moved that Bill C-31, an act to amend the Pension Act and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Superannuation Act, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I rise today and commend to the House Bill C-31, an act to amend the Pension Act and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Superannuation Act, which was introduced April 10.
I trust all colleagues will agree with me on the importance of this legislation and grant it their speedy and unanimous approval.
Bill C-31 would give members of the Canadian Forces and the RCMP greater assurance when sent to special missions in areas of elevated risk that they and their families will be cared for should harm come their way. It sends the message to them that their government cares and appreciates, that their country is with them and their families in their hour of need.
Members may ask, “Why these proposed amendments now?” Before I go into the detail of this bill, I want to ensure: one, that I bring members of the House up to date on the current status of departmental benefits, specifically to those who deal with Canadian Forces members' accessibility to disability pensions and the related programs my department provides; and two, that I provide colleagues with the proper context regarding the intent behind the proposal.
In making these undertakings I am aware of the expertise of some members of the House on matters related to veterans issues, in particular among those members who serve on the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs. They are very familiar with veterans issues and concerns. I, like my predecessors in the portfolio, have sought and taken their excellent advice. They know very well the programs of my department. Hence, some of the information that I will provide will be quite familiar to them. I therefore ask them to bear with me when I review the background that has brought us to today's debate.
Members of Canada's military may apply for a disability pension if they become injured or ill in the line of duty. Survivor benefits are available for dependants in the case of death of a member or veteran due to his or her service. These pension disability benefits have been available to eligible members or veterans whether they serve or have served their nation in times of war and times of peace, here at home or abroad.
Disability pension payouts comprise by far the largest expenditure my department disburses, amounting to approximately $1.5 billion a year. Close to 165,000 clients are presently receiving disability pension payments. Of those, more than 5,000, about 3%, are currently serving Canadian Forces personnel. It is to this latter group, currently serving Canadian Forces members, and to the RCMP members as well that Bill C-31 speaks.
The bill would provide them with the most comprehensive disability pension coverage possible, including enhanced health care services needed for the disability incurred from the moment they are deployed and when such deployment exposes them to conditions of elevated risk.
Deployment could be to any part of the world, including here at home, and the scope of deployment could encompass disaster relief, rescue operations, peacekeeping or peacemaking.
Under the existing legislation, if members incur a disability or illness while not serving in a special duty area, they are covered but there is a burden of proof. The burden of proof is intended to satisfy the requirement that the disability be shown to have arisen out of or was directly connected to service.
However by giving the members in a special duty area the 24/7, 24 hours a day, seven days a week coverage, the burden of proof requirement is removed. They will only need to show that such a condition arose during the time of service. Therefore the need for detailed medical and service evidence is simplified. Thus an award of the pension, if required, can be more easily rendered.
The amendments proposed in Bill C-31 have two main components. I wish to deal first with the aspect of service in special duty areas or SDAs.
In 1964 Parliament enacted the special duty area legislation. It stipulates that special pension provisions would apply to serving members operating in certain areas outside Canada when those areas have been designated by the governor in council as special duty areas. Technically, SDAs are identified by geographic coordinates and by definition they must be outside Canada.
Since 1949, for more than half a century now, members of the Canadian Forces have served in areas outside Canada in various roles on behalf of the United Nations and in other trucekeeping and peacekeeping operations. It has been recognized that service in these areas has often meant participation in active combat operations and exposure to hazardous conditions not normally associated with peacetime service.
Specifically, the special pension provisions deem a member serving in a special duty area to be on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for pension act purposes. That is from the moment the member arrives in a special duty area up to and including the moment the member departs from that area. This means that any death or any disability other than a disability caused by the improper conduct of the member that occurs while serving in a special duty area is governed by these special pension provisions.
The fact is Canada and its service men and women have been in the forefront of support to peacekeeping missions in special duty areas in countless hot spots around the world. More than 100 individuals to date have paid the price with their lives. Many more have paid the price in the form of accidents and injuries.
I am pleased to tell hon. members that the bill will improve SDA coverage in two important ways.
First, the process of declaring an SDA will be speeded up or streamlined. With the passage of this legislation, under the pension act, the Minister of National Defence, who seconded the bill, or the Solicitor General in consultation with the Minister of Veterans Affairs, will be able to declare an SDA and have it apply in a much faster time frame. That means it will be possible for departing members and their families to be assured of their rightful 24 hour, seven days a week coverage and as a result, have greater peace of mind.
Bill C-31 is intended to address more than peace of mind considerations. The bill would increase the length of time covered by an SDA, beginning on the day of actual deployment and covering training for the deployment, travel to and from the SDA, and authorized leave of absence from the SDA.
The second component to this legislation reflects the new times in which we are living. The events of September 11 changed the world. They changed the sense of security we all have felt in our country, and this is true for many other countries as well. They marked the beginning of a new era of violence by extremist organizations that created a need for rapid response by the community of nations. Indeed, we live in a world where new threats can happen at any given moment, anywhere.
It is becoming more difficult to define geographically a theatre of operations. In today's operations of elevated risk, there may be troops on the ground in a specific designated area, yet many others stationed elsewhere working in support of that operation. Although not confined to the same specific area, they are nonetheless also exposed to elevated risk conditions.
The key feature here is exposure to elevated risk, meaning a level of risk higher than that normally associated with peacetime service, regardless of the form it takes, search and rescue, disaster relief, anti-terrorism activities and armed conflict.
Thus the bill proposes to add an additional designation called the special duty operation, or SDO. Unlike SDAs, SDOs could exist at home or abroad. For example, domestic SDOs could include search and rescue and disaster relief operations. Overseas SDOs could apply to a naval deployment not confined to a specific geographic area or region, but on a mission where elevated risk is apparent.
Because of the bill, members deployed to SDOs will benefit from the same insurance principle as those deployed to SDAs, with 24 hour, 7 day a week coverage. As will be the case with SDAs, the Minister of National Defence will be able to declare a special duty operation. This new service type and associated coverage will provide Canadians in uniform the added recognition and security they deserve for putting themselves in harm's way.
Increasingly, members of the RCMP are also being asked to take on assignments of elevated risk. The bill proposes to give the Solicitor General similar authorities, under the RCMP Superannuation Act, for equivalent situations. The Solicitor General will be able to designate areas of operations outside Canada as SDAs or SDOs. In addition, the commissioner for the RCMP will be able to deploy RCMP members to such operations as designated by the Minister of National Defence.
The proposed amendments to our disability pension legislation reinforce Canada's long-standing reputation as a leader in providing the men and women who serve our nation with one of the most comprehensive coverage packages of benefits and services in the world.
When it comes to providing the best legislation for our military and the RCMP, we must be able to adapt to the conditions under which we ask them to serve. World conditions have changed drastically over the past few years, as has the type of deployment we ask of our men and women in uniform, our troops and our national police.
While this type of legislation will always be a work in progress, the process we are engaged in today will give them a better product in the form of legislation that provides servicemen and servicewomen and their families with broader and more timely coverage. It will provide more coverage to Canadian Forces and RCMP members placed in harm's way, no matter where in the world or in Canada. It will provide for greater peace of mind, not only for those leaving on deployment but also for family members who are awaiting their safe arrival home.
Let us take this very important piece of legislation into our statue books as a reflection of Canada's gratitude to our military and RCMP, whom we call upon to uphold our values of peace, freedom and justice in dangerous places around the world and at home.
These amendments will establish a more responsive framework in keeping with the changing nature of Canadian Forces and RCMP operations. Thus, I seek the support of all colleagues in the House. Let us respond to the challenge and unanimously adopt Bill C-31 with speed.