to see it as their responsibility to help veterans transition when they come back. I think we have a lot of space to fill in order to get there. Government is important, but the federal government can't do it all. Most care happens at the local level.

Life skills were also—

11:45 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Neil Ellis

Sorry, it's time.

Mr. Fraser.

11:45 a.m.

Liberal

Colin Fraser Liberal West Nova, NS

Thanks, Mr. Chair.

Thank you all very much for being here today and sharing your experiences. This is very helpful.

Mr. Westholm, I wonder if I can start with you. I appreciate what you said that the first step needs to be having a fully functioning JPSU. Can you give us some concrete suggestions for recommendations that we may be able to make to address the barriers to transition?

11:45 a.m.

As an Individual

Barry Westholm

Based on what I see the JPSU doing and the way they are going forward, I would tell them to stop. What they have to do is think outside of the box. They are very much military minded, and they are trying to use all the military documents and stuff like that to guide them.

When you're dealing with a transition, it's leaving the military, or returning back, but when they are trying to do career management and things like that, it shouldn't apply to a transitional unit. The transitional unit has to be stable, so that the injured people coming there have the same faces to go to every day and they don't switch around all the time.

That's number one. It has to be a stable unit. It used to be made up of the primary reservists. I suggest that they go right back to that model. They can even use injured people—they do a little skip on the universality of service—because they wouldn't be part of the Canadian Forces numbers, but they have all of that experience working in the transition model.

That's number one.

11:45 a.m.

Liberal

Colin Fraser Liberal West Nova, NS

I know that there have been many iterations and there have been constant attempts to improve this, but based on what you're telling me, that leads to constantly having instability in how they operate, and that only breeds more difficulty in understanding how the process works.

11:45 a.m.

As an Individual

Barry Westholm

Exactly, and they over-complicate it. If you've noticed, I think the JPSU went through five commanding officers within a year. That's unheard of. That's not a red flag: that's fireworks. Something is going on there that I think is causing senior officers—generals—to say “I don't want any part of this thing” and to back away.

I heard the CDS offer up I think it was 1,200 people as part of the new JPSU program. That's really something spectacular. I know what recruiting problems they're having right now; that says the JPSU is not going to happen.

Again, I will go back to the point that you have all of these talented injured soldiers out there who would be perfect for a stable JPSU. These guys are in uniform. If you're an injured private and you see a one-armed warrant officer or Major Mark Campbell there and he's still doing the job and doing a damn good job, that's inspirational. That's just inspirational to the youths. I think that's what they should be doing.

11:45 a.m.

Liberal

Colin Fraser Liberal West Nova, NS

Thank you very much, sir.

Mr. Pedlar and Ms. Cramm, can I ask you to comment on the co-operation as you see it from a health perspective between DND and VAC, and for any suggestions you have about how that could be improved?

11:45 a.m.

Scientific Director, Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research

Dr. David Pedlar

One comment I will make is based on the research we've done, and it's to caution you, first of all, about recognizing the importance of medical releases as a group that you want to target in transition programs. I'm back to this theme about being cautious about not excluding others who are also having health issues and need support.

For example, if you look at the life-after-service studies that I worked on for a number of years, you'll see that an important finding was that the medical release population was a key population to focus on in transition, but that 60% of that third who have a difficult transition were not medically released. One thing that I would suggest is really important is to focus on medical release but to focus on the health of everyone who is releasing, including on the health problems that develop not at release but in the first few years after release. That's one key point I would make.

I would ask Dr. Cramm if she has a point here.

11:50 a.m.

Dr. Heidi Cramm Interim Co-Scientific Director, Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research

Certainly. Thank you.

One of the things that we're really trying to do through our work at CIMVHR is to make sure that we have research to answer some of these really complicated, messy questions. What we're hearing from all the witnesses is how many different interconnected kinds of compounding [Technical difficulty—Editor]. The researchers within our network are really trying to establish the data to help inform programming and policy-making decisions.

I'd like to highlight one example of research within our network. It's led by Dr. Alyson Mahar. She's looked at the patterns of mental health service use for veterans in their first five years of release for those who are entering Ontario. We've been able to use that data to say that younger veterans do appear to have higher rates of mental health issues.

We can also look at where they are retiring, which has direct implications for those regions. The regions around Ottawa and Kingston are where over 80% of the older veterans are retiring. Younger veterans are releasing in a more diffuse way throughout Ontario, often into rural communities. That has real implications for how programs are delivered and for some of the issues that we're hearing about accessibility of health services and continuity during these high-risk mobility transitions.

I think the research can really support the perspectives we're hearing from the other witnesses and help us understand the kind of aggregate experiences of the many.

11:50 a.m.

Liberal

Colin Fraser Liberal West Nova, NS

Thank you very much.

Do have I time?

11:50 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Neil Ellis

You have eight seconds.

11:50 a.m.

Liberal

Colin Fraser Liberal West Nova, NS

Thank you very much to all of you for being here.

11:50 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Neil Ellis

With our time, we're going to shorten the next round down to four minutes each. Three of you will be up: Ms. Romanado, Ms. Wagantall, and Mr. Eyolfson.

Ms. Romanado.

11:50 a.m.

Liberal

Sherry Romanado Liberal Longueuil—Charles-LeMoyne, QC

Thank you so much.

I'd like to thank you all for being here today.

In the past year I've had a chance to visit 12 bases and wings and to talk to so many military families, such as my own. I have two sons currently serving in the Canadian Armed Forces, and getting the frank discussions going that we're hearing today is really important, because your ideas will help us make changes. I really want to stress the importance of your being here today and telling us your stories. Thank you for that.

Sergeant Major Westholm, you talked a lot about JPSU, and I'm glad my colleagues brought up a lack of training for complex cases. You talked about understaffing, poor management, and a lack of urgency. I've heard that before, that we have a bureaucracy that sometimes takes way too long when we have a situation that we need to deal with immediately.

You talked a little about the announcement of the transition group. The CDS announced 1,200 people with “Strong, Secure, and Engaged”. I hope we will get them, and I like your idea about using military members who have experienced illness and injury who perhaps do not meet universality of service and could be retained. From your expert experience working in JPSU, do you have any other suggestions for us?