Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to speak to Bill C-50 on behalf of the official opposition and more particularly, on behalf of the official opposition critic for veterans affairs, the member for Souris—Moose Mountain.
After what the minister said, I am overwhelmed on behalf of the widows across Canada who will not be receiving the same life benefits as other widows. There is an overwhelming sense of betrayal. The widows who will be without benefits have the same grief that the widows of Corporal Beerenfenger and Sargeant Short feel today. There is no difference, but because of a decision, which can be changed, those women will be left out in the cold.
There was opposition to Bill C-50, even though by all accounts it appeared that the bill was going to further the cause of all veterans and widows.
Cliff Chadderton, chairman of the National Council of Veterans Associations, had concerns and wrote to the media. He talked about being scheduled for laser surgery on one eye and being unavailable for comment. Nevertheless, he stated that he was surprised to see comments in the National Post by the Minister of Veterans Affairs.
Mr. Chadderton had written to the minister on at least three occasions about the matter and never received a reply and now he knows why. He said that he would be bringing up the matter at the annual meeting of the NCVA but there was no indication that the government would be doing anything. At the last meeting they had specifically asked that the top brackets of widows be covered even though the funds were scarce. He said that other veterans organizations made comments to the effect that they would like to see all types of widows covered.
As far as Mr. Chadderton and his researchers are concerned, they stand by the comments in the letter to the minister of October 23, 2003 and the release of that date. He feels that it is up to the minister to give him specific replies. He certainly was not satisfied to hear the minister say that he was disappointed that Mr. Chadderton should ask for his resignation, bearing in mind that the minister has given no indication that anything will be done despite a promise from the Prime Minister.
We were hoping to be able to speak of a victory today. Our critic for veterans affairs would have been so pleased to share the happiness with the thousands of military widows who have been patiently waiting for the changes that are part of this legislation. Year after year the member for Souris—Moose Mountain has pursued the goal of equality. That is what it is about, equality. It is about equality for military widows.
This year my caucus colleague set November 11 as the special target date for achieving this goal. The Speaker knows there is a great likelihood that the House will rise on November 7, prior to November 11. This causes great concern for all of us in the House that any changes will be made to ensure that the benefits go to all of the widows.
I have to wonder whether the command from the prime minister in waiting that no more funds be allocated is a stall until he rises to the throne. Could it be that his new caucus is trying to create the illusion that he will be the great saviour of these widows, or is it just simply that they are waiting for more widows to pass away and never be able to receive the benefits that are rightly theirs?
We on this side of the House feel that these widows and dependants of deceased veterans have waited long enough for equality of treatment.
For these individuals, Remembrance Day will take on a new meaning. They will not have a grateful nation recognizing their sacrifice and that of their families in the service of their country.
The official opposition will continue to press for the changes outlined in respect of benefits for veterans and the children of deceased veterans.
Actions to be taken or that have been taken since the minister's May 12 announcement include the extension of health programs for veterans on a disability pension. This will provide veteran independence program recipients the health care benefits to overseas service veterans at home when they are waiting for a priority access bed in a long term care facility. However it provides nothing for the widows whose husbands passed away prior to May 12.
The legislation would provide long term care and health care benefits to allied veterans with 10 years post-war residence in Canada but it provides nothing for the widows whose spouses died prior to May of this year.
The bill would extend, from one year to a lifetime, the period of VIP benefits that cover the costs of housekeeping and ground maintenance, and would be given to widows after the death of their spouses or partners who were veterans and receiving such benefits. However it provides nothing for the other widows whose spouses died prior to May.
It is with hesitation, particularly because of who the bill was intended to help, but it is with a sense of urgency that I would like to be acting on these matters. The aging population of our veterans, their widows and dependants means that they will not benefit from the changes being announced in Bill C-50. Remembrance Day this year will be a yearly reminder that not only have they lost a loved one but their government was not prepared to act in a timely fashion. They will remember that the government turned its back on them this November 11.
I know our critic, the member for Souris—Moose Mountain, received over 1,000 letters from widows, including letters from constituents in my riding, who wanted to be able to thank the minister for going forward with those benefits. Why has the federal government not had a change of heart in all these years?
After years of lobbying for the changes outlined in Bill C-50, what gave the final push on this? I have no hesitation whatsoever saying that it was the hard work of the official opposition critic for Veterans Affairs, who brought this issue to the forefront in the first place.
I have never been one to believe in coincidences. Canadians cannot help but wonder about the timing. It just happens that passage of the bill would coincide with the deaths of Sergeant Short and Corporal Beerenfenger in an Iltis jeep in Afghanistan. If some good could have come from this tragic loss of life, it would have been to honour veterans' widows and make the announcement today that all widows will receive the lifetime benefits. Corporal Beerenfenger and Sergeant Short would have been heroes a hundred times over, more than they already are.
If the minister had announced that all widows would receive these benefits, perhaps I would have tempered my cynicism and that of many Canadians who have come to expect a government that can never be counted on to do the right thing unless someone else, either the media or the official opposition, pushes it in the right direction.
When the government does act it is by some half measure, as we have heard today, that is more designed to silence its critics than to actually solve a problem. This brings me to the issue of the thousands of widows who are excluded from the VIP benefits.
As recently as yesterday, the chairman of the National Council of Veterans Associations called for the resignation of the Minister of Veterans Affairs for not responding to their specific concern about the shortcomings in the legislation. Today I too must call for the minister's resignation. This is betrayal of the worst kind.
It is our desire that the issues raised by the National Council of Veterans Associations in Canada, in a letter to the minister dated October 23, 2003, will be dealt with in a timely fashion and that in the future there will be no confusion on behalf of the 23,000, more or less, widows whose spouses died prior to the May date. I hope these points will be clarified in writing, not this wishy-washy doublespeak that we are getting here in the House today.
As the member for Renfrew—Nipissing—Pembroke, it is my pleasure to represent the women and men in the Canadian Forces who are based at CFB Petawawa.
Many individuals who experience the lifestyle in the upper Ottawa valley, choose to retire here. As a consequence, a significant number of retired military personnel now call Renfrew county home. Many military widows and their dependants in my riding follow this issue of equality of treatment with individual interest. Today I dearly would have liked to have shared in the joy that should have been forthcoming. Sons, daughters, brothers and sisters all write and phone in on behalf of the widows.
I know the opposition is united across the benches on this side of the House and will continue to force the issue on behalf of the widows until we all share in the joy and stand up and congratulate whoever the minister is at that time.