moved that the bill be read the third time and passed.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise once again on behalf of the Government of Canada to speak to Bill C-50.
The fact that we are debating final reading of the bill so soon after second reading and deliberations by the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs speaks volumes about the concern all members have for Canada's veterans.
I thank the standing committee for its thoughtful study and unanimous approval of the bill. Indeed, I thank all members for sharing my passion and determination to get the urgently needed measures contained in the bill passed in the House as quickly as possible.
Since the bill is reported back to the House without amendments, I need not debate further the details of its three basic components, except that I would like to give some added, but brief, overview comments on them.
The provision that re-establishes the education assistance program for the dependent children of Canadian Forces members killed in the line of duty, or whose injuries would later lead to death, cannot be more timely.
It is clear that as Canada continues her peacekeeping and peacemaking role in the world, where there remain countries that cry out for peace, it is only right and just that we offer peace of mind to the servicemen and servicewomen who go into harm's way to achieve peace for others. Their children's access to post-secondary education is assured through the assistance of this program. The deaths in Afghanistan, earlier this month and before, of some of our finest in uniform as a direct consequence of duty to country bring to our consciousness the importance of re-establishing this program.
The other components of the urgent needs package, which I had announced earlier, and the other components of the bill will provide further assistance: to wartime veterans with a pension disability of 48% or greater, without regard to whether their needs are related to the pension disability or not; to overseas veterans while they are on a wait list for a priority access bed; to allied veterans with 10 years post-war residence in Canada; and to former prisoners of war with shorter or longer periods of incarceration than now provided for in the regulations and in law. Bill C-50 also clarifies in law the definition of “member of the forces” for the purposes of the War Veterans Allowance Act.
Indeed, the provisions in this bill will help us address some of the key urgent needs of veterans and their families.
The one other urgent need, which has caught the most public attention, relates to the veterans independence program, more popularly known as VIP. I am pleased, as are all members of the House, that we have been able to already put in place soon after my announcement last May of the package of initiatives, a change in the regulations which now allows eligible spouses of deceased veterans a lifetime extension of certain VIP services, that is, those presently in receipt of the one year extension of benefits following the death of their veteran spouse, as was then the provision in the regulations prior to the change, would henceforth continue to receive the benefit for lifetime as needed, as well as for those whose spouses die after the change in regulation.
Let me reiterate a couple of points about this specific matter for greater clarity and precision. First, the net effect of this particular change to the regulations is not to remove anyone, and I underscore “not”, from the VIP rolls. Unwittingly but regrettably, it has come to be portrayed in some quarters that some have been cut off. That simply is not true at all.
Let us be very clear. What we have done with this particular change is allow more than 10,000 eligible survivors, at a cost of some $65 million over five years, entry onto the VIP roll of veterans on the program, in addition to those still on the one year extension when the change in regulation occurred.
It must also be made very clear that there remains an unanswered challenge, namely, making the new regulation applicable to all surviving spouses whose one year extension of VIP benefits had already ended before the commencement of the new regulation.
This has been acknowledged by all. As I have said on a number of occasions, both in the House and outside, this unanswered challenge remains in the heart of this minister, and I am sure in the hearts of all, and in the hearts of veterans and their families.
That is why this was a matter that this minister and veterans groups alike struggled with before we decided that I would announce, as I subsequently did announce last May, the package of initiatives that also addresses the other urgent needs of veterans.
That is why I raised this very issue with the leadership of the Royal Canadian Legion, the RCL, the largest organization for veterans in the country, and with the leadership of the Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans in Canada, Anavets, the oldest association of them all, as well as with the National Council of Veteran Associations, NCVA, during our meeting last May.
We were all in a dilemma. Should we wait until we had all the financial resources we needed or should we proceed with what we had? We all understood--RCL, Anavets and NCVA--that we did not have the resources to include the surviving spouses, those for whom the VIP extension had earlier been ended.
On balance, we unanimously agreed, without any dissent, that the best course of action was to target existing resources immediately to help surviving spouses who were currently in receipt of VIP or who would be at some future date and pledge to continue to work for the others. Thus, we have been able to immediately provide, following my announcement, not only VIP benefits to some 10,000 eligible surviving spouses, but as well, we have been able to help advance in the House the other forthcoming benefits contained in the bill before us.
That is why I also respectfully and gratefully acknowledge in the House the special motion moved at the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs, by the member for Nipissing, to the effect that, and I quote:
...the Government should take all possible means to provide lifetime VIP benefits to all qualified surviving spouses, of Veterans receiving such benefits at the time of their death, not just to those now eligible for such benefits following the amendments made in June 2003 to the Veterans Health Care Regulations.
That is why I share and take most seriously the more recently expressed sentiments of Jennifer Kish from London, Ontario, and Patricia White of Charlottetown, among many, many others who have to date reflected the same sentiments on this issue, not to mention the universal sentiments of those in the House. This is a non-partisan issue.
Mr. Speaker, we enter public service from whatever career we had before in the hopes of serving the broader public good. As a former pediatrician and lung specialist in practice, I had the privilege of caring for our youngest and, by definition, some of our neediest citizens, and now, as Minister of Veterans Affairs, I say that our very senior veterans are also among the neediest from a health care perspective.
It is in part in this context that I stand before the House to ask that we once more summon our resolve and give swift passage to Bill C-50. In addition, there is another context in which to frame our resolve and that is from the perspective of the veterans themselves, from their own lips. I have come to know from veterans I personally have met one to one or in groups that health needs are one of their pressing priorities.
At this juncture, I once more convey my many thanks to the leadership of the Royal Canadian Legion, the association of Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans in Canada, and the National Council of Veteran Associations, for sharing with me and my departmental officials the insights of their fellow veterans.
As hon. members know, my department has a long-standing collaborative relationship with Canada's veterans groups. Since I came on board nearly two years ago, I have been determined to make sure that this tradition of consultation and cooperation continues. From my very first meeting with the leadership of the veterans associations to today, it has been very clear what their priorities are.
I would like to conclude with the comments that have come from the largest and the oldest veterans organizations. Said Dominion President Allan Parks of the Royal Canadian Legion, the largest group:
In catering to the needs of prisoners of war, surviving spouses, and the long term care of veterans, Canada remains at the forefront of support to its veterans.
Said Dominion President Robert Cassels of the Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans in Canada, the oldest group:
I am very pleased with the Minister of Veterans Affairs' announcement that he will be introducing proposed program changes to meet today's most urgent needs of Canada's war veterans...We were fully consulted at every step of the process.
I indulge in these commentaries to indicate the excellent working partnership we have had with them as we pursue our common goal, namely, to advance the well-being of veterans and their families, and as well, to convey to all three major veterans organizations our appreciation for their continuing input and insights, that we may have a better understanding of the needs of our veterans, and particularly to the RCL and Anavets for publicly conveying their unfailing support in our common search for a solution to our pressing challenges.
Lest we forget, let us also convey our gratitude to the staff of Veterans Affairs Canada, whose dedication and service continue to make a positive difference in the lives of our veterans and their families.
Colleagues, let us get Bill C-50 into the law books as quickly as possible so that the intended recipients, our heroes of war and peace, can benefit from its provisions as soon as possible.