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House of Commons Hansard #92 of the 40th Parliament, 3rd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was copyright.

Topics

VeteransGovernment Orders

9:05 p.m.

Bloc

Christiane Gagnon Bloc Québec, QC

Mr. Chair, it is rather sad to see the lack of responsibility being taken for our veterans and our soldiers. Earlier, I mentioned the contamination of the water in Shannon. The Department of National Defence knew that the water had been contaminated. Several decades went by and no one told the citizens and soldiers who kept drinking that contaminated water. This is similar to the agent orange situation. One of my cousins did not know that he had been in contact with such dangerous substances.

In the end, families are left to provide better support for our veterans, while we are abandoning them. We should cut down on a bit of the fanfare when they leave and we wish them all the glory in the world for Canada, especially since our involvement in Afghanistan. We pull out all the stops when they leave, but we must think about their return. Regardless of the seriousness of their injuries, when soldiers return from combat, they are never the same person. I am thinking of my father who, I am sure, was never the same man when he returned.

VeteransGovernment Orders

9:10 p.m.

Liberal

Judy Sgro Liberal York West, ON

Mr. Chair, I am pleased my hon. colleague is joining in our debate this evening. One of the issues that continues to be of great concern to all of us is the issue of homelessness when it comes to veterans. It was recently reported in the Catholic Register about a new mission of the Good Shepherd in Toronto. It specifically looked to see if there were any veterans there. In one afternoon alone, there were eight homeless veterans there, unaware of the fact that there were resources they could access.

What is the responsibility of the government and what else could the government do to make a difference in the lives of many of these veterans, especially the ones who clearly have nowhere to live? No housing is being built anywhere in our country right now that would house people like this who would have special needs or recognizing their contribution to Canada when it comes to veterans. I would be interested to hear my colleague's comments are on that.

VeteransGovernment Orders

9:10 p.m.

Bloc

Christiane Gagnon Bloc Québec, QC

Mr. Chair, that is another dimension of the issue. When they come back, they face many problems, many specific conditions. How can we help them better? There is another example of the helplessness of a veteran who comes back, who is confronted by every trauma experienced during combat, who is facing his physical and psychological conditions and who finds himself on the street. There is no question that those who return to the community after having been in combat need special status.

I was a bit emotional earlier. When my father came back from the war, he was suffering psychologically. He made it through, but he had to be strong to be able to live through everything he experienced during the war. There is a reason that those who served in the second world war—I never knew anyone who had fought in the 1914-1918 war—did not dare talk about how traumatic it was. There was practically a code of silence about what happened. They had to live with the horrors they saw on the battlefield and with what really happened.

I hope that all of the dimensions highlighted for the minister tonight will help him remember, the next time he is proposing new measures, that this human dimension is something that those returning from the front have to live with.

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9:10 p.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer NDP Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

Mr. Chair, I personally want to thank the hon. member for her father. I was born in Holland. My parents were liberated by people like her father and thousands of others. I personally want to thank her father and all those veterans out there who helped liberate the Netherlands during World War II.

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9:10 p.m.

Bloc

Christiane Gagnon Bloc Québec, QC

Mr. Chair, I thank my NDP colleague for the kind words.

Next week is Veterans Week and we will be celebrating Remembrance Day. At that time, we always remember all those who have served our country, who have been proud to serve and, at the same time, who are mortified to be returning.

VeteransGovernment Orders

9:10 p.m.

Conservative

Ben Lobb Conservative Huron—Bruce, ON

Mr. Chair, it is a pleasure to be here tonight. I might add that as a member of the Veterans Affairs committee since first being elected in 2008, I certainly do consider it an honour and privilege to serve on such a distinguished committee.

I appreciate the opportunity to join what is a very interesting and important debate tonight about how this country cares for and supports its men and women in uniform, its veterans and their families.

I also welcome the chance to reassure Canadians that our Conservative government is committed to ensuring that these remarkable men and women have the support they need when they need it. That is why our government's record over five years has been one of action, real, meaningful, enduring and decisive action.

In fact, as the Minsiter of Veterans Affairs and some of my colleagues have already pointed out, our support for veterans includes a recent announcement to invest more than $2 billion enhancing the new veterans charter. This new funding will truly help relieve the hardships faced by our men and women with catastrophic injuries and it will help ensure that ill and injured veterans have adequate monthly incomes.

At the same time, our government's new five-year $52.5 million legacy of care program will help reduce the stress and burden on the families and close friends of these injured veterans. We have also announced changes to better support and assist veterans with ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

All these efforts will help make a lasting difference. They will help ensure that veterans get the right care at the right time. That is why the new veterans charter has always been about getting the best results for our veterans and their families. I want to stress: veterans and their families because that is the one key feature of the new veterans charter. It recognizes the importance of the family to a veteran's overall well-being.

This comes as no surprise. We hear a lot from veterans, whether it is on the street or in committee, and whether they have been injured or not. They will tell us that it is their loved ones who are the unsung heroes, the husbands and wives who are with them every step of the way with their service. Fathers and mothers, friends and family are always standing by them through thick and thin. We must never forget this nor should we forget that service to one's country takes an equally heavy toll on family members.

That is most true, unfortunately, when tragedy strikes; when one of our men or women return from service broken in either body or soul. Soldiers' families suffer just as deeply. They experience many of the same fears, emotions and anxiety that our injured men and women do. What is perhaps most remarkable is that during those darkest days after an injury or illness, it is still the family that usually lights the way back for our wounded men and women.

Our government understands this and that is why we are supporting families in their ability to nurture, comfort and offer hope. They are the ones who can truly help make our wounded men and women whole again.

As we debate what Canada is doing for our veterans, it is worth taking a moment to look at what we are doing for our military families and remind all Canadians listening tonight about the many programs and benefits already available for our veterans' families. We can see this best with the comprehensive approach we are taking with our rehabilitation programs and how we make it a priority to include the family in the development of individual care plans.

It is crucial that the spouse, parents and children are full partners in a veteran's recovery. They are in it together. They are a critical support system and they need to know what their loved ones are going through, how they are progressing and how the family can help. At the same time, our families also need to know that there is help for them. They need their own supports.

The military family resource centres are at the top of the list and so is the network of family peer support councillors. We have heard from family members who say that it was life-changing to have someone to turn to who has experienced or is experiencing helping an injured loved one. We cannot overstate the importance of having someone to talk to who has already walked in their shoes.

We have also expanded access to our mental health services so that family members can get the same emotional support and help that our veterans receive. We recognized this emerging need back in 2007, when we invested by doubling Veterans Affairs Canada's network of OSI clinics. The foresight is paying off.

For example, our OSI clinics are breaking important new ground by developing pilot projects for veterans' children. In places like Edmonton and Fredericton, we are trying innovative new ways to help children develop coping mechanisms. Our health care professionals are teaching these children practical skills for dealing with their feelings, their fears and the stress of an injured mother or father.

The early results are encouraging. In fact. a new program geared to youth between the ages of 12 and 16 was so successful at our Fredericton clinic that it has been running it again this fall.

In short, the message is clear. Programs like these are crucial to what we are trying to accomplish. The same is true with our pastoral outreach services and our new 24-hour crisis hotline. These programs help families find the strength they need. These programs help families regain their balance and, in doing so, families are able to make better use of the other services we provide, programs such as career counselling, vocational assistance and job placement.

When a veteran is unable to return to work, we extend vocational programs to the spouse. In this way, the husband or wife of the severely injured veteran can get the training he or she needs to find work and help support the family financially.

Last month our government went even further in its assistance to families. It unveiled a five year, $52.5 million legacy of care program that offers real tangible help in the daily lives of our injured veterans and their families.

For example, we are making sure spouses, survivors and any dependent children have earlier access to programs for pursuing or upgrading post-secondary education or vocational training.

We have introduced the Canadian Forces attendant care benefit which will provide up to $100 a day to a family member or close friend who gives up a job to be at the side of an injured Canadian Forces member.

We are providing essential support services to ease the burden on family members as they help our injured men and women recover at any of the seven specialized CF rehab centres. These services include caregiver respite, child care and the delivery of medical supplies and even groceries.

As well, we have also increase front-line staff at Veterans Affairs to provide even better, personalized one-on-one care and attention to our injured veterans. By having our client service teams and service providers handling many of the administrative details and much of the paperwork, our veterans and their families are able to focus their time and energy on what really matters the most: getting better.

These measures are all part of our commitment to providing complete and total care to the men and women who need it. We should think about what it difference it must make to have something as simple as groceries delivered to a family when an injured veteran requires almost around the clock care, or just having some help picking up a prescription. Imagine how important caregiver respite is in such stressful situations. Imagine the relief of having help with child care.

That is the true meaning of being there for our men and women. This is how we can truly make a difference for these brave families. They deserve that, make no doubt about it, and they have earned that.

Our government is here for veterans and we are here for Canada.

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9:20 p.m.

Liberal

Kirsty Duncan Liberal Etobicoke North, ON

Mr. Chair, I appreciate the member's message that we must be there for our men and women.

Soon after the start of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars in 2002, researchers found that mild traumatic brain injury episodes were self-reported by 12% to 20% of American military members returned from deployment. Most patients who suffer from MTBI recover completely within three months. However, a small minority report persistent non-specific symptoms that can be disabling.

Blast weapons cause injury as a result of supersonic waves of intense air pressure and a variety of other mechanisms, including blunt force. Severe blast energy exposure can cause multiple injuries, including blast lung, ruptured tympanic membranes and transient cardio-respiratory effects. Evidence from animal research, case reports and clinical experience show that lower primary energy might cause isolated brain injury.

What action would the member ask the minister to take to address the issue of MTBI, particularly as there is a link with dementia.

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9:25 p.m.

Conservative

Ben Lobb Conservative Huron—Bruce, ON

Mr. Chair, I would like the member to know that the Canadian Forces are on the project. They are developing best practices for this and we look forward to their work as we move ahead.

On the subject of veterans' families and what we provide them, I would like to share with the group here tonight something that I was able to experience in September. It was an honour and a privilege to present a commendation, through the minister, which I appreciated him allowing me to do, to Joseph Chic Simonato in Collingwood. Mr. Simonato is an active veteran in his community of Collingwood. He had done extensive research, he work with the museum and he established the Wall of Honour, a beautiful tribute to veterans in the Collingwood area. In one of his last days, he received a Veterans Affairs medal, 1 of about 500. To see his wife Mary Lou, his daughter and his brother there, it was truly moving. Mr. Simonato suffered from ALS and was able to punch his message into his keypad so we could see what he was saying.

When we talk about a true veteran and Canadian, Mr. Simonato is one. He was well served by Veterans Affairs. He served to honour the memory of those veterans who served before him. He left a lasting legacy. I would like to thank the minister tonight for that privilege because it was truly a moving moment for his family.

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9:25 p.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer NDP Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

Mr. Chair, my hon. colleague is on the veterans affairs committee and I believe does a truly wonderful job representing his party and, most important, his constituents.

He talked about the increases that the government is making but, either through neglect or maybe it was not written down for him, there is another increase that he forgot to mention. In fairness to the debate, I would like to allow him to elaborate a bit more.

In 2005, the only food bank in this country designated strictly for veterans was in the city of Calgary. One of the richest cities in our country has a food bank designated strictly for veterans and their families. Last Easter, the Prime Minister of this country was at a photo op, believe it or not, putting a can in a box for veterans and their families. In 2005, 58 veterans were using that facility. In 2010, last week, that same food bank now has over 200 people accessing it. These are all veterans and members of their families.

I know the hon. member is sincere about veterans issues. It is a shame and a sin that anybody needs to go to a food bank but when veterans, RCMP members and their families need to use food banks, we are all collectively failing on their issue.

I would like to ask the hon. member, who I have great respect for, what he plans to do to ensure that this stops almost immediately.

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9:25 p.m.

Conservative

Ben Lobb Conservative Huron—Bruce, ON

Mr. Chair, I know the member recently shaved his moustache off, and he has a whole new look. I could hardly recognize him today in committee. I am growing my moustache and I know he is as well. We will see how far mine gets along.

The member knows full well the issue with our homeless vets, and he can politicize it if he likes. We have outreach. The Department of Veterans Affairs and the CF do their very best. I do not think it does this debate any good to politicize it like he has.

From hearing from people, we know that sometimes veterans are not interested in any help. They are going to do it on their own and that is their choice.

I would like to also comment on some great things we have done as well.

I think back to my time on the human resources committee last spring when we brought in employment insurance benefits for those who had children while on duty. That was a tremendous commitment to family. We have taken many steps for families. That is a fitting tribute to serving members. It also demonstrates that this government is willing to listen to individuals. The individual just happened to be a member of our forces. He testified from Afghanistan when he gave his testimony before committee.

This government has its ear to the ground and it is looking to make improvements.

When I was first elected and was able to sit on this committee, we were in the midst of a study—

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9:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Assistant Deputy Chair Conservative Barry Devolin

Order, please. Questions and comments, the hon. Minister of National Defence.

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9:30 p.m.

Central Nova Nova Scotia

Conservative

Peter MacKay ConservativeMinister of National Defence

Mr. Chair, this debate has been very substantive and for the most part non-partisan.

One of the most important things we can do for our veterans is recognizing their service and immortalizing them in a way that ensures future generations are informed about the enormous contributions that really helped with the very building of our country, from Vimy Ridge to the accomplishments that were made by Canadian soldiers during the second world war, Korea, Kapyong and beyond, right up to the current conflict in Afghanistan and the existing 14 missions that are going on around the world.

One of the more impressive programs that we have ongoing in the country is a program being conducted by students through the heritage department, with sponsorship and co-operation from the Department of Veterans Affairs. It allows veterans to tell their stories on video so they will be forever preserved for future education. Would the hon. member comment on that?

We had genuine war heroes in my community, like R.B. Cameron, and existing veterans like J.J. Grant, Admiral Murray and others, who did so much for the Canadian Navy in its 100th centennial year.

All of these great stories are being preserved for the future on CD and video so we can ensure the education and the understanding that people have in places like the Netherlands. Their stories are being preserved so we can ensure that Canadian history is preserved from the mouths of veterans to the ears of future generations of Canadians.

VeteransGovernment Orders

9:30 p.m.

Conservative

Ben Lobb Conservative Huron—Bruce, ON

Mr. Chair, everything the minister has said is true. It is important to have those stories captured on video.

In my riding of Huron—Bruce there are so many opportunities for our legions to make the cenotaphs beautiful monuments and tributes and keep them up to date. It is truly heartwarming to go into communities and see them in such great shape after so many years.

Jim Rutledge, a constituent of mine in Goderich, wrote a great book called The Men of Huron: A Book of Honor And Remembrance 1939-1946. It is a great book. The former minister of veterans affairs has a copy in his office. The book was funded in part by Veterans Affairs so the memories and pictures of our World War II vets could be captured in book as well. In fact, he is embarking on a book for World War I vets.

These types of things are important to the fabric of our country.

VeteransGovernment Orders

9:30 p.m.

Liberal

Judy Sgro Liberal York West, ON

Mr. Chair, I am pleased to have the opportunity tonight to engage in this debate. I am also grateful that all parties took the opportunity today, in advance of Remembrance Day coming, to pay tribute to the men and women who put their lives at risk every day for each and every one of us. It is a chance to ask the questions that we want to ask and try to get some answers from the government.

For many when the word “veteran” is used, we envision a parade of grey haired men, proudly marching past the cenotaph, remembering the horrors of a war long since over. While Canada does celebrate the heroic deeds of veterans from past conflicts, the new and sad reality is that must also accept that, for the first time in many years, we are seeing the return of combat veterans in their 20s and their 30s, combat veterans who in many cases face a range of complex and difficult medical, social and psychological battles that they will need to contend with for decades to come.

Today, the definition of “veteran” is changing dramatically and the needs and expectations of that group are far different than they were in the past.

Our understanding of the physical and psychological rigours of war is only one factor in those changing expectations. For example, post traumatic stress disorder is now known to be a serious and debilitating condition. Years ago no one would begin to even suggest what that was. Today it is recognized as a very serious condition.

In the past shell shock was essentially dismissed by medical practitioners, whereas now we understand that treatment and care are necessary if someone is suffering from PTSD is to return to a productive and happy life in society. It is also understood that a failure to treat PTSD will also have a profound and lasting impact on the family of a veteran.

If a 25-year-old Afghan war veteran with PTSD does not have access to immediate and effective care, he or she could be faced with 50 to 60 years of psychological challenges ahead, marital breakdown, domestic violence or worse; that a 25-year-old veteran may do the unthinkable and end his life before the mechanisms of government have moved in to offer help. Either way the loss of human potential, the hurt experienced by families and the betrayal of a trust should not be ignored.

If we are not ready to deal with these new realities, then what exactly are our soldiers fighting for? Put another way, when Canada asks our soldiers to be there for us, we need to ensure that we will be ready to stand with our soldiers when they need that consideration returned. I believe that all of us as parliamentarians, all of us as Canadians are doing our very best to try to ensure that this is exactly what is happening, that we are there for them as they were there for us.

It has been said that the greatest obstacle on any battlefield is often the road to home, and I find that a very sad statement that is often used. We have witnessed this in the past and now unfortunately we are seeing it again. Canada's first contingents of regular Canadian troops arrived in Afghanistan in January 2002. Since then, thousands of our young men and women have served in some of the most horrific and trying battle conditions seen in years.

Since 2002, over 152 members of the Canadians Forces have been killed, serving in the Afghan mission protecting us. Four Canadian civilians have also been killed, including one diplomat, one journalist and two aid workers.

In addition to the actual loss of life, Canada's newest returning heroes are facing a host of medical and psychological challenges: PTSD, heightened rates of suicide, marital breakdown, homelessness and even according to some studies higher rates of diseases such as ALS. Unfortunately this is the new reality faced by Canadian veterans.

As the former critic for veterans affairs, currently as the vice-chair of the veterans committee, and as an MP who thinks our war heroes deserve better, as I believe everyone does, I am here today to say that the current government is simply not ready and to ask this question. Would any government be really ready to deal with some of these tragic events that we see unfolding?

The current government has been quick to deploy and keen to arm, but very slow and lethargic to prepare for the human consequences of its actions and policies. Defence policy cannot exist within a vacuum. To be holistic and effective, defence policy must include an effective and perpetual strategy with respect to our veterans and to their families.

Because of the war in Afghanistan, Canada is now facing a new generation of veterans, something that the Conservatives are ill-equipped to handle, try as they might.

Despite the fact that hundreds and even thousands of new veterans are emerging, the Conservative government has failed to enact comprehensive new programming to help serve and manage the next generation of needs, again, try as it might.

While the issues of veterans are numerous and complex, specifically, I would urge immediate action on the following. The gold digger clause should be eliminated from the Canadian Forces Superannuation Act, a clause that many of us have talked about, heard about. It is time we actually took some action on that issue. The veterans independence program should be enhanced, an excellent program promised by the Prime Minister a few elections ago, almost five years ago, that everybody would have access to the veterans independence program. A degree of people have it, but not all, as was promised. Also, the survivor's pension amount should be increased, which we may hear more about from the minister this evening. This is all in addition to disability, income settlement and medical support.

National media headlines, though, like “Veterans wanted dead, not alive, ombudsman charges” and “Canada's treatment of war veterans 'a national embarrassment,” tell a story of tragic failure on the part of the government.

Just this past July, the Toronto Star ran the story of John Sheardon. According to the article, Mr. Sheardon is an 85-year-old former bomber pilot. Today, he is suffering from Alzheimer's and recovering from a broken hip. Despite his distinguished service to Canada, Mr. Sheardon was left to languish in hospital, facing a wait of up to 18 months for a bed in a veterans' long-term home in Ottawa. This is at a time when the current government is taking steps to close veterans' facilities like the great Ste. Anne's in Montreal, which the veterans committee had an opportunity to tour. We were very impressed with the facility and the great care that went to the veterans who were there, but unfortunately it appears to be closing down. How is all of that sound policy?

The government claims that it is being responsive to the needs of our veterans, but I would suspect that Mr. Sheardon would feel otherwise.

Then there is the sad story told by Sheila Fynes. Mrs. Fynes, who is the mother of Corporal Stuart Langridge, came to Ottawa last week to ask for an apology for the way the department handled her son's illness before his death, as well as for how it treated him and their family afterward.

Her son had been diagnosed with severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and struggled with alcohol and substance abuse upon his return from a six-month tour in Afghanistan in 2005. Despite several failed suicide attempts, help never did arrive in time and this brave Canadian hero hung himself in his barracks in 2008.

To his credit, the Chief of the Defence Staff offered an apology. However, the larger issues remain for all of us to more effectively deal with.

Our veterans are crying out for help and the government is ignoring the problems presented to it. I believe it is poor planning and irresponsible policy, in spite of the fact of all of its efforts.

Sean Bruyea also thinks that this is irresponsible. Sean had his personal and private medical information released by departmental officials.

Again, the individual veterans became the pawns moved about at the whim of the government.

It is time that politics took a back seat and let us do what is right. It is time for the Minister of Veterans Affairs and the Prime Minister to admit they are ill-equipped, regardless of how many times they try, to deal with the challenges presented by a new generation of veterans.

I know there is a willingness on this side of the House to do whatever is needed to make a right out of a wrong. All we are waiting for is a willing partner on the other side of the House.

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9:40 p.m.

Conservative

Jean-Pierre Blackburn Conservative Jonquière—Alma, QC

Mr. Chair, I thank the hon. member for her speech.

I would like to talk about Ste. Anne's Hospital. We have a hospital to care for our veterans who need long-term care. It is the last hospital still under federal jurisdiction. We must bear in mind that most traditional veterans have an average age of approximately 86. Consequently, these individuals can go to that hospital. However, since they are declining rapidly in number—at present, over 1,700 traditional veterans die every month—there is less need for that hospital, which is why we would like the Quebec government to assume responsibility for it. If it wishes, we would make the offer. Thus, the hospital could be fully used and we could ensure that competent staff is kept to run it. Indeed, if the number of patients decreases considerably, there will be fewer staff members and they are likely to leave.

What are we doing? First of all, we are giving our veterans absolute priority. If we ever have to choose between a civilian and a veteran, priority is always given to the veteran. Second, service will continue being offered in both official languages. Of course, this will be done while respecting our collective agreements and quality of care.

I think it is important to ensure that people can use the facility. We must bear in mind that modern veterans are not old enough to go to that kind of hospital. Modern veterans need services close to where they live. I would like to remind the hon. member of that fact. Perhaps she would like to comment on my remarks.

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9:45 p.m.

Liberal

Judy Sgro Liberal York West, ON

Mr. Chair, I want to first thank the minister for taking fast action on many of these files since he has become the Minister of Veterans Affairs. All of us can be very critical but at the same time we have to acknowledge when work has been done, such as the minister's fast action in dealing with a few of the issues that have come up as a result of the files of people such as Mr. Bruyea being shared and others.

I go back to people such as Mr. Sheardown, who cannot get a bed in the local hospital. The Ste. Anne's facility was very nice because it was a unique facility. It was a facility that was all about veterans.

In St. John's, Newfoundland, there was the case of an individual who had Alzheimer's. He was a veteran and there was no way to get him into a veterans' hospital or somewhere where he would feel more at home, a place such as Ste. Anne's.

Ste. Anne's is a very special facility. If more and more civilians start to go there, then people like Mr. Sheardown and others who really would like to be in the Ste. Anne's facility, with the uniqueness of a facility like that, will not be able to go there. It would have been much more helpful for him to have been in a centre like that than where he ultimately ended up, which was in a regular hospital treated like everyone else. After all, in a bed everybody looks the same. People do not realize that that particular man had put his life on the line for all of us.

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9:45 p.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer NDP Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

Mr. Chair, the minister himself just said that those beds should be available for veterans and he is absolutely right. The problem is that the long-term hospital beds at Camp Hill, Ste. Anne's, the Perley, Colonel Belcher, and other hospitals across the country are only for those World War II and Korean overseas veterans who have disability concerns with the DVA. World War II or Korean War veterans without a DVA claim cannot get those beds. That is problem number one.

Number two is that many of our modern day veterans are now in their seventies. There is a gentleman in Musquodoboit Harbour who is in his late sixties and has severe dementia. He cannot get long-term care because his dementia is not related to military service. This is part of the problem.

As well, the hon. Minister of National Defence would know of the Janet Maybee case. Mr. Maybee was put in Camp Hill Hospital. He had been married to his spouse for over 60 years and was near the end of his life, but his spouse was not permitted to be in the hospital with him because the hospital does not allow a spouse to be in the same room as the veteran. It does not cover that. She had to be in another facility. They died apart from each other. There was a similar case in Ontario.

We have been asking frequently for the government to recognize this problem and to allow aging veterans and their spouses to be in the same room together. Most important, modern day veterans should be allowed to have access to short-term and long-term facilities that are paid for by the federal government.

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9:50 p.m.

Liberal

Judy Sgro Liberal York West, ON

Mr. Chair, I always try to understand all sides of an issue.

I suppose if I were the minister I could very clearly make a case for a variety of things. When it comes to the veterans, there are far too many rules and there needs to be far more flexibility.

If it is more suitable for a veteran to be looked after in a facility such as Ste. Anne's and he wants to have his wife beside him, why should he not be allowed to do that? It is the inflexibility which I think is the problem. I am certain it is a problem for the minister as well, because bureaucrats run the system and they do not want to make any changes. It is a real battle to make those changes.

We should get rid of such a rigid approach to things and become far more flexible in dealing with veterans issues. What is it that is going to make a veteran more content and happier during his last few years, as a result of his contribution to our country?

We should be looking at how many of those rules can be changed in order to put the veteran first, not necessarily the bureaucracy that we continue to be controlled by.

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9:50 p.m.

Edmonton Centre Alberta

Conservative

Laurie Hawn ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence

Mr. Chair, there has been some good debate tonight.

However, to listen to my hon. colleague across the way, one would think that only Liberals had hearts and brains, and that try as we might, we could not get it done because somehow we are just not capable of caring or capable of thinking. I will not even bother going into how offensive that is.

I do want to ask the member a question. With respect to the gold digger clause, I happen to agree and would love to do something about that. However, if it were that easy, why was it not done sometime between 1993 and 2006? There is something about the harsh reality of unlimited albeit legitimate demands and the reality of limited resources.

I would also like to ask the member about the veterans independence program. She basically said that we had not done enough in the VIP when we promised to enhance it. I would like to ask the member if getting over 100,000 clients in the VIP is not at least some little bit of progress for people with little hearts and little brains as we seem to have on this side of the House?

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9:50 p.m.

Liberal

Judy Sgro Liberal York West, ON

Mr. Chair, no one should suggest that the member does not have a heart or is not caring. He may not always care the way I would like him to, but I do not think that anyone would suggest the member does not have a heart or does not care. It is just that the member's priorities are a bit different.

When it comes to the veterans independence program, I recognize it is up to 100,000 clients. The commitment was meant to cover a lot more people than 100,000. Because it is a great program that serves a lot of people who are part of our veterans community, we want to see that it gets expanded.

I certainly applaud the 100,000 clients, but we want to see it increased to far more.

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9:50 p.m.

Edmonton Centre Alberta

Conservative

Laurie Hawn ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence

Mr. Chair, it is an honour to take part in what is truly an important debate. I hope that I can clear up some of the misconceptions that still linger around the new veterans charter.

While I would like to discuss the improvements we are making to the new charter, Canadians first deserve the reassurance that our government truly does understand and respects our responsibility to our nation's finest heroes. Being there for these courageous Canadians is not only our duty, but it is our deepest desire. We are proud of what these brave men and women have accomplished for Canada and we are determined to help repay our nation's debt to them.

That is precisely why our government has announced more than $2 billion in new investments to improve the existing support our ill and injured veterans receive from their country. Those were not whipped up on the back of a cigarette carton or a napkin in response to somebody's press conference. Those were measures that had been in the works for many months.

This $2 billion and the other announcements we made over the past several weeks reflect our government's commitment to making sure our Canadian Forces personnel, our veterans and their families have the support they need when they need it.

These new measures also reflect how we are listening to our veterans. We readily acknowledge they have some legitimate concerns and we are responding to them in real and meaningful ways. One of the key features of the new veterans charter is the disability award, or lump sum payment as it is better known. The disability award does not replace any pensions whatsoever.

What is often forgotten is that the disability award is only one part of the financial assistance that we provide to injured and ill Canadian Forces personnel and veterans. In fact, the sole intent of the disability award is to recognize and compensate for the non-economic impact, pain and suffering of an injury or illness suffered in the line of duty.

There is also ongoing or long-term financial support to recognize the economic impact of being wounded in the line of duty. The most common one is the earnings lost benefit. It ensures that veterans receive up to 75% of their pre-release salary.

While I know the names of these other benefits do not mean much to most members, it is important to remember that there are monthly income benefits in the new veterans charter, including the permanent impairment allowance, the Canadian Forces income supplement, as well as a one-time supplementary retirement benefit paid out when a veteran turns 65 years of age. These benefits are in addition to the disability award. Again, it is important to keep that in mind, just as I think it is worth remembering that the first priority of the new veterans charter is to promote wellness for both our veterans and their families. By focusing on the health and well-being of our veterans, by developing rehabilitation programs tailored to their individual needs and by providing similar support to their families, we can really make a difference in their lives. We can help them open new doors. We can help them build a new future full of promise.

That is something a disability pension cannot do. In fact, I have always thought there was something fundamentally wrong with maintaining a system of disability pensions that encouraged our increasingly younger veterans to focus the rest of their lives on being disabled.

The new veterans charter turns all of this around by providing immediate and significant financial help, which is then followed by comprehensive rehabilitation services and ongoing financial support. That is why the disability award is so important. It is easier for injured men and women to focus on their rehabilitation if they do not have to worry about how they are going to make ends meet each month. Some veterans even tell us that the disability award offers a measure of closure so that they can start moving forward emotionally. It helps them begin their transition to civilian life faster and to reach their goals for the best recovery possible.

What we have found after almost five years however is that there are still some gaps in the new charter and we are moving quickly to fill them in. In particular, the $2 billion in funding I mentioned will help relieve the hardships faced by our men and women with catastrophic injuries. It will make sure that ill and injured veterans have an adequate monthly income.

The Minister of Veterans Affairs recently explained how these new measures will work. I would like to repeat a few of his key points because they continue to get lost in some of the sound and fury in this chamber.

First, for veterans who have suffered serious injuries and cannot work, we are going to provide them with an additional $1,000 a month. This will be above and beyond their earnings lost benefit and the permanent impairment allowance that already provides them up to another $1,609 per month.

Furthermore, access to a monthly allowance for seriously injured veterans will be expanded. This should help extend eligibility to more than 3,500 additional veterans over the next five years. As well, the earnings lost benefit will be increased so that every recipient's income is at least $40,000 a year, regardless of what the person was earning in the military. This measure will benefit more than 2,300 low income veterans over the next five years.

If all of these measures are combined together, it means that our most seriously injured and ill veterans will receive a minimum of $58,000 a year for the rest of their lives. That is in addition to, in many cases, more than $500,000 in lump sum payments.

We fully realize that no amount of money can compensate for a life-altering disability. One of the truly remarkable things about our men and women in uniform is that they have always been able to risk everything to serve our country. We as a nation can make sure that we too are prepared to do everything we can to support these men and women when they need us.

The new veterans charter should be a living document. It should be able to adapt to changing conditions. In fact, adapt is what we have done. We have heard many measures tonight. We have adapted in many ways to recognize the new veteran, the young veterans from Afghanistan, with things like doubling the number of mental health professionals, and opening joint personnel support units and operational stress injury clinics. I had the pleasure of helping open one of those in Edmonton recently. We have adapted with things like opening the CAREN systems in Ottawa, and in a couple of months, in Edmonton.

We can never do enough. I acknowledge that and I think everybody acknowledges it. We would all like to do more. We are facing an era of unlimited legitimate demands, but limited resources. It is going to be a matter of priority, and we are putting priority where it matters the most.

Will the glass ever be full in this circumstance? Probably not. This is one of those areas where we are always going to be chasing perfection. Will we ever get there? Probably not, but we will never stop trying, because we care and we have brains on this side of the House and on all sides of the House. We are all in this together. There is no question about that. There is no “this side” or “that side” to the issue.

With over 750,000 veterans, it is an absolutely enormous job that Veterans Affairs does. By and large, they do it very well. With so many clients, some people are going to fall through the cracks. It is regrettable, it should never happen, but the reality is that it does. With that many clients, it is almost inevitable.

The important thing is that if a ball is dropped we try hard to pick it up on the first bounce. Do we always do that? No, but we try very hard, because we have an obligation to these folks. However, we can never get to the level that we would like to.

I am proud of being a veteran. I am not a veteran of a foreign war, but a veteran of 30 years, and I know many veterans, many personal friends of mine, who are extremely well served. I know a couple who do not feel so well served, and we try to help them every day.

I am sure all members of this House have people coming to their constituency offices to tell stories about things that have not worked. I know we all try hard to assist those veterans, those people in need, because that is what we do. That is what any government does. That is what any member of Parliament does and will continue to do.

On November 6, there will be some folks visiting my office. I have talked to them and I will be there waiting for them. They will be singing O Canada and saying a few things outside. I will join them in singing O Canada and then we will go inside, have some coffee and doughnuts, and talk about the issues. We are going to talk about the legitimate complaints and concerns that they have. I will try to explain to them what we have been trying to do.

Are we perfect? No, no government is, but every government on either side of the floor will always try. I know the Liberals tried and I do not deny that. We are trying and they should not deny it.

It is an imperfect world. There are limited resources for everything. We are trying to put the priorities in place where it matters the most. I think we do a pretty good job. We can always do better and we will always try to.

I got to know Master Corporal Paul Franklin very well. He is a veteran who lost both legs above the knee in January 2006. I met him on January 4, 2006. He went through a tremendous rehabilitation process that was extremely difficult. He has been around the world and looked at other countries like Australia, the U.S., and the U.K. He told me, and said publicly many times, that nobody does a better job with injured soldiers than Canada.

Does that mean it is perfect? Absolutely not. Does that mean it can get better? Absolutely, it does. In Paul's words, and he ought to know more about it than just about anybody else, “Canada does a great job”.

We will always try to make a great job even better, because that is our obligation to these people and we will never let them down.

VeteransGovernment Orders

10 p.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer NDP Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

Mr. Chair, I first want to thank the hon. member not only for his 30 years of service to the armed forces but also for his service as a member of Parliament. Yes, indeed, he is a proud veteran not just of this country but also of the House of Commons and he should be congratulated for his service to Canada.

He is right when he says that no government is perfect and no government has ever gotten it right. However, I want to clarify something he said. He is right about there being only 760,000 veterans in the country, but DVA only has a client base of around 215,000 to 220,000, which means that roughly 540,000 veterans and/or their families and RCMP members are not covered under DVA.

He himself is a veteran and I assume he does not receive any DVA benefits, so he would not be considered a DVA client. Yes, there are that many veterans and RCMP members and their families in the country, but only roughly one-third of them actually qualify under DVA.

He knows and I know, and as a Conservative he would probably appreciate this better than I would, the Gordian knot that was in DVA in terms of veterans applying for benefits, being denied, denied again, getting a legal advocate and going to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board. Does he not think that is a cumbersome process in the way veterans should be treated?

If the benefit of the doubt should surely be applied, should it not be applied earlier in the benefit application process so that veterans do not have to go through two to six years of appeal processes in order to be adjudicated in a fair and proper manner?

VeteransGovernment Orders

10:05 p.m.

Conservative

Laurie Hawn Conservative Edmonton Centre, AB

Mr. Chair, we are always going to try to make things more streamlined and effective.

With regard to his comment about the 500,000 or so veterans out there who are not DVA clients, I am a veteran and I do not need to be a DVA client. I am just fine. The majority of veterans out there probably are just fine and do not need the services of DVA. We need to concentrate on the people who do. We need to give them the services they need and, where the services fall short, we need to make them better.

It was by somebody that everybody who comes back from Afghanistan must have PTSD. That is simply not true. In fact, statistically about 20% come back with some form of PTSD. There is a program by a young warrant officer that was just started called “It's okay to be okay”. Right now people come back and we say that they must have PTSD because they were there. We put our arms around them, as we should, and we ask them how terrible it was. They say, “No, we did our job”. It is okay to be okay. That kind of thing distracts us sometimes from getting service to the people who need it most and we will always try to get it to the people who need it most.

VeteransGovernment Orders

10:05 p.m.

Central Nova Nova Scotia

Conservative

Peter MacKay ConservativeMinister of National Defence

Mr. Chair, I want to begin by lauding my colleague from Edmonton Centre for both his military service and for bringing that practical common sense approach every day to the House of Commons in the work that he does, both as a very active constituency representative and as parliamentary secretary, and applying that in a way that makes a real difference.

He outlined in his remarks in a remarkably concise and factual way many of the improvements that we have seen brought to bear as a government with respect to the challenges that exist. He also gave fair commentary on the areas on which we need to improve and further focus our actions.

One of the comments he made reminds me that many of the members of the Canadian Forces today want to continue their service. In fact, in spite of being injured, in some cases grievously injured, they want to continue their service in uniform. I know that is true because I have spoken to a number of those members.

He mentioned Master Corporal Paul Franklin. Master Corporal Jody Mitic is another. Both of those gentlemen continue to inspire many by their continued service. In the case of Master Corporal Jody Mitic, he is associated with and shows leadership in the soldier on program. There are similar programs in other countries where there are active contributions by those who have in fact suffered grievous injury.

This has been an improved action on the part of our government that we continue to embrace those who want to act as trainers, who provide their practical experience and share it with others and who can continue to serve in the Canadian Forces today. In addition to all of the new programs and benefits for veterans and those who choose to retire or pursue another career, having a career in the Canadian Forces in spite of injury is something that this government has also made improvements to and will continue to look for a way forward.

VeteransGovernment Orders

10:05 p.m.

Conservative

Laurie Hawn Conservative Edmonton Centre, AB

Mr. Chair, I want to thank the hon. minister for his comments; it goes back to one of the things I mentioned. We are focused on getting people their lives back. We are focused on rehabilitation. We are focused on giving them a new future, whether it is a future with some civilian training outside or a future within the Canadian Forces. The minister mentioned a couple of people we know well. We have a captain serving in Afghanistan who has only one leg. Here is another example of a guy who did not let his injury hold him back from continuing his career.

The whole focus of the new veterans charter, the whole focus of what we are trying to do with veterans' issues, is to give people the ability, the incentive, the encouragement, and the resources to get back to another career. Ideally, of course, we would like to see those who want to stay within the Canadian Forces continue to make the kind of contribution that we value so much.