Mr. Speaker, I imagine that the majority of Canadians watching this morning have been looking for the benefits of the bill from a period of time when many members of the House were not even born. On average they have been waiting up to 55 years, which I doubt is the average age of members of the House.
The audience out there who will be recipients of the benefits in the bill is very few in number, compared to the brave people who served on the frontlines during the war.
Younger Canadians and those looking at the bill in the House for the first time ask what the Newfoundland Overseas Forestry Unit has to do with the war. As a matter of fact those people had some tremendous skills not just in cutting trees, but skills in building beams so that coal, a badly needed war commodity, could be shipped. They were able to speed up the shipment of coal, which was very valuable to munitions plants and so on.
My hon. colleague mentioned the number 3,680. As one who is a bit older than the average member of the House I remember what little attention they received. I also remember a movie about those in the Ferry Command, but little attention was ever given to those brave people. Because Newfoundland was not part of Canada at the time, most of them joined the British army rather than joining the Canadian army.
I also have a comment about the Canadian firefighters. Somebody picking up the bill, or even students in school, would ask what firefighters have to do with veteran related bills. These were brave people who went overseas. Many lost their lives in the terrible blitzkrieg, particularly of the city of London. They have had basic access to income tested veterans programs but limited or no access to pensions for service related disabilities and no access to veterans independence program.
We have some current problems with the VI program, but this is not the bill or the time to be discussing them. I certainly will be discussing the problems with the veterans independence program in committee. Hopefully we can resolve some of the current problems, particularly as they relate to veterans widows trying to live alone in their own homes. If any of them are listening, or members of the press, let me assure them that I would bet money the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs will deal with those issues and look after them pronto. At least that is the feeling I have from the committee. Certainly that is my aim as an official opposition member of that committee.
I want to say a word about another group my hon. colleague mentioned, the Ferry Command personnel. These people got some recognition during this time, but they flew unarmed planes. They flew sometimes in the worst of conditions, delivering the planes across the Atlantic Ocean to Africa and Britain. Many times the equipment and fuel supply were very limited and as a result many lost their lives. There are not many of these honourable and heroic people left in Canada. As a matter of fact, later on this month there is a commemoration service to honour a few more than 50 of these great people.
It is a shame that Canada has taken 55 years to honour people whose fatality record equalled that of the air force. It is not a very bright chapter in Canadian history. Although many of them may be listening this morning, they are probably feeling more gratitude about the fact they are being recognized in the few short years they have left to live rather than any remuneration they may receive.
It has been 55 years. Many of these people are up to 90th birthdays. It has been many years and some of them have missed many opportunities. In spite of the benefits coming to these deserving groups so late in their lives, at least the official opposition, and I understand all opposition parties in the House, will be supporting Bill C-41.
It is not a perfect bill. Whenever we deal with the recognition of people, pension funding or liabilities, we almost have to make a bill to fit every individual person. It is like providing some aid to farms in western Canada, which I might point out is virtually nil. It is very difficult to get a bill that will suit everyone's needs.
I draw attention to the statement allegedly made by the Minister of Veterans Affairs to the Atlantic media, which I found to be very misleading. It bothers me somewhat, simply because he suggested the opposition delayed the passage of the bill. I hope it was a media error. I am proud to stand in the House today and say no one, particularly in the official opposition, delayed the passage of the bill. He claimed that we did not let the bill go through all stages after second reading.
If the bill had gone through at that time the significant amendment the minister announced today regarding the RCMP would probably not have been picked up. That is what all parties on this side of the House wanted. This was accomplished, but I do not think it was the result of the opposition in any way delaying passage of the bill. I hope in due course the minister will make the necessary corrections.
While I am on this point I would like to clear up another matter which may mislead people. The bill, when passed, would give pension benefits to certain civilian groups for overseas service during the war. We all have to agree today that this is very laudable. It is really not what these groups have asked for year in, year out.
I am sure every member of the opposition and the minister know full well these civilian groups were asking for the same benefits the merchant navy vets were receiving, as was announced recently. I am not opposed in any way to the merchant navy vets getting benefits, but it is very difficult to draw a line between the merchant navy and the Ferry Command, to draw a line between the brave nurses who served at the front, or to draw a line between those who went into the pits of the coal mines in Newfoundland. It is a pretty small line to draw, and they did not get anything.
The minister singled out merchant navy vets for ex gratia payments for this injustice but completely ignored these groups in the process. I do not know why. I have some ideas why they were ignored, but I suggest this should be the subject of another bill which I recommend the minister introduce into the House as soon as possible.
I have received piles of submissions and letters. As soon as I was appointed by the official opposition as the member in charge of veterans affairs, the letters came in from all over Canada.
I understand the concerns on both sides of the issue. A person who has lived for many years with a disability, which we might say was a frontline disability, is only now receiving compensation. Those few hundred out there are asking the same question. The precedent has been set.
The bill was rushed quickly through the House. We will not block the bill, as we have said from the very beginning, but there are some individuals out there who I hope are considered on an individual basis. There are so few of them left there is no reason why they should not be included.
Let me give an example. A retired sergeant named Michael Schlueter contacted my office hoping to have some input in the bill. The retired sergeant thought it would be possible for him to appear as a witness before the standing committee, but I told him that would not take place simply because we were not hearing any witnesses. Let me speak about this chap. While on duty in Canada he had part of his right arm blown off. It was not in a war zone but it was related to a war effort. Because he was injured in Canada and not in what we would call a special duty area, he was not eligible for a disability pension until he was discharged from the forces. Thank God we have corrected that.
However, we have to look at this because those people are wondering, if the navy vets are eligible for retroactive payments, what about the other people? Therein lies a very significant problem. If we were confronted with the sergeant, how would anyone in the House answer that? I do not need to single him out. There are probably hundreds of them. Any other Canadian can receive a disability pension while they are employed. The bill corrects that injustice so that from now on anyone in the Canadian forces or the RCMP can collect a disability pension if they are injured on the job.
The sergeant, who has only one arm now, told me that the bill creates two classes of disabled ex-armed forces personnel: first, those who will collect a disability pension if they are injured after the bill is passed; and second, the others who are ineligible for a disability pension because they were injured before the bill was passed.
That is a pretty sobering thought, is it not? I hope the committee will work on that and really think about it. We just cannot leave out those individual Canadians because of some magic deadline. There are only a few hundred of them left and we need to recognize them.
In conclusion, the minister and the committee have to consider ex gratia payments for those deserving individuals I have just mentioned. I do not think we can run away or hide from that. I really do not think Canadians would want the House to do so.
I applaud the minister for working with the opposition and taking seriously our concerns about the RCMP. I fully endorse the amendment. I could not care less whether the amendment came from this side of the House or even from another party. The fact is that it is there and it needs to be there.
I give my consent to the bill because of the humanitarian treatment accorded to the widows of vets receiving compassionate awards. There are some issues still to mention but we will deal with them later.
I give credit to the department for recognizing its accountability when mistakes are made in calculating payments but not burdening vets or their widows with having to repay overpayments. I have been through some of that and it is generally wee sums of money. People at that age, some of them now living alone, get flustered when they see a bill coming in that they do not understand. I commend the government for making that movement.
I am pleased that the provisions governing the amount of income support is calculated in such a way that it benefits the veterans more than it does the department.
I am pleased to support the bill but I want to caution members and those listening in who may benefit in some small way. I hope this is not the end of our responsibility on the committee. I think we have a lot of study to do yet. There are people out there from Prince Rupert to St. John's who are striving to live alone in their own homes. We have to go back and make sure we find a way to recognize them more completely.