Mr. Speaker, because there has been a lapse of several days I remind all that Bill C-67 is the Veterans Appeal and Review Board Act and that the purpose of Bill C-67 is to reduce the existing backlog of appeal pension cases and to shorten decision time on first application.
If it succeeds it will merge two existing bodies, the Canadian Pension Commission and the Veterans Appeal Board, and first decisions on veterans cases will be made by the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the bureau of pension advocates will become part of the department and will work only on preparation of appeals.
My unease with Bill C-67 stems from two sources. The first is the change of position of the bureau of pension advocates. This has long been an extremely important first level of contact for veterans who have a case to make. To move it to the second level is totally unacceptable. The second unease I have concerns what I shall call the leadership factor in the Departments of National Defence and Veterans Affairs.
Reaction to need within those departments has historically been very slow. I do contend that at the sharp end of the Department of National Defence, when we are talking about our troops, it is very good. Its reaction time is good and it is flexible. The farther we move in the chain of things behind the front line, the more the bureaucracy is involved and the slower the reaction. The bill's purpose is admirable but if the effect of the bill will be to increase the size of the bureaucracy then I cannot believe it will achieve its aim.
When I spoke to the bill very briefly last week I pointed out delays of 40 and 50 years in recognizing our veterans' accomplishments. The merchant navy waited for 50 years for recognition. The veterans of Dieppe have waited for over 50 years and are finally receiving a simple clasp for a medal. The veterans of
the Korean operation have waited for well over 40 years to achieve something. Other veterans of peacekeeping operations are still waiting. There was a proposal from this side of the House, supported by some members opposite, that there be a Canadian volunteer service medal produced for peacekeepers. However, I am sorry to say that was rejected by the House. There is certainly a slowness in recognition.
The other side of this impasse in national defence I started to illustrate the other day when I spoke about problems with hearing loss of members of the Canadian forces. Way back when, and we are talking a long time ago, when I was on the rifle ranges we wore no ear protectors. It took literally years for the Department of National Defence to come up with protection for the troops on the ranges firing weapons. It took even longer for any recognition of the fault of the Department of National Defence to be echoed by the Department of Veterans Affairs when veterans applied for hearing aids. The departments dragged their feet. That is a syndrome visible within national defence and veterans affairs.
Another example is the atomic energy corporation of Chalk River. There were spills of radioactive materials. There was a spill of the main reactor in Chalk River in the 1950s. People like Jimmy Carter, not then the president of the United States but a midshipman at Annapolis, came up to help clean up that spill. I was there. I had some illness presumably attributable to exposure to radiation. I tried to declare this on my release from the forces but it was not even accepted by national defence and veterans affairs.
There is the gulf war syndrome. Our troops were in the Persian gulf several years ago and some of them have complained of a variety of symptoms. The same thing has happened in the United States. The American veterans administration has acknowledged and labelled the problem as the gulf war syndrome. It has set up a registry at veterans affairs across the United States where all gulf war veterans complaining of health problems can get a complete physical examination. There has been acknowledgement of it in the United States. Here there has been nothing yet. We are still looking at the problem.
I am not in a position to say there is such a thing as an illness contracted whether it is from the oilfields, nerve gas or from anything there. What I am saying is national defence and veterans affairs invariably drag their feet in recognizing there are problems.
There are sufficient symptoms displayed by veterans that it should not be a problem. The symptoms include loss of memory, aches in the joints, night sweats, severe headaches, loss of hair, confusion, reproductive problems, stress within family, attention disorder, fatigue, abnormal rashes, bleeding gums, irritability, breathing problems and so on. They are surely sufficient for our people to say get it out in the open and tackle this thing and either put it to rest and say there is no such thing as gulf war syndrome or there is and these are the attributes we recognize.
I have a letter from the vice-president of the Canadian Peacekeeping Veterans Association. He is reporting on the gulf war syndrome problem: "This report would be more extensive had I received all of the information I am waiting for. Please advise me if you would like me to keep you informed of any new developments. Our methods of gaining information are very tedious, as we are a non-profit organization that must rely on the mail system, etc. We do not have the funds to travel to interview the individuals in question. We also have full time employment and must conduct this type of research after hours. Don't get me wrong, we do this research because we believe in what we do. We must help our fellow veterans. We would like eventually to conduct an interview or have a questionnaire completed by our gulf war veterans and their spouses. This would certainly enlighten us as to the situation with regard to that".
My point is veterans affairs and national defence should take more initiative, should exercise leadership and show our serving soldiers and veterans that they are interested and lay some of these problems to rest.
We have other examples of the same thing. Somalia and the use of mefloquine is another such example. Mefloquine is a drug used as a malaria inhibitor. Years ago, I will not say how many, when I was in Korea we used paludrine which had certain side effects but nothing to the extent that apparently mefloquine does. My colleague from Delta brought this up in the last six months. He has asked for an investigation into the effects mefloquine may have had on Canadian troops serving in Somalia. He cited specifically Trooper Kyle Brown who, as we all know, has been put into prison, and Master Corporal Clayton Matchee and the men of the Canadian Airborne Regiment.
I understand this drug is still in use to this day in Somalia in spite of questions about its appropriateness. Apparently Canadian troops in Somalia were given heavy doses weekly of mefloquine which, as I say, is used as protection against malaria. However, the drug is well known to have neurological side effects. The manufacturer's literature states that reactions are rare but include convulsions, psychosis, nightmares, dizziness, headaches, confusion, anxiety and depression.
The Canadian medical personnel in Somalia reported that Canadian troops experienced these side effects. In fact, the day the drug was administered in Somalia was known as psycho Tuesday.
In view of reports like this, I would expect that the Department of National Defence-and I lump veterans affairs in with it for this purpose-would show more leadership by taking the initiative to say: "Let us put a stop to nonsense like this. Let us put a stop to the stories. We will determine accurately whether mefloquine can continue to be administered, what its side
effects are, when it can and cannot be used, what its effects are with liquor and so on". We need to put these things to rest.
In conclusion, I find that leadership in national defence, lumped in with veterans affairs, is lacking today. We have been looking at a great many problems over the last year: Somalia, the disbandment of the airborne regiment and the videos pertaining to that, the reduction in the size of the forces, equipment problems, morale problems brought out in the Oehring report, having to do more with less in the way of equipment and troops as brought out by Brigadier-General Jeffries' report from Petawawa, the Fowler-Doyle-Létourneau incident, the Somalia inquiry and the staffing of the inquiry itself, the Bosnia-Croatia decisions, suicides in the forces and, more recently, the block of access to information problems. All of these things tell me that there are leadership problems in national defence.
When I look at those problems and the foot dragging that goes on, I say that Bill C-67 should be really looked at very carefully. It should not be proceeded with in its present form. I am absolutely against the relegation of the bureau of pension advocates to a review position. This is not going to help the veterans. The burgeoning bureaucracy that will be created by the combining of two levels is going to be bad news once again for the veterans and their administration.
Therefore, I speak negatively on this bill. The purpose of Bill C-67 is laudable but its implementation, I am sorry to say, may not do what we want for the veterans who are having problems.