Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to rise and move concurrence in the sixth report of the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs presented on Friday, October 10.
This is a terrific report, one which came about with unanimous support from committee members, and I am also proud to have this motion seconded by the member for Perth—Middlesex who, like other members of the House, and not only members who were on that committee, very much supports the principle behind the report.
Similarly, my colleague from St. John's West raised this issue in the House of Commons and asked for concurrence in this report. The government at that time moved very quickly to shut down the debate, of course, and put the matter off the parliamentary agenda.
On October 9, the committee agreed to call on the government to amend the regulations affecting the distribution of benefits under the veterans independence program. I would suggest that it was a very long overdue and well-intentioned move at that time.
The government apparently has changed its position given its speed last week in shutting down the debate on this very subject. What is happening as a result of the current situation is that we are creating two classes of veterans' widows. That is to say, if we proceed in this fashion, a very reprehensible situation will evolve.
It will extend the coverage of the veterans independence program, known as the VIP, only, and I stress only, to those widows whose husbands died after May 12, 2003. To be very clear, if a war veteran died on May 11, 2003, his widow would receive the benefits of the VIP for only one year as opposed to the rest of her natural life. That being said, if that poor soul had lived one more day, that same widow would receive the VIP for the rest of her life.
Therefore, any suggestion that this is fair and equitable is absolutely untrue. I oppose and members of this House should also oppose a program that distinguishes between veterans' widows based on the time of death of a spouse. The program would be fairly distributed or should be fairly distributed to widows based on need and not on the time of death of a spouse. That is the compassionate and human approach, I would suggest.
I know that the Minister of Veterans Affairs has said time and time again on this very issue that his heart is in the right place. Nobody doubts that. I know in my heart of hearts that the Minister of Veterans Affairs, had he the money in his department, would make the move. He would make the necessary resources available to widows and the benefit in fact would be extended to all widows who were eligible.
There is a need to correct this anomaly that makes some veterans' widows eligible and others not eligible because of the time of death.
In all of this the real question that remains is this one: Where is the heart of the finance minister when examining this issue? Why will the minister not exhibit the political will and the foresight to make this happen? Why will he not answer questions? Why will the Minister of Finance not answer simple questions posed on this subject matter before the House? Why does he keep passing the buck instead of passing the bucks to those in need?
By most estimates, to put it into context, there are roughly 23,000 widows currently in Canada who will be affected by this double standard. On average, the benefit is worth between $1,000 and $2,000 a year per widow. This means that if the program is to proceed in its current fashion, without the amendment to include all the widows, we are talking about a gap in funding of between $23 million and $46 million. That is the difference.
Basically we are talking about doubling the amount of money available for the program, which is less, I am quick to add, than 5% of what the government spent on the gun registry, to put this in the context of how much money it is. It is less than 5% of what the government wasted in the HRDC scandal, in which money was unaccounted for, in which there was no way to trace where that money went. It is less than 10% of what it cost the taxpayers of this country for the cancellation of the EH-101 helicopter program 10 years ago, and we are still waiting for that replacement and the procurement.
Let us add that small amount for these widows to the budget of the Department of Veterans Affairs. It is a literal drop in the bucket compared to the obscene amounts of money wasted on other government spending.
The government has spent billions of dollars on several mistakes, covering up those mistakes and trying to remedy them and cover its tracks. Yet it is not willing to spend this money to prevent an obvious mistake and an obvious injustice.
Decisions like this seem so out of whack with reality, so inconsistent with the priorities of Canadians. It makes a great case for why there is such cynicism in the country today about politics, about government, about our process and about Parliament itself. This is really a very basic issue of simply doing the right thing.
What group of individuals, I ask rhetorically, can we envision more deserving of support at this time than widows of Canadian war heroes? It is absolutely mind boggling, it is staggering to think that the government would be so mean-spirited as to prevent widows of war heroes being given adequate and I would suggest a very small amount to help sustain them in their aging years in their homes.
It is very often an issue of compassion. My colleague from New Brunswick reminds me of this constantly. The government has an obligation to help persons in need, to help regions in need. This is an instance where the government should come forward with the necessary funds to fully fund the VIP program.
This is simply about taking care of these individuals, helping them with basic costs related to their health care needs, their needs in such times as snow storms with snow removal and hiring an individual to clean their homes or do their yard work. These are very basic amenities with which this money will help to assist.
Not only does this policy in its current form pose an injustice on these widows and on the war heroes by extension, it very much dishonours their memory and mistreats the loved ones who went overseas and who gave their very lives in defence of Canada. There will be an offensive smell around the government's position if it does not choose to make the proper corrections.
More important, the vast majority of these brave women are war heroes in their own right. They were supporting the cause. They were at home tending to their children, helping those veterans who were overseas, doing what was right for the cause of freedom. This is absolute motherhood, yet the government is holding back in a mean-spirited way, keeping this money from the department and in the meantime making catastrophic decisions that are wasteful and out of sync with where Canadians want to see that money spent.
Those women were the backbone of this country during some of Canada's darkest days. They helped in many cases to build military arsenals. They worked in factories and around the country doing jobs that in many cases would have been done by the veterans themselves. They were the ones who cared for their husbands when they returned. Many of those individuals had no support mechanisms when they came back. There was no counselling, no mental health programs, no employment, none of the social structures that exist today.
Those women were the ones who received those veterans back into their homes, tried to help them reintegrate and put behind them the horrors of war. Many of those individuals who returned were severely injured, physically and mentally, by their efforts overseas.
To reiterate, this can be addressed in a fair, compassionate way by a mere addition of $23 million to the VIP program. I say a mere $23 million, but this is a subject that is so fundamental. Many members on all sides of the House of Commons share our concern. The member for Saint John has spoken passionately about this issue and in defence of merchant marines as have other members here in the House because it is important that we demonstrate our understanding, our respect and our compassion for these women.
I would also be neglectful if I did not report to the House that there are other examples where we clearly could do more. There are examples where we could do more for our current veterans who have returned, many of whom are suffering from illnesses and the effect of having been overseas in the gulf war.
However, here is a specific example of a program that is in place, that is in need of funding, a very small amount of money compared to the budgets of other departments, that we can make a substantial difference in the very quality of life of these widows.
The truth is the government has been on many instances forced into making the proper decisions, dragged kicking and screaming to the conclusion that it was the right thing to do, the right thing to help these honourable citizens to fight for the benefits that they earned. This is not something where they are asking for a handout. This is something to which they clearly are entitled. There are numerous examples, and all members of Parliament have encountered it in their constituency offices, where individuals are denied benefits. Veterans come back and they are looking for help. They are looking for the government to simply make it right.
I mentioned before the cause of merchant navy veterans who had to come here on a hunger strike, on the front lawn of the Parliament of Canada, and again were aided very much in their cause by the member for Saint John. That type of spectacle should not occur in a free and democratic country like our own and heaven forbid that this Parliament ever sees the day that we have the wives of veterans coming to this House, this people's place, on bended knee looking for the government to fund their program, to help in their very subsistence, their very ability to get by. We are talking about simply helping these women get by with a very meagre income.
I am reminded of one individual in particular, Mr. Authorson, who had to go all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada to make his case for money that he was being deprived of, in his words, cheated of. He is still waiting for that payment. It is that time and delay that is even more offensive given the age of these individuals and the years they may have left to enjoy. Some of them are in their 80's, even 90's, and so the clock ticks and while that time is passing, they are getting by with virtually nothing knowing that they should be entitled to these funds.
This is a very basic issue for the House to consider. The report, I reiterate, was unanimous. It was one where all members of the committee supported the increase, the change that would not put this dividing line in place between an arbitrary date, which seems to have been pulled out of the thin blue air, that makes no sense whatsoever, that cuts off the time in which widows would be eligible.
There are other cases that are determined on the same type of arbitrariness. Brave soldiers were used in Canada to test mustard gas and chemical weapons at a time when our country was at war. They were used as human guinea pigs. The scientists who at that time were doing so said that they were doing it for a greater cause, to help the war effort. Yet these veterans are also being denied proper compensation.
I am reminded of the veterans who sit in long term health care facilities, health care facilities that are deteriorating, that are not up to code, and the countless others who are still on wait lists to get into those very same facilities. Veterans hospitals should be monuments to sacrifices in every way. There should be every effort made to see that the state of the art, best equipment, best treatment and best facilities are made available to those Canadian heroes.
There are those who were cheated out of the money by the government who should be paid back funds, who were denied pensions that they should have been receiving for years. Again, this has to be a priority for any government and I would suggest that the incoming prime minister immediately turn his attention to this if he has any semblance of responsibility to the citizens of the country.
Those who were subjected to tests, those who served overseas, those who are currently ailing and in need of attention are waiting anxiously for a decision on this issue.
I am extremely proud, as a member of the House of Commons, that the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs made such a forceful case. I also want to commend in particular the member for Souris—Moose Mountain, a very honourable member of the House, who made this case strenuously time and again in support of the veterans. I salute him in that effort. I also mentioned, prior to this, the member for Saint John.
The committee members put politics aside when it came to this issue. This is not a partisan issue. This is not an issue that should require shaming the government into action. It is an issue that should simply appeal to people's sensibilities, to the realization that there is something tangible that can be done immediately to fix it.
I have heard the Prime Minister and other members of the government suggest that they want to address the issue. I know you yourself, Madam Speaker, are a person of large heart and conscience who wants to see the right thing done on behalf of veterans and ailing veterans.
The question then becomes, when will it happen?