Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the House tonight to speak to Bill C-473, An Act to protect insignia of military orders, decorations and medals of cultural significance for future generations.
Canadian veterans have helped to ensure that we live in a free country and have aided in spreading peace and security throughout the world. They have done that with courage, determination and at great sacrifice. In bestowing military medals, decorations and orders, our country recognizes the sacrifices and achievements of those who have served and those who serve today.
The men and women who wear those medals do so with pride, devotion, loyalty and dignity. Yet, when I have had the chance to speak with veterans in my hometown of Hamilton, like the exceptional men and women at Royal Canadian Legion Branch 163 on the Mountain, it is also clear that they are wearing those medals for the 118,000 Canadians who served their country and never had the chance to wear theirs because they made the ultimate sacrifice. From that perspective there can be little doubt that the principles underlying Bill C-473 deserve our support.
As the member for Perth—Wellington rightly pointed out in his opening remarks, some medals and honours are already protected in legislation. More than 30 years ago, at a time when World War II and the Korean War were still fresh in our memories, the Government of Canada responded to the need to protect Canada's heritage by introducing the Cultural Property Export and Import Act. It requires export permits for a range of cultural property, including medals. Yet, it offers that protection only if the military medals, orders and decorations are at least 50 years old.
More recent military honours therefore are not controlled for export. They may be freely sold and taken out of the country, out of the reach of Canadians and our public museums. I agree with the member for Perth—Wellington that this is wrong, but I am not sure that the bill, as currently written, is the best vehicle for achieving our shared objective.
Let me take a few moments here to outline some of my concerns with the view to getting the bill to committee and hopefully having most of them addressed before we have to take the third and final vote in the House. I want to start by reading the summary of Bill C-473. It states:
This enactment places restrictions on the transfer of insignia of military orders, decorations and medals of cultural significance to persons who are not residents of Canada.
In essence, that is what this bill is all about. It suggests that military medals will be kept in Canada because they will no longer be transferrable to someone who is neither a citizen nor a permanent resident of Canada. On that general point, I have no quarrel. But I am not sure that the bill achieves that objective.
First, let us look at paragraphs 3(2)(a) and (b) which state that the prohibition on exporting medals does not apply to the transfer of an insignia to a near relative of the owner of the insignia. Paragraph (b) refers to an heir of the owner of the insignia upon the death of the owner. Obviously, both the near relative and the heir of the owner could reside outside of Canada.
If the goal of the bill is to keep all medals in Canada, the bill before us today does not achieve that objective. I believe that the exceptions are reasonable, but it is unclear to me whether this was a deliberate or an inadvertent outcome of the bill as drafted. Perhaps even more troubling is the exclusion of spouses in the definition of a near relative. The bill talks about parents, children, brothers, sisters, grandparents and heirs. Perhaps it is assumed that spouses will be heirs, but I think that the inclusion of spouses ought to be made explicit.
In bestowing military orders, decorations and medals, our country is recognizing the sacrifices and achievements of those who have served the cause of peace and freedom throughout the world, but the sacrifices made by family members, as their loved ones serve our country, must also be acknowledged and spouses in particular deserve special recognition. In this bill I would strongly urge that the inclusion of spouses be made explicit.
The next issue I would like to address can best be expressed by comparing the bill that is before us today to a similar bill that was introduced by my NDP colleague, the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore. I think members on all sides of the House would agree that veterans have no stronger advocate in the House than the member for Sackville--Eastern Shore. He introduced a similar bill long before the one that we are debating today was tabled, but as the luck of the draw would have it, we are debating Bill C-473 today rather than his bill, Bill C-208.
I said that it was a similar bill deliberately. They share the same goal, but in my view Bill C-208 takes a better, more comprehensive approach. Its summary states:
This enactment prohibits the sale or export for sale of any medal awarded by the Government of Canada in respect of service with the Canadian Forces or the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or in respect of service as a police officer outside Canada on behalf of the Government of Canada.
It differs from the bill before us today with two important respects. First, it includes medals awarded to the RCMP or any other police officer who serves our country outside Canada. As we know, many police officers serve overseas, and the medals they receive honour their courage, valour and selfless contribution to our international efforts. Why would we treat their medals any differently than we would the medals of veterans?
If the intent of this bill is to preserve our heritage, then clearly RCMP honours ought to be protected as well. I do not believe there would be a huge backlash from veterans on this point. In fact, when the NDP's Bill C-201 was before this House, not a single veteran complained to me that it dealt with pension fairness for both veterans and the RCMP. On the contrary, the only backlash about that bill was that the Liberals and the Conservatives defeated every clause of the bill in committee, thereby keeping in place the unfair existing system that unjustly reduces the pension benefits of retired and disabled Canadian Forces and RCMP personnel.
The second difference between the bill that is before us today and Bill C-208 is equally important. Bill C-208 does not just prevent medals from being exported out of the country, it actually prohibits the sale of those medals. That is a crucial distinction.
Medals and insignia are priceless honours. Men and women wear them with pride as a sign of their loyalty, devotion and dignity. Such medals should never be turned into currency. By allowing medals to be sold, we are turning honours into commodities.
I share the view of those members in this House who want to prohibit such sales. In doing so, I am not however underestimating the dire financial need that many veterans are experiencing today. I can fully appreciate that many veterans feel that they have to sell their medals as one of the last resorts for making ends meet.
My goodness, surely we can all agree that such circumstances are a national disgrace. It is a situation that reflects badly not on the veterans but on the successive Liberal and Conservative governments that say they support our troops but, in fact, provide little real support when they return home.
Just this past Good Friday, there was a story in the news from Calgary where I guess the Prime Minister thought he was staging a positive photo-op by helping out at a food bank. However, it was a veterans food bank. Over 40 veterans rely on that food bank on a regular basis. Here is what George Bittman, chair of the Calgary Poppy Fund said to the media about that food bank:
The facility is used by vets who feel too proud to ask for help from a civilian food bank. And with so many veterans without pensions, there is a great need for donations of food. Like most Second (World) War veterans and Korean War veterans, if their problems weren’t apparent at the time they were discharged, they were happy to get the hell out of the service and get on with life, just as I did when I got out of the navy. Forty years later, when something comes up that something goes sideways, it’s generally too late for them to make a claim with Veterans Affairs. Records are lost, memories fade.
At that point there are few options available to veterans, other than turning to food banks. It is an absolute disgrace.
Bill C-201 would have gone a long way to providing meaningful help to veterans by improving their pension. So would the implementation of the NDP veterans first motion, which was passed by this House as far back as 2006.
If that motion were acted on in a comprehensive way, there would not be a clawback of SISIP anymore, there would not be a so-called gold-digger clause in the Canadian Forces Superannuation Act, the VIP would have been extended to all widows of all veterans, the survivor pension amount would have been increased from 50% to 66%, and the deduction from the annuity of retired and disabled Canadian Forces members would have been eliminated.
That is how we really support our troops, not by allowing them to sell their medals but by providing them with a decent standard of living. For their service to our country, veterans deserve so much more than just rhetoric from this Parliament. They deserve a retirement with dignity and respect.