Mr. Speaker, it is always a pleasure to speak in the House with regard to veterans' concerns.
Of course it seems like, for some reason or another, that veterans have to continually fight for benefits that government should be automatically giving them. Unfortunately they have to continue to fight. It seems as though the war is still on for a lot of these gentlemen plus veterans' spouses who are looking for benefits due to them.
Since the return of the House last week, the issue of veterans' benefits has been focused on a single great injustice. That injustice stems from a decision by the government to exclude more than 28,000 widows from the continued protection of the veterans independence program. By not making this program extension retroactive, the government has effectively left thousands of citizens out in the cold.
These brave women were not only the wives of heroes; they were the backbone of the war effort here at home. Many committed themselves to whatever service they could provide for the country. Many spent some of the most difficult years of their lives caring for their ailing husbands suffering from injuries received on the field of battle. To deny these courageous Canadians the benefits they deserve is to condemn them to a life sentence in a hospital or a long term care facility.
The cruellest part of this entire scandal is that the basis for deciding who would get these benefits and who would not is the date that their veteran husbands died. It is not based on need. It is not based on compassion. It is not based on the fundamental principles of basic fairness. It is based on a civil servant looking at a calendar and saying, “This day and not one day before”.
We all know that losing their husbands was a very tragic event in their lives, but now it is one that these women will have to remember each and every day as they struggle through their daily chores. This decision, unfair and totally arbitrary, will force these women from their homes. Yet down the street there might be another widow who, due to the fact that her husband lived just a little longer, will get everything she needs.
How is this fair? Is this fair? I know it is not and I am sure the minister realizes it is not, because I know that the minister has a good heart and he has great intentions. But we need to go further for these veterans and their spouses.
How does it honour the memory of our veterans? In fact, I think it puts down and destroys the memory of our veterans because it says that some of their families should be protected while others should not.
The Minister of Veterans Affairs has repeatedly told the House that if he had the money to cover all widows, he would. And I know he would, because he is a kind gentleman. However, it is not happening and I think it is very important that the government move forward to make sure that all widows are protected and covered, not just those in the present day. He says the real problem is that the government is unwilling to give money to veterans, even while it spends $1 billion on the gun registry and on scandal after scandal. He says that this is about the Minister of Finance needing more money to cover mistakes than he has to help Canadians. Even if Veterans Affairs heart is in the right place, it is clear its wallet is not.
An access to information request for the spending of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board has uncovered gross mismanagement on the part of the board members. Statistics Canada says the average Canadian household spends about $124 per week on food, yet a veterans appeal board member, a former Liberal MP, charged the government $180 a week. Statistics Canada says the average household spends about $6,000 a year on food. The same member charged the government for just under $8,000.
But he is not the worst. Another board member charged the government $13,000. There is more. The average Canadian spends about $5,000 per person per household for shelter in a year. Instead, the board members charged the government $12,000 for accommodations in the last 11 months alone. That is more than the cost of a two bedroom apartment here in Ottawa for the same time period. And there is more: All these expenses charged to taxpayers are on top of an annual salary of $100,000.
I ask you, Mr. Speaker, how many widows earn more than $100,000 a year? I know that the minister knows they do not make that much money; they are just barely surviving. I think we have to do more. I know he can find the money; he has the heart to do it. What I realize is that he will have to find the money. And I will tell the members on the board that the hon. member for Saint John, New Brunswick is very concerned about all the widows in this country.
How many widows have the luxury of charging their food and shelter to the government? This kind of double standard is disgusting. Veterans' widows have had to sell their homes while Veterans Appeal Board members live like kings. Where is the justice?
I put the government on notice today. The member for Saint John has made it quite clear that the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada will do everything in its power to prevent the government from enacting this cruel scam.
For a decade the Liberal government has forced veterans to fight for every benefit they deserve. Every time we turn on the news there is always something about veterans appealing and going to court trying to get more money that is due to them. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose. Look at the agony and torment that these veterans are going through.
We should respect the veterans. We know how the aboriginal groups have been affected over the years. They have had to fight and fight and fight until justice was served.
Veterans have done their time. Veterans have fought the war. Let us give them what they duly deserve.
It began with the merchant navy veterans. We all know who was the main fighter behind the merchant navy veterans. He is in the other House and he has done a great job. It has continued with veterans whose money has been held in trust by the government. It still continues with veterans who were used during the war to test chemical weapons like mustard gas.
Yet these brave veterans are being forced to fight the government. They fought to defend us two generations ago. They are being forced to challenge the full power of government in the courts.
This is not how we treat heroes. This is not how we remember their sacrifices. This is not how we honour their memories. The government has declared war on the grandparents of the nation.
The veterans affairs committee recently undertook a study of veterans care hospitals across the country. These hospitals should be monuments for heroes, but far too many are museums of forgotten friends. Brave soldiers in the evening of their lives are being subjected to bad food and ramshackle conditions and they are the lucky ones. Countless others struggle through their days at home as their names slowly work their way down the waiting list.
How many times do we get phone calls? I am sure many members get calls from their constituents for veterans who are waiting, trying to get help and trying to get their name on the list.
It is like that for housing for seniors. It is the same thing. Their name is put on a list. There may be 200, 300 or 400 on the list. We need to make sure that the need is taken care of now. Countless others struggle through their days at home while their names slowly work their way down the waiting list.
These men offered their lives in the defence of our freedom. Young boys too young to serve had to lie to recruiting officers so that they could go to fight for our country. Now they are old men. The government now is lying to them. It is not giving them what is rightly due to them.
The government said it would remember them. It did not. The government said it would take care of them. It did not. The government said it would take care of their families after they were gone and it will not.
Given the years of sacrifice and hardships that many of these veterans and their families have endured, the government owes them the duty of care. The duty requires us to protect them as they have protected us. That duty requires us to care for them as they would have cared for their loved ones had their lives not been shortened by the effects of the war. They made the ultimate sacrifice for us and it is time for us to make that ultimate sacrifice for them.
I know that the minister will do everything in his power to make sure that we do what is right and that is to take care of all veterans' spouses. If they are not in a program now, they have to become part of the program. We need to do what is right for them and for the country.