Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to speak to this bill today. I may say that I am very pleased, but in fact it brings back some somewhat troubling memories for me. My father was a veteran, so my mother was the wife of a veteran.
Among the things that are always hard for veterans is having to explain the history of the second world war. I am a member of the Iberville Canadian Legion and I have a lot of good buddies there.
As soon as we hear about the federal government wanting to improve veterans' quality of life, we have to applaud. It is touching to see what goes on in the Legions. There are a lot of people there who are getting on in years and they often have had very hard lives. In the prime of their lives, they enlisted in the Canadian army and went overseas to fight the forces of evil, as they were known, in Europe and in Asia, when the Japanese got involved toward the end of the war.
Sadly, these veterans bear scars, not only on their bodies, but on their minds. The latter are worse. Sometimes they start talking and weeping for no apparent reason, but I know the reason. It is because they were psychologically traumatized by what they saw and what they did, some of which they cannot even talk about.
Consequently, when a government like the Government of Canada says it wants to improve the quality of life for its veterans, we are pleased. But we want to see this done fairly.
This bill has some good things in it, and some less good. Being a positive person, I will start with the good. I think that there has been progress made as far as the new definition of veteran is concerned. For a long time, this was limited to those who had taken part in the first or second world wars, or the Korean war.
Now the definition has been expanded to include those having served in a theatre of actual war.Those who served in a theatre of actual war will be considered veterans and will be eligible for all available benefits.
I think a society has to recognize those who have risked their lives and fought for the freedoms we are now enjoying. We have to recognize their contribution.
Too many people were excluded before. The new definition includes more people. This is the first positive point I wanted to raise.
The second one has to do with the importance in the lives of the veterans of their spouses and children, something we come to realize when we speak with these men. The soldiers wounded in action have often had a tough life. It has had an impact on their wives and children to the point that these men now want to know what benefits their families will be entitled to after they are gone.
As my hon. colleague mentioned earlier, the average age of these veterans is quite high, almost 80 years or over. Since women usually survive their husbands by about ten years and their children by a much longer period of time, the veterans want to know what will become of their spouses and their children.
I find these provisions to provide assistance to children of veterans quite appropriate. Members have to realize that such a proposal failed in 1995 but can now be carried out thanks to some reallocations of funds at the departmental level. More and more veterans are dying each year because of old age. It is only fair to reallocate the money to provide assistance to their spouses and children.
Restoring a $300 monthly education allowance for the children is a good thing. And since the minister thought of indexing the allowance, we will not have to revisit the issue in a few years' time to point out that the allowance is not high enough. It will automatically be indexed. It is important to help these children pay their tuition fees, which are getting prohibitive.
The official who came before the committee to explain the bill told us that it would help only 300 children. As the number of veterans dwindles, the department can afford to reallocate some $69 million to pay for all of these measures.
The other thing is the compensation of prisoners of war. I think that is important also. Earlier, I heard my colleague say that they were encouraged to escape from prisoner camps. I do not believe that a prisoner, knowing what we are doing today, would have chosen not to escape in order to have 10% more on his pension. This is not how we should look at things. Even if they had not been encouraged to escape, prisoner camps were not five-star hotels like the Hilton, particularly Japanese camps.
Today we are improving a scale that gives them a percentage of their pension in recognition of the time they spent in these camps. We can understand that.
There is a scale with periods of 30 to 88 days, 89 to 364 days and more than 364 days, and there are percentages. If we compare the old scale and the new scale, we can see that there is indeed an improvement. We support that and also the fact that the compensation is higher for those who were in Japanese camps because conditions were even worse in those camps. We recognize that these people made an effort and suffered both physical and psychological trauma. Therefore, as a society, we want to compensate them for that. This is totally appropriate and we agree with that.
I will now turn to the negative aspect of this bill, and it has to do with those who were forgotten. I do not believe that anyone has raised this point so far, but First Nations, Metis and Inuit veterans do not have adequate, if any, compensation. They have long been calling for compensation.
Back when I was the Indian Affairs critic, everyone said that there was simply no need to compensate the aboriginals. I think that they still have not been compensated. I hope that the minister will stand and respond to this part of my speech. I want to know if there is any compensation for the first nations, Métis or the Inuit. They have always been forgotten and, to my knowledge, they are still being forgotten in this connection.
There is worse still. My hon. colleague raised this issue in English and I want to raise it in French. I am talking about allowances for the surviving spouses of war veterans. When my father passed away, my mother received an allowance under the Veterans Independence Program.
My mother lived at home and got an allowance for housekeeping. This was extremely important because she had difficulty doing it herself. It was a big home, and it had to be cleaned each week. She did not have the resources or the strength to do it. In addition, she was sometimes able to also pay someone to cut the grass and the hedge. This improved her quality of life and helped her avoid going into the hospital too soon. So, this is a good measure.
The minister has forgotten about part of his clientele. I can give an example, and I have a good one.
In a May 12 press release, the minister announced the various measures before the House. He also announced a measure to extend the period of continuation of the Veterans Independence Program's grounds maintenance and housekeeping services for surviving spouses of veterans to a lifetime, as I just said.
We all applauded this measure. We were all very happy that the minister had thought about these people. But since then, something has happened. On September 18, the background document to the bill was made public. It says that some initiatives will require regulatory changes. On May 12, they were talking about legislative changes--that is, under the law--and on September 18, they were talking about regulatory changes.
We learn further on that the first regulatory change, namely the fact that VIP was being extended to eligible survivors not just for one year but for life, was approved on June 18. Between May 12 and September 18, the Governor in Council made a regulation. Under the old regime, eligibility for grounds keeping and housekeeping services continued for 12 months after the death of the veteran.
The act now says that from now on it will be for life. On the other hand, the regulation of June 18 says that only women widowed after June 18 will be eligible for the rest of their life. Those who were widowed before that date might as well forget about it.
That is a major problem. The minister claims that it will help 10,000 widows. But what he does not tell us, is that he is forgetting about 23,000 widows who would be eligible if the measure was extended to everyone.
During the briefing, the official who was there to explain the situation said that it was a reallocation of funds. A number of veterans are dead, and instead of returning the money to the Consolidated Revenue Fund, it will be reallocated. According to the official, the reallocation of these funds for everybody would probably have cost around $200 million. The government, probably a top official, put a stop to that and said that the government might be ready to take a little step but not one that would cost $200 million over the next five years. And that is where things started to go wrong.
Now, while we were expecting a legislative amendment, we are finding ourselves with a regulatory amendment made on June 18, and there is not much more we can say. It is all fine and well for my hon. colleague to say that they will try to move an amendment, but it should have some relevancy. That is what the procedure manuals say. The fact of the matter is that there is not much we can use in this bill for that purpose.
I think the government should review the regulations to ensure that there will not be any injustices. It cannot tell 10,000 women that they will be entitled to this allowance for the rest of their lives under the law and at the same time tell 23,000 other women in the same situation that they are not. We feel there is a very serious problem there.
Let us look at what is happening. Last year, the government accumulated a $13 billion surplus. Do not tell me that it is not able to amend the legislation or otherwise ensure that it is fair to everyone. The Treasury Board just tabled supplementary estimates. Why did it not make additional funding available to the Minister of Veterans Affairs to develop legislation that is fair to everyone? I wonder if the minister has not been derelict in his duties in this regard. One can certainly wonder.
What are we to tell the widows who come to us and complain that their neighbour is receiving the allowance while they are not? I will have to take the regulations out and explain that June 18 is the cutoff date.
On June 18, 2003, a woman who lost her husband on June 17, 2002, is told that he should have died one month later for her to qualify for the allowance, but that as it stands, she does not. However, a woman who lost her husband in July 2002 is told, in July 2003, that she does qualify.
As members can see, that does not work. A nation that wants to recognize the contribution made by the men and women of its armed forces cannot recognize just part of their efforts but not all of them. There is a problem here.
Look at the money the government is spending for instance on the gun control program, whose costs have ballooned from $2 million to $1 billion; 500 times more, or at the boondoggle at HRDC. When we look at the way the government is spending the taxpayers' money, we find it hard to believe that it cannot find $200 million for those who fought to ensure that we would be able to enjoy a better life and fundamental values like freedom and democracy. I find it very hard to believe. I have trouble telling members of the Canadian legion that, if they die today, their wives will be entitled to these benefits, but had they died last year their spouses would have to do without.
The government has to reconsider its strategy and this terrible injustice. As I said earlier, there are some good things in this bill, which is why we will not vote against it. Even at the procedural level, I am not sure it would help if we were to turn down this bill based on what I just said. The problem arises from the regulations that were made last June. However, the government can always amend the regulations.
Regulations are amended by other regulations, and that is where we are going to take up the fight. If we cannot fight on legislative front—because we were not allowed to; the Governor in Council was simply asked to make new regulations—then we have to do so on the regulations front. We have to exert political pressure. The Bloc Quebecois does not intend to let this go.
We are here to fight for justice. When there is injustice, it needs to be corrected. If a bill contains an injustice, we must fight to correct it. And we will do just that. I am not sure this legislation would survive a court challenge.
Is it normal for someone, because of a date, to say that the same thing applies to correcting an injustice? Is it normal that, from a given date on, some injustices will be corrected while others will not? When it came time to apologize to Japanese-Canadians and to compensate them, they were all treated the same. They were not told that “there are regulations and, starting on a certain date, some people will be compensated and others will not. That is the budgetary reality of my department. I do not have any more money”. That did not happen. This injustice was fully redressed.
It is the same in this case. These are people who fought these forces. So I understand why mistakes were made with Japanese-Canadians, and I am glad they were compensated. I am glad when the Canadian government remedies injustices it committed against aboriginals or anyone else.
But still, right now, here is one being created. It will not do any good to wait 10 years to correct this one. No one will be left in 10 years. These people need it right now. They need the money right now. These are people who do not have much money. These are people who have trouble making ends meet. These payments will help.
I am asking the minister to correct this injustice. The Bloc Quebecois will not let this happen. Certainly, if we must vote on this bill, we will vote in favour, because of the three or four ideas we have mentioned, which are positive and will enrich the lives of our veterans.
Nevertheless, we will not allow this injustice to be done to the widows. I promise the minister that if he does not correct that, the Bloc Quebecois will lead the battle to correct this injustice.