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.