Mr. Chair, my earliest memories are of a Legion where my mom played in a pipe band. I liked to listen to the kindly older men while the band practised. I liked their stories. They would test me, “Do you know what that tune is? Do you remember what it stands for?” They were The Battle of the Somme, Black Bear, and Highland Laddie.
By the time I was five, I knew to stand for the colour guard, to take my woolly winter hat off as I entered the Legion, and why we wear a poppy. I found the word “veteran” hard, so my parents instead used the word “hero”. My whole life, veteran has been synonymous with hero.
Every summer we lined the streets of the Canadian National Exhibition for Warriors' Day. I remember the rows and rows of men and women who stretched from one side of Princes' Boulevard to the other, Legion after Legion, the 400 Squadron, the Toronto Scottish, waiting for my grandfather to march past and then my mother, and clapping until my hands were raw.
As a child, I was fascinated by the veterans' medals, and I asked my dad how anyone could have had medals that stretched from one side of his chest to the other. My father taught me that Canada owes our veterans. That is why we come to honour them each summer and that is why I must never forget them. He told me how his own father was not able to fight in the second world war, but that at the end of each week, how his father, a barber, prepared packages tied up in brown paper with string, to send to the boys from the neighbourhood. As a child, I saw my father cry only twice, but his eyes watered every time he told me about those packages.
As I grew older, my understanding of our veterans' gift to my parents' generation and to mine deepened, while the rows upon rows of veterans dwindled. Today Warriors' Day is a mere trickle of what it once was, with many veterans being driven in vans along the parade route. But the ranks of new veterans are growing. My hands are still raw and none of my family can manage a dry eye when the first Legion passes.
For 25 years, I had the honour and privilege of performing with the 48th Highlanders of Canada, Dileas Gu Brath, and had planned to do officer training with the navy if I had stayed in Canada for school. I have stayed on the bases as Esquimalt and at Valcartier, and was asked to teach new recruits at Borden. I would like to thank the 48th for the profound respect they taught me for military culture, history, and the sacred trust Canada has with its veterans, for the debt of gratitude we owe them, and always, that we will remember them.
I came to serve in Ottawa for two main reasons: to fight to end child hunger in Canada, and to fight for neurological disease, all because of what a veteran said when I was a child. He said that he went to war for my mom's generation, for my generation, and for those to come, that he did not go for his own. One hundred thousand never came home. Then he said the words that I have never forgotten, that have haunted me all my life: “What will you and your friends do for the next generations? We are entrusting you with the future we fought for”.
Let me begin by thanking all of our veterans, our World War II veterans, our Korean War veterans, our Canadian Forces veterans, and all our Canadian Forces and reserves. I thank them, I know each member of this House thanks them, and our country thanks them.
I was enormously proud to be appointed the veterans critic by our party. I take this new role to heart. I profoundly take my service to them, as they taught me service throughout my life, and I will do my utmost to honour them, their service to our country, and, most important, to work to restore the sacred trust Canada once had in them.
I will fight hard to bring attention to the issues they have raised with me such as agent orange, ALS, atomic war veterans, clawbacks, lump-sum payments, the new veterans charter, and privacy. I never would have believed, and Canadians would not have believed, that we would ever have had to fight for the privacy of our veterans. We assume that this is a given in our country. To name but a few issues, there is PTSD, the veterans' ombudsman's office, and Veterans Affairs.
It is disgraceful that in Canada we have let them down, and let them down on so many issues. Yet again they have had to be the heroes, to lead us to see the injustices, and to push us to begin to right the wrongs. I am sorry that they have come home only to fight other battles: for care, treatment, and something so basic as privacy.
While I may have come to Ottawa for two main reasons, I now have a third: the brave men and women who put their lives on the line for Canada in time of war and in time of peace. They are our country's heroes.
This week, Canadians across our country will begin to gather in places where it is impossible not to be moved by the sacrifice of our veterans. We shall remember the fallen, the battles that have defined generations. We shall remember our humanity in difficult circumstances, during peacekeeping missions. We shall remember the generations serving today. Many left as young men and women only to return as heroes, to take their place alongside previous generations for the courage they have shown and the sacrifices they have made.
However, our veterans deserve more than one day, one week, of remembrance. They have earned care when they need it, respect throughout their lives, and the necessary economic, familial, and social supports to return to civilian life, to adjust to a new life, or to age with dignity and grace. They do not want hollow words, with no action. They deserve leadership with real change, and they deserve what they engaged in so extraordinarily well themselves, namely, action.
Our veterans deserve significant changes to veterans affairs. I want to acknowledge the good work of the people there, though. I want to recognize the people who actually served in the military and who understand the culture. We need a change in the current philosophy, from the insurance policy climate of today to the sacred trust of the past, from helping a veteran only to the age of 65 to looking after a veteran to the end of his or her life, to reinstating the originally intended benefit of the doubt when dealing with veterans, to streamlining processes and procedures and ensuring that there are enough people to allow timely processing of claims.
There also needs to be an extensive review of the new veterans charter, in consultation with veterans across the country. We need to know what is working, what is not working, where the gaps are, and what needs to be changed.
Although the charter was intended to be a living document, the government has not made one change in four years.
We need to make real changes in compensation. This is one of the most criticized pieces, with 31% of veterans saying the lump-sum payment does not work for them.
Why does the government continue with something that is failing to help our veterans?
We must also ensure that VAC is properly prepared for when our men and women return in 2011. VAC cannot meet the demand of today's veterans, let alone the veterans of 2011. Where is the vision, the strategic plan, and the resources to ensure that the department is ready?
I profoundly thank Colonel Pat Stogran, veterans ombudsman, for his years as an officer in the service of our country and for his excellent and courageous service to our vets over the past three years.
Finally, I honour all our veterans, their families, the fallen, and those still serving. There is no commemoration, praise, or tribute that can truly match the enormity of their service and their sacrifice.