House of Commons Hansard #127 of the 37th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was benefits.


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Some hon. members


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The Deputy Speaker

All those against will please say nay.

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Some hon. members


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The Deputy Speaker

In my opinion, the yeas have it.

And more than five members having risen:

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The Deputy Speaker

Call in the members.

The recorded division stands deferred until Monday at the end of government orders.

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Jacques Saada Liberal Brossard—La Prairie, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like the division to be deferred until Tuesday at the end of government orders.

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The Deputy Speaker

Does the House give its consent to defer the division until Tuesday, instead of Monday, at the end of government orders?

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Some hon. members


Children of Deceased Veterans Education Assistance ActGovernment Orders

September 25th, 2003 / 3:25 p.m.

Winnipeg North—St. Paul Manitoba


Rey D. Pagtakhan LiberalMinister of Veterans Affairs

moved that Bill C-50, an act to amend the statute law in respect of benefits for veterans and the children of deceased veterans, be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Mr. Speaker, it is indeed my honour and privilege to lead off second reading debate on Bill C-50, an act to amend the statute law in respect of benefits for veterans and the children of deceased veterans.

Indeed, the bill provides us with a unique opportunity, one, to offer financial assistance to the children of veterans who die as a result of their military service; two, to clarify the requirements for the war veterans allowance program; and three, to enhance compensation for both shorter term and longer term former prisoners of war. Concurrent with the bill are regulatory changes, to be found in a separate form, which will help war era veterans and their spouses, including eligible overseas and allied veterans, live out their remaining years in comfort and dignity.

In fact, these objectives reflect the most pressing needs and longstanding concerns of our wartime veterans as identified by national veterans organizations. We therefore wanted to accomplish these goals as expeditiously as possible. So timely are the proposed statutory and regulatory amendments that we in the department have come to refer to them as our urgent needs legislation.

One might think the bill is largely a technical one, subtracting or adding sections to existing pieces of legislation. The amendments appear to be technical indeed, but their effects are substantial and profound.

The first amendment re-establishes the children of deceased veterans education assistance act, the act that provided authority for my department's education assistance program from its inception in 1953 until its discontinuance in February 1995. With the enactment of Bill C-50, we will be re-establishing the act and substantially improving upon the program for children of Canadian Forces members killed in the line of duty or who, at the time of death, were pensioned at the rate of 48% or greater.

The program will assist eligible children attending a post-secondary institution, such as a university, a college or a trade school, with their living expenses and tuition fees. A monthly living allowance of $300 will be sent directly to the students, over and above any amount payable to them as surviving children under the pension act. Reimbursement for tuition fees will be made directly to the educational institutions, to a maximum amount of $4,000 per year, adjusted yearly as a function of the consumer price index.

In addition, education assistance will be given to former students who completed their education after the education assistance program was discontinued in 1995. This will be of particular importance to children of Canadian Forces members who were killed in the line of duty during this time period. This coverage will preclude any unfairness. They will be eligible for the education assistance rates that were in effect as of January 2003.

Also under this program, children who did not attend a post-secondary institution after the education assistance program was discontinued and who now choose to attend are eligible to receive up to four years of assistance at the new rates established with the passage of the bill. Eligible students can qualify for assistance until their 30th birthday.

The next amendment clarifies the wartime service requirements for members of the Canadian Forces. It will establish that a member of the forces must have enlisted, served and been discharged from that service to be eligible for benefits under the War Veterans Allowance Act.

Members may recall that as a result of recent Federal Court rulings, some ambiguity resulted with respect to the definition that had to be applied for the purposes of the War Veterans Allowance Act to a member of the Canadian Forces who served during the first and second world wars. I believe it essential, and most certainly veterans do, that this change be undertaken so that the legislation makes it abundantly clear this aspect of wartime service is a fundamental consideration under this particular legislation.

The third amendment improves coverage and compensation for former prisoners of war, POWs. This amendment will do two things. One, it will modify the current POW compensation scale to benefit POWs who were imprisoned for shorter periods of time than now currently called for; and two, it will increase payments plus the current maximum timeframe covered.

Moreover, concomitant regulatory changes will provide veterans who are only in receipt of POW compensation and are totally disabled with access to veterans independence program, VIP, services and health care benefits, where these are not available to them from provincial programs.

POW veterans have always occupied a special place in the hearts and eyes of the government and fellow veterans, and in fact in the hearts and eyes of all Canadians.

Speaking further of regulatory changes related thematically to the bill before us but to be found in separate form, there are four. First, we are extending health programs to war service veterans with a pensioned disability between 48% and 77%. What that does is it recognizes that these veterans now have multiple and complex health needs. It acknowledges the difficulty of differentiating between health care needs related to the pensioned injury and those that are due to the infirmities of old age. Thus, we are covering both eventualities for those health care requirements not covered under provincial legislation.

Second, we are also providing VIP and health care benefits to overseas service veterans residing in Canada and living at home because they are unable to access a priority access bed in a long term care facility due to a wait list.

Third, we are offering as well long term care and health benefits to allied veterans who have lived in Canada for 10 years or longer since the end of the war. Eligible allied veterans will have access to long term care in community facilities when they are admitted to such facilities for the first time. In cases where the allied veteran needs care that can no longer be provided at a community residence, for example, palliative care and dementia care, the veteran becomes eligible to receive care in a facility where veterans affairs has access to a priority bed.

These changes to the regulations will come into effect this fall. They are part of a continuum of changes that we see as crucial to our ongoing efforts to better the lives of our heroes who are now in their twilight years.

The fourth on the regulatory front of the continuum, and the most significant in its reach and scope, is the one affecting the spouses and partners, the survivors, of war veterans who were in receipt of VIP benefits at the time of their passing. Of all the issues that veterans groups have talked to me about, they regard this as one of the most pressing.

As hon. members know, VIP has been one of my department's most popular programs for veterans and their survivors. Its provisions for housekeeping and grounds maintenance services have helped keep very senior veterans living at home rather than in care facilities, likely for years longer than might otherwise be anticipated and made possible, no doubt, by the caregiver assistance of their spouses.

We recognize that in these later years the caregiving which the spouses provide their veteran partners is priceless indeed, not just for the veterans in a personal sense, but it is priceless to the Canadian health care system and taxpayers in dollars saved in helping keep them healthy and independent at home.

We have also come to recognize the physical and emotional toll such care places on elderly caregivers. For years now caregiver survivors have benefited from the continuation of such services for one year after the death of their veteran spouse.

Starting May 1 of this year, VIP is being extended to eligible survivors then in receipt of this benefit, along with the spouses of veterans who die after the new amendment is approved, not for just a year but for as long as they need the grounds keeping and all housekeeping services of the program. In fact approval of this regulatory change was accelerated and took place last June.

About 10,000 surviving spouses will benefit from this change in the next five years at a cost of $65.9 million, nearly half of the total financial resources we had, some $134 million, for all the urgent needs we had to fund.

As I had earlier alluded to in the House, we wished we had the capability to include recipient survivors whose one year VIP extension had ended before last May's announcement. In fact we raised and discussed this very issue with the leadership of the veterans' organizations. We were in a dilemma. Time was of the essence. Should we proceed with the package, knowing we could not include survivors whose VIP had ended? It was our collective and unanimous decision to proceed as I proceeded to announce the package in the House. Thus, it was not for lack of heart, it was not for lack of will, it was simply the case of limited resources. It was simply the case of reality.

May I at this juncture seize this opportunity to reiterate my thanks to Mr. Allan Parks, Dominion President of the Royal Canadian Legion; Mr. Robert Cassels, Dominion President of the Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans in Canada Association; and Mr. Clifford Chadderton, Chairman of the National Council of Veterans Association for their leadership and participation at every step of the process as we were developing this package of initiatives as reflected in Bill C-50 and in the concomitant regulatory changes, including the funding mechanism. Their advocacy on behalf of veterans and their families is laudable and their insights have been most valuable to me and to my department.

Let me say a word on funding mechanism before I conclude. Altogether, the statutory amendments along with their regulatory counterparts will mean millions of dollars of additional benefits will go to the neediest of veterans and their family members. However, they are not adding millions of extra dollars to my department's budget, nor adding to the taxpayer's burden. Rather, we are reallocating funds internally within the department to address the high priorities of those veterans and other clients in the greatest need.

This funding mechanism will involve clarifying the attendance allowance program policy to bring it more in line with its intended target. As originally envisioned in the legislation, attendance allowance is a monthly payment which may be awarded to a veteran who is receiving a disability pension and/or prisoner of war compensation. The individual must also be totally disabled and in need of attendance due to his or her physical or mental state.

In existence since 1919, the attendance allowance program is closely guarded by veterans' organizations, and rightly so. They support changes to the program provided that savings realized are used to fund programs that meet their urgent needs without detracting from any other program. I should at once say that existing clients will continue to receive their attendance allowance benefits at their current grade level.

I believe the statutory amendments before us in Bill C-50, combined with the regulatory changes, will make eminent sense in the life of our veterans, and in the sad instance of their passing, in the life of their surviving spouses or dependent children.

I look forward to hearing my colleague's views on this very important matter. I look forward to our collective wisdom in this House. A speedy enactment of this bill would be one more expression of our nation's unending gratitude to our veterans who offered themselves, most in the prime of their youth, in the service of our country.

Truly, we are further honouring our heroes with the speedy passage of Bill C-50.

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Canadian Alliance

Roy H. Bailey Canadian Alliance Souris—Moose Mountain, SK

Mr. Speaker, I am very proud to stand here today to speak to Bill C-50. Last Saturday night I had the privilege of meeting the group reunion of the South Saskatchewan Regiment in the city of Weyburn. As many know, the South Saskatchewan Regiment was one of those that hit the shores of Dieppe in 1942. Many of them were there.

If I think back and recollect the thoughts that were expressed by the veterans, by some prisoners of war and indeed by some widows who were there that evening, one gets a different look at the bill itself. I can appreciate the minister when he said that there was no new money in this bill within his department. It is simply a reallocation. I say to the people out there, I believe this minister struggled hard to fulfill all of this bill, but he did not get the money. That is a sad tale for our veterans and their dependants across Canada.

This party has long seen the results of what happened in 1995 when the budget cuts came in. They did not ignore our veterans, rather they hacked into what we were then paying to the veterans. The budget of 1995 also cut some of their programs.

I think of shaking the hands of the vets who were at the reunion. Their regiments was one that hit the shores of Dieppe on up to Pourville and suffered tremendous casualties. Then when I thought about how the federal government had so dishonoured the widows of some of these vets, it just about tore me to pieces.

I am old enough to remember the educational program that we had for the children of the vets of World War I. I can remember, in a previous occupation, signing their attendance to prove these people were at school. I am pleased to see this program continuing. That is a plus for Canadians. That in itself says we honour the dependants of vets.

There is one thing terribly wrong with the allocation of funding to the POWs. The oldest serving generals of our POWs were those who were captured in Hong Kong. Next came those who hit the shores of Dieppe. Many of the prisoners of war taken from D-Day on virtually served about one year.

I am not quarreling with the program itself. I am quarreling about this. Our military people were taught to escape, and escape they did. I want to say that being a POW in any of the camps was not Hogan's Heroes . It was a tough life. Those who escaped found their way back sometimes to their unit. Sometimes they were months and months trying to get back to Britain for medical attention and then they rejoined.

According to this bill and to my understanding, the POW pension is only for the days in which they were incarcerated. Does it include the other days as well? That is one question. We have to ensure that this is looked at very carefully because I have talked to people who did escape and then went back. However they are not receiving the pension and they should.

The minister alluded at some length to the veterans independence program. Many MPs within the House and most people in Canada simply do not understand for what VIP stands. We know it is “very important person”. I want to say there are no more important people than the veterans and their widows.

VIP in this bill refers to a program to help the veterans and their wives live independently in their home. This side has always supported that program. What we did not support, and what I repeated in the House and in committee a thousand times, was that if the veteran died, the spouse if she wished to remain in their home would only covered for one year under that program. My argument was always that if two people needed the program, surely one must. I congratulate the government for the extension of that program, I believe it was in June.

There are tens of thousands of veterans' widows. I have received thousands of letters. For widows prior to September, who did not qualify or whose spouse had died and the year was up, this payment is not retroactive. If I have to stand here until midnight to say that is a national disgrace, that is exactly what I would do. I held the hand of one of these widows last Saturday night who told me that her net income was $1,100 a month, but she had been cut off this program. That is wrong. That is not acceptable.

When I and Canadians look at the daily paper, we see $1.6 million going here, another $1 million going there, somebody else runs away with this or that, yet we have thousands of widows out there who do not qualify for the veterans VIP simply because their husbands died a year or two before. Not one member of the House, no one anywhere, would agree that making this a continuum for some and not for others is correct and just and right.

Without any hesitation, I beg, and I will be begging in the Veterans Affairs committee, that we re-examine this. I trust that the minister. The minister used the words “comforts and dignity”, and I believe he means that. I am looking at some 30,000 or more widows across the country who are not living in comfort and they are certainly not living in dignity.

It really hurts to know that in 1995, with the severe cuts, the veterans and their widows paid the supreme price. To members in the House and to anyone watching out there, let us do the right thing. These widows are not only mothers, they are grandmothers and, in many cases, great-grandmothers.

I think our Minister of Veterans Affairs has a deep concern. I can tell the minister that I will be supporting an amendment to make sure that we look at all veterans' widows across Canada and do not forget them. In the famous words of our most noted poem surrounding November 11, “Lest we forget”; lest we forget now when we have the opportunity to honour those widows out there who desperately need our help.

This is not a long term bill. At their age, hundreds are passing on every month. It will not cost the government very much money over a decade to do the honourable thing. If I were minister of veterans affairs, I would be running to step up front. I would want to take some credit for doing the right thing, as I am sure the minister wants to.

I have one comment I would like to make in closing. This is not related directly to the bill but it is related directly to Veterans Affairs. Our most revered day for veterans is coming up on November 11. I do not know who arranged for the different arrangements for the distribution of the wreaths that will be laid across Canada on behalf of veterans, but I can say, serving a rural community, that it will be very difficult for each one of my active legions to get to that wreath and pick it up at the member's office. My time is short but I will talk about this at another time.

I thank the minister for the work he has done. I know the fiscal pressure he has been under from cabinet and so on, but whatever happens let us hope that we do the right thing and honour our widows and our vets, and, in particular, those who have struggled throughout this life in Canada.

Children of Deceased Veterans Education Assistance ActGovernment Orders

3:55 p.m.

Winnipeg North—St. Paul Manitoba


Rey D. Pagtakhan LiberalMinister of Veterans Affairs

Mr. Speaker, I thought the member would pose a question to the minister but since he proceeded to debate I will make my comments and perhaps respond to some of the questions he included in his debate.

First, I want to thank him for acknowledging the importance of the education assistance program for children of deceased veterans killed in the line of duty.

Second, on the question of whether the time prisoners of war spend eluding capture after an escape is included in the calculation of the benefits given to them, I assure the member that has been the interpretation since 1988. If the member should come across any case where it could have been interpreted otherwise, I would ask him to please let me know and my department will look into it.

Lastly, I would reiterate that on the extension of benefits to the surviving spouses, I in fact raised that issue myself when we were discussing it with the leaders of the national veterans organizations. It was not an easy task when we could not include those whose benefits had ended.

We were in a dilemma. Should we delay proceeding with a package of initiatives, knowing the twilight years of our veterans, while we continued to search for sources of funding for the additional funding that we would need? Or, should we proceed since time was of the essence? With much difficulty and in our collective unanimity we decided to proceed.

I just wanted to convey to the House that it was not for lack of heart or lack of will. It was only the reality of the time.

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Canadian Alliance

Roy H. Bailey Canadian Alliance Souris—Moose Mountain, SK

Mr. Speaker, I concur with the minister but I have to repeat that day after day Canadians see huge sums of money, into the millions, spent here and there. The government would not get one complaint from Canadians living anywhere were it to do the honourable thing and include all those veterans' widows. That is the honourable thing to do and that is what Canada should do and must do.

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3:55 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Gurmant Grewal Canadian Alliance Surrey Central, BC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to extend my appreciation and my compliments to the hon. member for Souris—Moose Mountain. He has very passionately spoken on behalf of all veterans, widows and POWs. I commend him for his comments.

He made some interesting points. I was happy to see the minister taking notes during the debate. It does not happen often. Many times when we debate something ministers are not present in the House on that particular topic when someone is speaking from the opposition.

I have two points to make. First, in my riding in the area of Cloverdale the cenotaph where we go for Remembrance Day is in bad shape. I have asked the minister and the government many times to fix it but nothing has been done. Why is the government ignoring the demands from veterans, even the small things which will appease them and at least restore the honour in the men and women who gather to remember that particular day in honour of our veterans as well as those who sacrificed their lives for the country?

I had a constituent in my office who was crying because her veteran's widow cheque, which was $981 per month until the government cut it to $91 a month, was, shamefully, cut further. She now receives a cheque for only $9 per month. She asked me what she could do or buy with $9. It is painful to remember every month when she gets that cheque for $9.

Something is wrong here. Does the member think the government is ignoring the realities and the needs and demands of those who sacrificed their lives for this country and who made all of us proud and honoured?

Children of Deceased Veterans Education Assistance ActGovernment Orders

4 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Roy H. Bailey Canadian Alliance Souris—Moose Mountain, SK

Mr. Speaker, with regard to the first point and the cenotaphs, I happen to live in an area where the number of legion branches every year are closing very rapidly as depopulation takes place. However I must commend the legions outside of that for moving in and sometimes doing the proper work to restore and preserve that monument which is revered throughout the year but particularly on November 11.

This topic has been discussed in committee. It has come before us many times and there is no set program that I know of that would do that. Perhaps that is a good thing for the committee to take a look at. It would be a humongous task. We may even go so far as to say that some support may be necessary. However I find it amazing how easy it is to raise some money for something like this.

In the latter case my colleague mentioned, I receive hundreds of letters, as does the minister, from across Canada in regard to Veterans Affairs but unless we know each individual case and the contents therein, it is very difficult to pass judgment on any one case. It sounds unreasonable in this particular case that that is exactly what happened but I do know there are widows living on $1,100 a month. I also know that even under our standards that is well below the poverty line. That is where we should be concentrating.

I thank my colleague for his support. We have an obligation in Canada to preserve our past. It is not only part of Veterans Affairs but I suggest it is part of our heritage. Maybe being a little bit older than some, but not everyone, I remember grown up during those years. I as an educator have been very disappointed with what I hear and see now in regard to our military. I am very disappointed with that.

Children of Deceased Veterans Education Assistance ActGovernment Orders

4 p.m.


Rey D. Pagtakhan Liberal Winnipeg North—St. Paul, MB

Mr. Speaker, I rise on a brief point of order to correct what I said. I said that 1988 was the beginning of the reference interpretation of the meaning of incarceration. I meant 1978. 1988 refers to the time scale itself.

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The Deputy Speaker

That correction is on the record.

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Claude Bachand Bloc Saint-Jean, QC

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.

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4:20 p.m.

Winnipeg North—St. Paul Manitoba


Rey D. Pagtakhan LiberalMinister of Veterans Affairs

Mr. Speaker, I would like to comment on some of the points that the member opposite raised.

On the issue of aboriginal veterans, following the first nations veterans grievance, last year in June we made the announcement of an offer of up to $20,000 for each veteran. There was a total of $39 million for all those first nations veterans who returned to the reserves shortly after the war.

That package has been accepted by the first nations veterans community. Applications have been received. and as of last month close to 1,000 applications had been processed.

Regarding the Métis grievance, to date we have reviewed some 120 files provided to us by the National Métis Veterans Association. I can tell the House that the Métis veterans did receive the same benefits as all other veterans.

This is not surprising because the Métis were not recognized as Métis and therefore they could only be recognized as veterans-at-large. However, we wanted to be assured and so we reviewed the files. In fact, the files showed that they too received the benefits.

Giving them the benefit of the doubt, I gave the assurance, when I met with the leadership of the National Métis Veterans Association, that I would continue to review files provided to us to add the greatest of certainty.

On the issue of regulatory changes alluded to that are not in the bill, by their nature changes to regulations are governed by another piece of legislation. Section 5 of the Veterans Benefit Act has made it possible for Parliament to delegate the authority to make regulatory changes to the governor in council.

With this process we were able to do the regulatory change to the veterans independence program extending benefits to spouses much sooner. Otherwise we would be engaging in debate and the benefits would not have started.

As to why we have not extended the benefits to other widows whose benefits had ended prior to the effectivity of this particular regulatory change, I can only say, we tried. We did not succeed. This issue will remain always in the heart of this minister.

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4:20 p.m.


Claude Bachand Bloc Saint-Jean, QC

Mr. Speaker, I do not want to get into a debate with the minister. It is reassuring to know that the department is moving forward on the issue of first nations and Metis. I would like to know if the same applies to the Inuit.

As far as the left out widows are concerned, I think that the minister's position and mine are almost irreconcilable. I cannot accept being told that justice will be done for some and that others will suffer an injustice because there is not enough money.

It is my understanding that the June 18 regulations applied to the amount that the department was able to provide. If it had been able to provide more, it probably would have deferred. I believe that the budgetary resources of a department are not there to create an injustice.

I am not saying that it must reconsider its decision and not compensate anyone. I am saying that, if it has decided to compensate 10,000 widows, it must not forget the 23,000 others.

It will get some funds shortly. I hope that a budget is forthcoming. I hope that the minister can tell us that he has made representations to the Minister of Finance to ensure that this injustice is corrected. I hope so for his sake, because this an opening for him in the next budget.

If he does not do so, as I was saying earlier, the Bloc will confront him and will keep saying, “It is because of the federal Liberal government that 23,000 women, including probably several hundreds in my riding—because I represent a riding with a strong military presence—are the victims of an injustice”.

If the minister cannot correct it, whether in the budget or through new regulations, we will continue to fight for these women, who deserve the same recognition as the 10,000 others.

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4:25 p.m.


Gilles-A. Perron Bloc Rivière-des-Mille-Îles, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to ask a question of my colleague from Saint-Jean, who, I might add, made an excellent speech.

At the beginning of his speech, he gave us the new definition of the word veteran. Will those soldiers who are now in Afghanistan on a peacekeeping mission be recognized as veterans one day?

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4:25 p.m.


Claude Bachand Bloc Saint-Jean, QC

Mr. Speaker, this is a good question.

Perhaps I could read to my colleague clause 10(1) of the bill, which gives the new definition, “Anyone having enlisted and having the enlistmentattested, served in a theatre ofactual war and was discharged from theservice in which he or she was enlisted”.

Therefore, those currently involved in a mission in Afghanistan qualify under this new definition, but it is only upon their discharge that they will probably qualify, even though interpretations vary, on this.

For example, let us consider those who take part in peacekeeping missions. I do not think that they qualify under this definition. The department has always refused to recognize them as veterans. Let us take those who were sent to Bosnia-Herzegovina when there were problems in that region. They were the target of many attacks where depleted uranium munitions were used. My colleague should be able to confirm that some of our soldiers came back with Gulf War syndrome. The government refuses to recognize them as veterans, arguing that it was not a theatre of actual war.

We are talking about those who went there after a war, on a peacekeeping mission, and were shot at. These missions were peacekeeping missions as well as stabilization missions, because the war had just ended. But it is difficult to include these people under the definition that I have here.

I think that the department does not want to recognize them. I am a small-l liberal in my convictions, and I would agree to extend the definition to those who put their health at risk in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

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4:25 p.m.


Mario Laframboise Bloc Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to ask my colleague a question.

People in my riding, veterans in Lachute, Brownsburg-Chatham, Saint-André-Est, the Argenteuil RCM, the Papineau RCM, Chénéville and Lac-Simon would like to understand clearly what is going on. Is my colleague telling me that with this new bill and the new regulations, widows could get benefits if their husband has died on or after June 18, but would not get them if he died before June 18, 2003? My impression is that, as the minister told us, there are financial constraints here. They picked a date based on the money they had. That is what I understand, and I would like my colleague from Saint-Jean to confirm this.

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4:30 p.m.


Claude Bachand Bloc Saint-Jean, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to qualify that. The women whose husbands died on June 28, 2003, or after will get this allowance for the rest of their lives.

The regulations as they stand now provide that widows who get the allowance right now because their husband died after June 18, 2002 normally get it for 12 months. Consequently, if, on June 18, they already were in receipt of an allowance, they will be able to keep it. This means in fact that the widows whose husbands died before June 18, 2002, will not get this allowance. In other words, those who were getting an allowance when the regulations took effect, that is those whose husbands died in the 12 months before June 18, will get it. Those who lost their husbands before that will not get it.

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4:30 p.m.

Progressive Conservative

Rex Barnes Progressive Conservative Gander—Grand Falls, NL

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.

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4:40 p.m.


Wendy Lill NDP Dartmouth, NS

Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to speak to Bill C-50 and follow my colleague from Newfoundland on this important matter.

Bill C-50 is an important piece of legislation. It increases the benefits for veterans and the children of deceased veterans. Some of the things that I appreciate about the bill is it extends compensation for former prisoners of war, and it extends the health programs for war veterans with a pensioned disability regardless of whether their health needs are related to their military service.

The legislation also provides improvements to the veterans independence program and health care benefits to overseas service veterans at home when there is a wait list for a priority access bed. Health care benefits also are available for allied veterans with 10 years post-war residence in Canada. That is also an important point. The bill establishes an education assistance program for the children of deceased Canadian Forces veterans. These are all important things and the NDP is happy to support the bill.

I would like to take a minute to thank the veterans who live in this country and who continue to keep the flame alive about the issues of peace and their contributions to us and the world we live in today.

I come from the Atlantic region. I represent Dartmouth and many veterans live in my riding. They were young men and women when they left our shores many years ago to fight for our freedom, and although they all hoped to come back safe and sound of mind and body, the sad reality is that many of them returned with a disability. Also I would like to thank their spouses, in many cases women, who took on the role of caregivers for these veterans.

My riding of Dartmouth borders on Halifax harbour which was the staging ground for most of our overseas troops in World War I, World War II, the Korean war, and most recently the actions in the gulf. Every opportunity I have I go to see one of the ships that is either leaving on a mission or returning home. It is an awesome sight to see the families waiting for their loved ones to come back. It is a very elevating moment when they come home and a very sad time every time they leave.

In my job as an MP I have learned more about people in my riding at events like that and getting to know the military families than I have learned in any other area. I did not know the extent of their commitment to our country. I did not know the extent of the passion and commitment of our military and its families. That is a gift to me in this job.

One area that we are concerned about in this legislation is around the issue of veterans benefits and the veterans independence program in particular.

Earlier this year the Minister of Veterans Affairs announced regulatory changes to the veterans independence program so that veterans' widows would receive government help to maintain their homes after the death of their husbands with no time limits. Prior to those changes, a widow would be cut off from benefits one year after her husband's death. That part of the program was obviously inadequate and we are glad it was addressed.

Unfortunately, an arbitrary timeline has been put on this so that the government will be helping some widows, those whose husbands died after May 2003, but it will not be helping up to 28,000 partners whose husbands or wives died before that arbitrary cutoff date. It is no surprise and we can all understand what this actually means.

We will now see two classes of veterans' widows and widowers. There will be those who ironically I guess were lucky enough to have their partner pass away after that magic date of May 2003. Then there will be those who were unlucky enough, and they are all unlucky obviously, but they were unlucky to have their partner pass away on April 29 or 30 or on March 29 or 30.

If death occurred in April or March, those families are doubly grieving because there will be no support for them through the VIP. This is something that I cannot understand and certainly those people cannot understand.

I have heard from constituents whose fathers and grandfathers have died before May 2003. I know every MP in the House has also heard of this kind of situation. Now those constituents' mothers and grandmothers are struggling to maintain their homes without any help. At the same time they know that there is somebody else, possibly living next door to them, who will be receiving help from the government because their husband died after that cutoff date.

The grandchildren and the children feel that this is unjust and against the mission of Veterans Affairs Canada which promises to respond to the needs of veterans and their families. These regulatory changes could help these women stay in their family homes, maintain their independence and be a practical expression of our gratitude to these families. Instead, it is a slap in the face to up to 28,000 women and men and their families. Veterans Affairs Canada claims to be supporting these women but it is saying that it is too costly to move that date back or to try to accommodate these families.

The government has to be ashamed for telling these people that in fact they are too much of a burden, that there are other priorities, such as reallocating budget funds, and that there are more important things to deal with than elderly widows, widowers and vulnerable citizens. I do not find that acceptable. I do not know anyone in my community who would find that acceptable. I do not think members of the House find it acceptable.

We have to take care of people who have taken care of us and who are in need at this time. It is just as clear to me as the nose on my face. This has to be eradicated. This has to be fixed.

In closing I will read from the introduction to the proposed legislative changes:

Veterans are using services and benefits more extensively as they cope with deteriorating health and increasingly complex care needs.... As war Veterans are now at an average of 80 years, this need for change has become urgent.

The department is absolutely right in recognizing that fact, but it must also recognize the fact that the spouses are also deteriorating in health and experiencing complex care needs.

Veterans Affairs has a moral responsibility to extend the veterans independence program access to widows whose spouses have passed away before that date because they too are in critical need of health care and the kind of care that we have available.

I join with many others here in the House and I join with thousands of people in my riding who say that we cannot put qualifiers on this very important program. We cannot put time qualifiers on it. We have to make sure that this small and vulnerable portion of our population gets the care that they need at this point in time.

Although the NDP is generally supportive of other measures in Bill C-50, without an improvement to the situation of these 28,000 widows and widowers, these changes are simply not good enough.