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House of Commons Hansard #125 of the 40th Parliament, 3rd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was labour.

Topics

Enhanced New Veterans Charter ActGovernment Orders

4:20 p.m.

Jonquière—Alma Québec

Conservative

Jean-Pierre Blackburn ConservativeMinister of Veterans Affairs and Minister of State (Agriculture)

moved that Bill C-55, An Act to amend the Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-establishment and Compensation Act and the Pension Act, be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Mr. Speaker, I rise today in this House on behalf of our veterans. They have defended our values throughout the world and deserve the support of the government to ensure that, when they face difficult times upon their return—I am thinking of our veterans in the modern era— they are given the appropriate assistance, especially if they are injured.

Today, we will continue studying the important Bill C-55, which is at second reading. Passage of this bill means a great deal to our veterans. The government has agreed to provide $2 billion to come to the assistance of our veterans. I am thinking, among others, of the veterans in the modern era, those returning from Afghanistan with injuries. It is our responsibility to ensure that, should they have this misfortune, they at least do not have financial difficulties in future.

What are the statistics? We provide services to approximately 140,000 veterans. Of this number, 65,000 are veterans of World War II or the Korean War. The average age of the veterans of these wars is 87. We also provide services to approximately 67,000 veterans who served after the Korean War and whose average age is 57. These include modern-day veterans who are around 20, 25 or 30 years old and who are returning from Afghanistan.

As you may expect, these modern-day veterans have different needs than those who served in World War II or the Korean War, whose average age is 87, as I just mentioned. Why do they have different needs? They are young and, when they return wounded, their objective is to return to civilian life and to find a new job that fits their new reality—I am referring to any physical or psychological injuries they may have. The services we provide to them must therefore take into account this new reality that did not exist before.

What were our veterans receiving before? In the past, veterans received a disability pension, medical benefits, of course, to ensure that they could live independently, and long-term care, depending on their needs in this regard.

Today, our “new” veterans, our modern-day veterans, have completely different needs. In 2005, Parliament, in its wisdom, passed a new veterans charter. The vote was unanimous given the new needs. The reality of these individuals is different; they want to be rehabilitated, return to civilian life and continue to live a full life, and we provided a range of new services related to this new reality.

Despite the fact that this new charter was passed unanimously, we told our veterans and the associations representing them that the charter would be an evolving one. In fact, we have been listening and have now determined, based on the experiences of those who have come home wounded, that there are problems with the new charter that must be fixed.

Who did we listen to? We listened to the seven associations that represent them. I am referring to the Royal Canadian Legion, the Canadian Peacekeeping Veterans Association and other veterans' groups. We also listened to our veterans themselves and the ombudsman, who shared certain points of view with us. We also listened to parliamentarians who made comments on the changes that are needed. We also listened to our troops in Afghanistan. What is more, I went to Afghanistan where I had the opportunity to listen to what our soldiers had to say about the lump sum payment. I will elaborate on that in a few minutes.

We also listened to suggestions from representatives from standing committees and from the new veterans charter advisory group on changes to be made.

We said it was a living document. The government listened to what it was told and decided to make changes to this charter in order to meet the needs of today's soldiers and veterans.

What changes are we going to make to this new veterans charter? There are three changes, but they will bring in four other changes.

The first change involves income allocation. The basic purpose is to ensure that the veteran participates in a rehabilitation program in order to be able to return to civilian life, hold a new job taking any handicap into account, and continue to live a full life. A modern-day veteran returning from Afghanistan injured and participating in the rehabilitation program, will receive an allowance equivalent to 75% of his or her salary. However, a low-income earner receives roughly $26,000, which is not enough. Adjustments had to be made because some of these veterans have families and young children.

This is what Bill C-55 would do. A corporal's salary will now serve as the base for the 75%, meaning that a veteran returning injured from Afghanistan will receive at least $40,000 annually while participating in a rehabilitation program.

The second change concerns the permanent monthly allowance. We found that those coming home seriously injured and unable to return to work were not receiving enough financial help. Currently, soldiers returning home receive between $536 and $1,639 per month, based on the severity of their injuries. Those who cannot return to work because their injuries are too severe will receive an additional $1,000 per month for the rest of their lives.

Soldiers who have been seriously injured and cannot return to work due to the severity of their injuries will receive a minimum of $58,000 per year until the age of 65.

When the legislation was unanimously passed in 2005, the new veterans charter did not take veterans' previous injuries into account. That will be fixed: we will also take those injuries into consideration, which means that 3,500 people will now be receiving between $536 and $1,609 per month, and those amounts have now been indexed. Those 3,500 people will now benefit from this new measure.

I would now like to talk about the lump sum payment. For months a rumour was spreading that the government was giving nothing but a lump sum payment of $276 to injured veterans coming home from Afghanistan. It was also said that they were not being taken care of afterwards. But that is not true. Our veterans receive the first two benefits I spoke about, in addition to a third, the lump sum payment.

According to critics, people were often not able to properly manage the $276 that they received as compensation for their injuries. We checked, and 69% of veterans were satisfied, but 31% were not and would prefer to receive a different form of compensation.

We examined the 31% closely and found that they were often cases of people with mental health issues or people suffering from post-traumatic operational stress.

When I went to Afghanistan, I told our soldiers that I was prepared to change to be more flexible. One of our soldiers asked me to give them as much flexibility as possible. On the plane on the way home, I told myself that I would go further than I had planned to ensure that the needs of our modern-day veterans, who may come back from Afghanistan wounded, are met.

Under our bill, people will now have options with regard to the lump sum payment. If they prefer to receive the amount in cash, they can do so. If another veteran prefers to have the money as an allowance over a certain number of years, we can do that. If he or she wants to have it allocated over 5, 10, 20 or 25 years, it is possible. The veteran will receive an annual payment allocated over the desired number of years. The veteran can also choose to receive a combination of the two types of payments, receiving part of the amount in cash and part allocated over the desired number of years. These three changes in Bill C-55 will serve to better meet the needs of our modern-day veterans.

However, that is not all we did this year. As I mentioned, we have been listening to what our veterans have to say. We have made improvements to the system for those suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. In the past, each case was examined individually and not everyone had the right to all services. We decided to change that, and now, anyone who is diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis will receive all the services that the department provides to veterans.

Another issue is agent orange. People wanted the eligibility period for the ex gratia payment of $20,000 to be extended by a year. Just before Christmas, I went to Fredericton to confirm that our government is extending the period by one more year. In addition, widows, who were not previously eligible, are now completely eligible for this ex gratia payment of $20,000. I cannot begin to express how happy these people were with our government's decision.

Another priority is to improve the quality and efficiency of the services we provide to our veterans. Among other things, we plan to reduce processing wait times by one-third by the end of March so that we provide services more effectively to our veterans.

We have also developed a new telephone system. Now, 80% of the veterans who call us receive an answer within two minutes.

We will also increase the number of case managers. Veterans returning from Afghanistan want to receive quick responses. We have added 20 case managers in the field, and in less than two weeks, our modern-day veterans can get answers about their rehabilitation plan.

We will also give departmental employees working on the front line more decision-making power, so that they can make quick decisions in providing services to our veterans. And this is just the beginning, since I am committed to paying close attention to the needs of our soldiers and our veterans, and to remaining in close contact with the associations that represent them.

This is a first step, here. My department is the only one to have received an additional $2 billion that was not originally included in the budget so that we can meet the needs of our modern-day veterans and ensure that our programs are tailored to their reality.

We will continue to work with organizations and advisory groups. I also want to thank the parliamentarians in this House. Since there are talks of a possible election in the very near future, we must ensure that our veterans, including our modern-day veterans, do not end up paying the price. This bill must be passed before the budget is passed, so that any injured soldiers and all soldiers becoming veterans have access to the services of the Department of Veterans Affairs and this government.

I thank hon. members for their support.

Enhanced New Veterans Charter ActGovernment Orders

4:35 p.m.

NDP

Jim Maloway NDP Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Mr. Speaker, I congratulate the member because I believe he has improved the picture a lot compared to the way it was before. Our caucus member, the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore, has done a lot in lobbying for veterans with the minister, the government and just in general over the years.

I do have a concern. I liked pretty much everything I heard from the minister except for the fact that I am concerned about the lump sum issues. We have to be very careful. We are dealing with generally younger people who are under a lot of stress with a disability. I am uncertain that there is a role really for lump sum payments. I like the idea of increasing the payments for the lifetime of the individual. It really comes down to that.

However, I think the government will find itself in more trouble taking the route of lump sum payments. At the end of the day, when the resources and the money are gone, the problem will be revisiting the government. People will be saying that their needs are still there.

A predictable long-term series of payments is the way to proceed.

Enhanced New Veterans Charter ActGovernment Orders

4:35 p.m.

Conservative

Jean-Pierre Blackburn Conservative Jonquière—Alma, QC

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the member's comments.

It is important to look at the realities of life and why we took this decision. We have listened to the veterans. We have to realize that some of those modern veterans would prefer to have this lump sum payment in cash and others would prefer to spread it over a number of years. That would be possible now. If they want it spread over 20 years or 30 years, we can do what they would like.

What will that imply? It implies that those people, in discussions with their loved ones, their families, will need to determine what is in their best interests. This is what we will do by introducing choices. If we do not do that, then we are forgetting a number of veterans who would prefer to receive it in cash.

We are really headed in the right direction by offering them different avenues. It does not mean they will make the best decision. However, I do feel that, by discussing it with their loved ones, those veterans will decide what is best when it comes to taking care of their lives and their families.

Enhanced New Veterans Charter ActGovernment Orders

4:40 p.m.

Liberal

Kirsty Duncan Liberal Etobicoke North, ON

Mr. Speaker, I think there is a general sense that the minister has listened to the concerns of veterans.

I want to bring up the issue of the lump sum payment. I think the member knows that The Royal Canadian Legion has a concern. It would like to see a larger disability award in line with what Australian vets receive and what disabled civilian workers receive.

I am grateful for the action taken on ALS. I want to point out that the U.S. took action in 2008 and in the spring of this year there was still a refusal to take action for this disease. However, Brian Dyck had the courage to come forward and be a hero. As a result of his actions, the government made this right and for that we are thankful.

I would like to bring forward another issue that the he might not be aware of that deals with another neurological disease, namely multiple sclerosis. It is a devastating disease that affects between 55,000 and 75,000 Canadians. People living with MS are being treated differently in Canada than in the United States. In the U.S. it is perceived as a presumptive illness. Will the minister be taking action on this in the future?

Enhanced New Veterans Charter ActGovernment Orders

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

Jean-Pierre Blackburn Conservative Jonquière—Alma, QC

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate my colleague's comments to the effect that different countries provide different amounts.

I would like to share some statistics about the United Kingdom. The most common lump sum payment in the United Kingdom is $8,927, compared with $28,532 in Canada. As well, in Canada, all veterans are eligible for the earnings loss benefit, whereas in the U.K., only the most severely disabled are eligible. Our system has some strengths in comparison to theirs. Of course, our system may also have some weaknesses, but even still, our system is good. It is well organized.

Again, it is important to remember that the lump sum payment is not the only benefit. There are three elements, including the earnings loss benefit. I will say it again: a person who participates in a rehabilitation program will receive at least $40,000 a year. There is also an amount based on injuries. Like the former pension, this amount can vary from $536 to $1,609 per month. That is in addition to what I just spoke about. Then there is another $1,000 per month for someone who cannot return to work.

Simply put, we have a rehabilitation program that pays a $40,000 annual salary. A person who cannot return to work because his injuries are too severe will receive $58,000, plus $276,000 if the injury is very serious. Those three things go together. You cannot have one without the other two. They are all interrelated.

Enhanced New Veterans Charter ActGovernment Orders

4:40 p.m.

Bloc

Yves Lessard Bloc Chambly—Borduas, QC

Mr. Speaker, like my colleagues, I have to acknowledge that the minister has made a remarkable effort to try to correct a terrible situation for our soldiers.

It is not a situation anybody wanted. Under the circumstances we can say that one element of compensation for soldiers is missing, and that is a lump sum payment.

I would like the minister to elaborate on two things: the amount of the lump sum payment and medical support. With regard to the lump sum payment, the minister just mentioned that this applies specifically to people who have a serious injury who would also normally be eligible for an income of roughly $58,000 a year. It is easy to see that the lump sum payment pales in comparison to the constant income these people could have, especially since most of them are young.

We would also like to hear these soldiers in parliamentary committee. I do not think the minister would have any objections to that at all.

The other element concerns medical support for people who have the illnesses described by the minister.

I would like the minister to elaborate on these two matters.

Enhanced New Veterans Charter ActGovernment Orders

4:45 p.m.

Conservative

Jean-Pierre Blackburn Conservative Jonquière—Alma, QC

Mr. Speaker, I will say again a few words about the lump sum payment and I will remind the House that it is not the only thing we provide. We are providing three things at the same time.

Imagine being the young solider returning from Afghanistan, who was proud to serve our country, who defended our values, who feels that what he did over there was useful and who, by misfortune, returns injured. He does not want to go home, do nothing and wait. He wants to return to civilian life and find something else to do that will accommodate his handicap. That is why we are making changes. We realized there were shortcomings, that we were not giving enough, that we were not doing enough. The reality of life lead us to that conclusion.

A person who is very seriously injured and can no longer return to work gets $58,000 a year, and that covers both physical and physiological injures—both. The same goes for the lump sum payment of $276,000 that covers physiological and psychological injuries. People often talk about PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder. It is a reality.

The rehabilitation plan will ensure that a veteran who returns with these injuries will participate in this program in order to return to civilian life as soon as possible, with a new job. Our department itself will increase efforts to hire veterans so that our staff includes young people who understand this new reality, because it is their own. We are moving in that direction to better support our veterans.

Enhanced New Veterans Charter ActGovernment Orders

4:45 p.m.

Liberal

Kirsty Duncan Liberal Etobicoke North, ON

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak to Bill C-55, An Act to amend the Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-establishment and Compensation Act and the Pension Act.

Before I begin, I must 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 sacrifice. I want them to know that serving them has been one of the greatest privileges of my life and that their stories of sacrifice, service and strength are being heard.

For example, I will not forget the words of a few gentlemen in Halifax who survived the fire on HMCS Kootenay, the worst peacetime accident in Canadian naval history. Survivors then had to fight to prove they were on the destroyer in order to get any help from Veterans Affairs Canada.

Their life experiences affect me and all Canadians deeply, and remind us that we owe them a debt of gratitude we can never repay. Instead of trying to repay our obligation, we let them down on so many issues. For example, too many injured veterans go without the care they need. Too many veterans do not receive the support they have earned. Too many veterans have nowhere safe to sleep at night. It is truly shameful that a 92-year-old veteran in Edmonton ever had to say to me, “There is a long road to go to make this right and you must not give up because we never did”.

I, therefore, want to apologize for the fact that this year veterans across Canada yet again had to be the heroes. They had to lead us to see the injustices and push us to begin to right the wrongs. They felt compelled to organize a national day of protest to beg for the privacy, care and help they were owed and needed. We broke our sacred trust with them and for this I am profoundly sorry.

We have a moral obligation to our veterans and their families, an obligation to listen to their concerns, understand them and, most importantly, address them. Specifically, we owe them the care they were promised and the benefits they have earned.

Days before Parliament resumed this past September, the government issued a first veterans announcement. Clearly, the government did not want to return to face questions on why nothing had changed since the implementation of the new veterans charter in 2006. A series of announcements continued to trickle out throughout the fall of 2010. The Minister of Veterans Affairs tabled Bill C-55, the enhanced new veterans charter act, on November 17.

The proposed legislation brought together several of the fall announcements and would make changes to the new veterans charter, as called for by several veterans organizations, including the Royal Canadian Legion, and would introduce changes to the administration of the lump sum disability award. Specifically, Bill C-55 would amend parts 1 to 3 of the new veterans charter, as well as part IV of the Pension Act.

On behalf of veterans, I must ask why the government waited four years to propose any change to the new veterans charter, which had been hailed as a living document, a work in progress that would be continually adapted to meet the changing needs of veterans? I must also ask why Veterans Affairs Canada did not live up to its 2006 commitment to review lump sum awards versus disability pension within two years?

Former veteran ombudsman Pat Stogran explained to the Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs that such examples of lack of timely action undermine the sincerity of the chorus of loyalty to our veterans. Liberals have no intention of holding up this bill and will work in the best interests of veterans and Canadian Forces members and, most importantly, work to ensure that this bill rightfully addresses their needs.

With the rumour of an election in the future, we want to ensure the passage of Bill C-55 and its extra support for veterans.

On behalf of veterans, I must also ask why the government did not fully respond to veterans concerns about the lump sum payment. A study by the minister's own department found that 31% of veterans were unhappy with what they received.

While the minister promised new improvements to the lump sum payment, the government merely divided up the payment differently, for example, as a partial lump sum and partial annual payments over any number of years the recipient chooses, or as a single lump sum payment.

In November I met with second world war veterans, Korean war veterans, Canadian Forces veterans, reservists, RCMP and commissionaires at the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 362 in Saskatoon. Every one I met believed that the government must make immediate changes to the problematic lump sum payment system. I was deeply saddened to learn that everyone knew of a veteran who had little to live on and that many veterans are working into their seventies and eighties because they need the money.

The Royal Canadian Legion would still like the department to address the amount of the lump sum payment which currently stands at a maximum of $276,000. In Canada, disabled workers receive on average $329,000. Australian service members receive about $325,000, and British service members receive almost $1 million. The Legion feels that those injured while serving their country should expect to receive at least the same amount awarded to civilian workers whose lives have been drastically changed by circumstances beyond their control.

Having pointed out this concern, there are important changes in the proposed legislation: at least $58,000 per year for seriously wounded or ill veterans, those too injured to return to the workforce; a minimum of $40,000 per year no matter what the salary when serving in the Canadian Forces for those receiving the monthly earnings loss benefit; an additional monthly payment of $1,000 for life to help our most seriously wounded veterans who are no longer able to work; improved access to the permanent impairment allowance and the exceptional incapacity allowance, which will include 3,500 more veterans.

It is also important to point out what, according to the Legion, has not been addressed: a larger disability award in line with what is provided to Australian veterans and to disabled civilian workers who receive general damages awards in law court; improved funeral and burial benefits; improved earnings loss benefits to provide 100% of pre-release income and, if permanently incapacitated, provide ELB for life; projected career earnings of a Canadian Forces member should determine minimum ELB payment; and promotion of academic research to support integrated approach to establish VAC entitlement eligibility guidelines.

According to the Minister of Veterans Affairs Bill C-55 is only the first step to addressing veterans concerns, but it is a good place to start. We agree. The proposed legislation is a small step forward, and we are prepared to support this bill because our veterans need urgent help now and because the minister assures us that further changes are coming. We hope this first step represents a real shift in thinking, in acting, that will address other gaps.

What really matters is how veterans and veterans organizations feel about the proposed legislation. Dominion president Pat Varga said:

This bill, as a first step, makes great strides in improving the New Veterans Charter and encompasses many of the recommendations made by the New Veterans Charter Advisory Group and the House of Commons Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs. The Legion considers that further improvements are needed to the charter on which we look forward to continuing the ongoing dialogue with [the minister].

Pierre C. Allard, service bureau director, Dominion Command, reports, “We are ready to appear at ACVA and present our views on the way ahead....but the bottom line is that we suggest strongly that Bill C-55 should be enacted as soon as possible so that veterans and their families can benefit from proposed improvements”.

The second communication reads, “with the proviso that Bill C-55 is but chapter 2 of future chapters, it should be passed as is ASAP”.

The Gulf War Veterans Association states:

“We actively seek your co-operation and your support for the expeditious passage of Bill C-55 through the House Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs and during the subsequent parliamentary steps.

Although collectively we feel the bill falls somewhat short in addressing all the problems of the New Veterans Charter, it is nonetheless an important step in implementing corrections with the problems in the charter. With an upcoming election possible, the future of Bill C-55 looks uncertain and it could well die on the order paper. We humbly request that you support a one-day debate of the bill, followed by approval, which in turn would provide adequate time for members of all groups to express their concerns.

In closing I ask again, on behalf of all veterans, for your co-operation to help our veterans receive their much-needed and markedly improved benefits as soon as possible. This cannot happen if the passage of Bill C-55 is not handled expeditiously. Please help our veterans”.

The Canadian Association of Veterans in United Nations Peacekeeping states, “request the quick passage of Bill C-55. We appreciate there are changes to be made to the New Veterans Charter and I respectfully suggest (hope) that changes will occur one step at a time. I fully support the idea that the New Veterans Charter is a living document”.

The Canadian Peacekeeping Veterans Association states, “it seeks your cooperation to support the passage of Bill C-55. Although the bill falls far short of addressing all of the problems of the New Veterans Charter, it is a first important step forward in the process of finishing and correcting problems in the charter. With election talk increasingly in the air, the future of Bill C-55 looks very bleak and it could well die on the Order Paper if there is an election call”.

In summary, the minister, veterans' organizations, veterans and we are in agreement that Bill C-55 does not cover all the requirements that we would like to see, but we do agree that it is a small step and one that should be taken before a possible election.

As was relayed to me, “Time is of the essence. After the bill is passed then we can start discussing more improvements to veterans' benefits. If we start asking for changes now, you know as well as we, that the bill will be stalled and there will be more meetings. Please, one step at a time and then we can move on. We agree, it is a small step, and more is needed”.

While there is clearly very strong support for the legislation, some veterans say that the changes do not go far enough, for example, to help our veterans facing poverty and homelessness.

This past Thanksgiving, more 800 food hampers were to be delivered to the needy veterans and their families in Calgary alone. We absolutely need more facilities, like Cockrell House, believed to be the nation's first homeless shelter for veterans because there are still many veterans living up in the bush and on the streets.

The veterans I met during my visit to Cockrell House wanted us to understand that they loved serving their country, that they would still be on the streets if it were not for Dave Munro and Russ Ridley, who helped launch this important facility. Dave explained that when he enlisted, new recruits signed an unlimited liability clause, which meant they were obligated to do whatever was requested, no matter what the hazard. Dave feels that because of the enormity of the sacrifice they were asked to make, Canada owes them and should help them get back on their feet.

Luke Carmichael was one of the homeless. The Halifax native arrived in Victoria a decade ago with no money and no place to stay after serving 19 years in the armed forces, including a stint in Cyprus. He spent seven years living in a tent and three years in a trailer. Luke said that he found much needed support at Cockrell House. He now has a beautiful apartment, kept tidy with military-like precision, and is reunited with his sweetheart of 40 years ago.

Cockrell House exists because of volunteers like Angus, Terri and Karl, all of whom help run this facility at considerable personal expense. Cockrell House will need to obtain permanent funding next year to continue its important work, despite the generous support from people like Russ Ridley.

Veterans across this country want real change. One veteran told me that because VAC initially withheld a compensatory award, he ended up homeless. Another veteran was sent a cheque for $40,000, only to have $28,000 reclaimed, causing him to lose his house.

Let us commit today to addressing all challenges faced by our veterans. As one veteran in Halifax said to me, “There are a lot of suffering veterans out there who VAC knows about, and even more out there who no one knows about. They are not followed”. He told us of three young veterans who died alone suffering from PTSD and who had lost their spouses. “Let's keep them alive”, he said.

Our veterans deserve more than one day, one week of remembrance. They have earned care when they need it and throughout their lives, lifelong respect and the necessary economic, familial and social supports to transition back to civilian life, to adjust to a new life or to age with dignity and grace. They do not want empty, hollow words with no action. They deserve leadership with real change and they deserve what they did so extraordinarily well, namely action.

Enhanced New Veterans Charter ActGovernment Orders

5:05 p.m.

Jonquière—Alma Québec

Conservative

Jean-Pierre Blackburn ConservativeMinister of Veterans Affairs and Minister of State (Agriculture)

Mr. Speaker, we appreciate the fact that the hon. member for Etobicoke North and her party will support Bill C-55.

Regarding the question of homeless people, the member heard that we had three pilot projects to try to support those people and to try to find them. That is the most important part of the problem. Where are they in the field? Some of our civil servants who work for Veterans Affairs Canada work closely with those organizations particularly in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto and, as I said, we try to find the veterans. When we find them, our department is very interested in looking at whether they should obtain support from us. All of them, may have services from our department. When we find them, that is what we do.

I saw some veterans a few days ago. They are not going anywhere in their lives. They have huge problems. When we find them, we deliver services to them. I saw some of them expanding in society. They are very pleased with what we do for them. Again, it is finding them. That is the most important thing.

I appreciate the support of the member of Parliament.

Enhanced New Veterans Charter ActGovernment Orders

5:05 p.m.

Liberal

Kirsty Duncan Liberal Etobicoke North, ON

Mr. Speaker, we appreciate the three programs on homelessness in our three largest cities. However, this is a problem throughout Canada. We need more help for homeless veterans.

New research has come out of the University of Western Ontario. I would like us to look at prevention as opposed to responding. The new research shows that the average age of homeless veterans is 52 years of age. These are people who have left the service 20 years ago and their first bout of homelessness occurred 10 years afterward. This research is different from what the United States shows. There is a population that is affected by PTSD. However, in Canada this research showed that these veterans needed transitional housing and help with alcohol abuse.

Will the minister be taking action on this new research?

Enhanced New Veterans Charter ActGovernment Orders

5:05 p.m.

Bloc

Guy André Bloc Berthier—Maskinongé, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to congratulate my colleague on her presentation. We are both members of the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs and I have come to realize that she is very sensitive to what veterans go through.

On the one hand, this bill represents a step forward. In my speech, however, I will be presenting the Bloc's position on this bill. Although it is a step forward, there remains a great deal of work to be done, as the member said.

On the other hand, I would like to hear what the hon. member has to say, as she spoke about people affected by post-traumatic stress disorder. A number of witnesses told us that with their first request for services, that is, when they apply the first time to Veterans Affairs for a disability pension, they are almost automatically refused. We spoke about statistics. Veterans Affairs refused 50%, 70% and up to 90% of first applications. The applicants were often desperate because they were very vulnerable and in distress. They asked people in the department to explain what they were experiencing and their initial applications were refused 70% to 90% of the time.

We wondered whether those assessing the applications were incompetent or whether the policy at Veterans Affairs was to refuse initial applications. We discovered that 40% to 50% of second applications were approved. Therefore, to obtain services, veterans always have to appeal.

I would like the hon. member to briefly explain how the Department of Veterans Affairs could be more open to providing services to those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Enhanced New Veterans Charter ActGovernment Orders

5:10 p.m.

Liberal

Kirsty Duncan Liberal Etobicoke North, ON

Mr. Speaker, I very much enjoy serving with the member on committee.

I am glad he has brought up the issue of PTSD. Going forward, we must ensure veterans have the health care they need and the social supports necessary. A key area for action is operational stress injuries, particularly PTSD. We also need to be looking at suicide. No one should have to suffer with the hopelessness, the nightmares that keep coming back and the rage that strikes suddenly. Too many of our veterans are taking their own lives.

A psychiatrist in British Columbia told me that he had not met one veteran who did not want to be a contributing member to society. He explained that he had two veterans who sat in the dark for 17 years.

We are talking about potential years of life lost while still alive.

We need investments in awareness, outreach and suicide prevention programs. We need to hire more mental health professionals and improve care and treatment. Once veterans have a diagnosis, we need to make it easier to get the support. That is a real issue.

I receive emails from across the country. One email I received caused me enough concern that I called the VAC suicide hotline on Sunday afternoon. The veteran had been waiting for three months for help to see a psychiatrist. I said to the person, “You have to promise me that this man can get help today”.

Enhanced New Veterans Charter ActGovernment Orders

5:10 p.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer NDP Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

Mr. Speaker, as the hon. member knows, in clause 49 of Bill C-55, which I hope the minister has a chance to look at, there is a slight problem. It basically says that the amount the veteran's family would receive from the disability would be payable out in whole to the estate if, and only if, the death occurred 30 days after the aggrieved injury was noticed. The problem with that of course is that PTSD can strike a person at any time. We have heard it can strike right away after a traumatic event or 20 years later.

The problem is that if the person, 20 years after the event, commits suicide because of his or her post-traumatic stress disorder, what happens to the payment? Would the person or the estate be entitled to anything at all?

This particular limit needs to be vetted at committee. I wonder if the member has any comments on clause 49 of Bill C-55.

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5:10 p.m.

Liberal

Kirsty Duncan Liberal Etobicoke North, ON

Mr. Speaker, I thank my hon. colleague who, as we all know, works tirelessly for our veterans. I think he raises an important point on PTSD in that it can strike at any time afterward.

I will bring this back to suicide as I think this is an issue that requires immediate attention.

Do we have a good understanding of the causes of suicide in the Canadian military and veterans population? Are the causes financial problems, relationship breakdowns, substance abuse, tensions with other members of the unit or traumatic events? How are we tracking suicide in the Canadian Forces, regular forces, reservists and veterans, including RCMP veterans and veterans who may not be known to VAC but who may be under other types of care?

On the identified tracking for these groups, do we have a good understanding of those who attempt suicide? What percentage of victims were known to either DND or VAC prior to the suicide or to the medical, social aid or prison system? What percentage had attempted suicide before? What percentage suffered from an identified operational stress injury, including PTSD, anxiety, depression or substance abuse? Has operational tempo and number of tours impacted OSIs, particularly PTSD?

Since the establishment of the 24-hour, 7-day-per-week suicide hotline, how many Canadian Forces members, reservists and veterans have been counselled and how many suicides are estimated to have been prevented through the hotline?

What else do we need to be doing?

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5:15 p.m.

Bloc

Guy André Bloc Berthier—Maskinongé, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise to speak to Bill C-55, An Act to amend the Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-establishment and Compensation Act and the Pension Act, introduced by the government to help veterans.

The Bloc Québécois supports this bill, as we have said repeatedly here today. I heard our Liberal colleague say that it is a step forward and will help improve things for our veterans. We are talking about people who sacrifice their lives or who live the rest of their lives with injuries suffered during a combat mission.

The Bloc Québécois has always been very concerned about the well-being of veterans. We parliamentarians can sometimes have serious disagreements about the validity of a mission, as was demonstrated by the debate we had on the mission in Afghanistan. But when it comes to supporting veterans, the Bloc Québécois is always there, and we firmly believe that veterans should not have to pay the political price of this debate. They have sacrificed much of their safety, their well-being and their health. Therefore, when it comes to veterans who are injured or have a disability, we cannot be tight-fisted or frugal; rather, we must be generous in compensating these individuals. We must express our gratitude and recognition by providing them with all the help and support they need, and whatever their families and children need.

The bill contains measures that we hope will help veterans considerably. We are disappointed, however, as I have repeatedly told the Minister of Veterans Affairs, that the Conservative government decided not to include a lifetime monthly pension, as many veterans in Quebec called for in petitions presented here in the House. That measure, which veterans were entitled to under the old veterans charter, should have been restored.

The minister said many times that there were not necessarily any changes and that the primary goal was to reintegrate veterans into the workforce. But that was always the goal; that is nothing new. We strongly believe that having a lump sum payment instead of a lifetime monthly pension, as we had before, is a considerable loss for our veterans.

Bill C-55 proposes legislative amendments to the Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-establishment and Compensation Act. As I already said, this bill would amend the eligibility criteria for the long term disability plan and would provide an extra $1,000 per month to veterans who are receiving these disability benefits and who are unable to return to the workforce. This affects many people who, after participating in a military mission in a theatre of war, return nearly 100% disabled and unable to actively return to work.

This bill also offers veterans the choice between a single lump sum payment and the same amount spread out over a set period of time. A combination of these two options is also available.

Here is an example of the losses experienced by veterans. From our discussions with people working with veterans, we know that, in general, based on the cases handled, veterans are more likely to be 20% or 25% disabled than 100% disabled.

According to the previous veterans' charter, compensation was provided to a veteran at a rate of 20%, so he could receive $600, $700 or $800 per month for the rest of his life. When a young person received compensation for an accident in the theatre of war, he generally received compensation at a rate of 20% or 25%. If we are talking about $280,000, that means the person would receive approximately $50,000 from then on, at the age of 22 or 23. Before, that person could receive $600 to $800 a month for life, for physical or mental loss. As we mentioned earlier, post-traumatic stress disorder affects many military personnel.

The Bloc Québécois has the utmost respect for military personnel who carry out highly dangerous missions and risk their lives to express the will of the people. This profound respect justly implies that, since their lives are in danger, we have the responsibility not to expose them to further risk. Once their mission is complete, we have the collective responsibility to offer them all the necessary support when they return home.

Of course, this support must be given to veterans, but it must also be given to their spouses, families, loved ones and children. There is still a lot of work to do on that front.

And in terms of post-traumatic stress disorder, we heard many testimonies to the effect that the spouse of the person afflicted had not necessarily been informed about possible behaviours, or their reactions, or the potential help available to them.

I would ask the minister, who is present here, to listen to what I am about to say. A number of witnesses told us in committee that when they needed a psychologist or psychiatrist to get help for post-traumatic stress disorder and they contacted Veterans Affairs, it was often difficult to access those services. We heard it over and over again in committee: people told us that they did not feel that it was an easy task. There are members here from all parties who sit on the committee and can attest to that.

We have an idea of the dynamic of all those wanting psychological therapy, and often they are men. I worked in a CLSC network and men often have more difficulty than women recognizing their psychological weaknesses. It is difficult enough to ask for help, but when a person asks officials at Veterans Affairs and the request for help is not necessarily well received and it is difficult to receive compensation for the services the person needs, then there is a problem. I invite the minister to take a closer look at this as well. It is important.

The Bloc Québécois will always support any measure to help veterans. The Bloc Québécois has always defended the principle that we must not abandon our veterans when they return from difficult missions or when they end a career spent defending their fellow citizens.

For example, in budget 2009, the Conservatives announced various measures, as hon. members will recall. Budget 2009 maintains the $30 million annual investment included in budget 2007, for the period from 2007 to 2012. Budget 2009 also maintains the $302 million investment over five years announced in budget 2008. That amount will go to Veterans Affairs Canada in order to increase support for war veterans.

However, out of the $3.4 billion estimates, budget 2009 announced that $24 million would be saved by streamlining internal and administrative resources without affecting services.

We wondered about that and we met with certain stakeholders, because those savings worried us. I do not know how it is being carried out on the ground. The cuts are determined by executives or administrators and, often, they target the lower levels. It is important to be vigilant about service delivery. I do not want to go too far on this issue, but I am concerned about the cuts.

The Bloc Québécois will support maintaining past investments to help veterans. However, given the scope of the mission in Afghanistan and the number of Canadians wounded in this theatre of operations, the federal government could have increased its investment.

Bill C-55 is certainly a start and a step in the right direction. It is important to recognize that, although some of the measures improve the assistance provided to veterans with disabilities, there is still work to do. The Bloc Québécois is of the opinion that the government could have done more, namely by returning to a lifetime monthly pension, which is not included in the bill.

Despite all the debate and the demonstrations that took place on November 11 in Quebec, people called for the return of the lifetime monthly pension. The minister seems to want to avoid the issue by saying that, despite everything, veterans receive a lump sum payment and a pension. However, when veterans return to the labour market, they no longer receive that pension. The only amount they receive for a disability resulting from an injury sustained in the theatre of operations is 20 to 25%. Most of these people return to the labour market and are able to return to society.

Bill C-55 is part of a legislative process that dates back to at least 2005. At that time, the new veterans charter was supposed to be a major reform designed to completely overhaul the veterans compensation system.

It was the Liberals who put forward the new veterans charter. In some cases, the compensation provisions for wounded veterans were covered by the Pension Act, the terms of which dated back to World War I. With the new veterans from the campaign in Afghanistan, it became urgent to review the process to adapt to the new reality and to provide help to those who needed it.

In committee, some people told us they had received, among other invoices, an $8 invoice for the cost of the sheet the soldier had been wrapped in. Fortunately, things have changed. That would have been rather traumatic.

The new veterans charter differentiates between financial benefits intended to compensate for the loss of revenue a veteran experiences when he or she can no longer work because of an injury sustained while serving in the Canadian Forces and the sums paid to compensate for pain and suffering associated with an injury sustained while on duty. That is why the veteran will lose the financial benefits but will continue to receive his or her disability benefits. Under the old system, the pension amount would diminish if the veteran's condition improved, which encouraged people to focus more on the deficiencies rather than on rehabilitation.

I would like to make my point by asking a question. What is the current situation of our veterans? This bill is supposedly going to help them. As we saw in committee, it is becoming increasingly clear that veterans need help.

During our many meetings, we learned that the suicide rate among veterans is higher than in the general population. Statistics show that one out of six people returning from a military theatre of operations will be afflicted with post-traumatic stress. These people, who are often very young, need psychological and social support, which is not always available in isolated, rural regions. Veterans returning home far from large urban centres had a hard time receiving the services they needed. Veterans have often said that in order to support them, people need to understand their reality. In isolated, rural regions, it might be difficult to find experts to help someone who is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

According to the Survey on Transition to Civilian Life: Report on Regular Force Veterans, dated January 4, 2011, clients of Veterans Affairs Canada reported complex states of health. The great majority, more than 90%, reported at least one physical health condition diagnosed by a health professional—that is a very high percentage—and about half reported at least one mental health condition. Two-thirds had four to six physical and mental health conditions, and a fifth had even larger numbers of comorbid conditions, that is, the presence of two or more conditions in the same individual.

Overall, 6% of veterans reported having thoughts of suicide in the previous 12 months. Of those covered by the new veterans charter, 57% had trouble reintegrating into society.

Therefore, a great deal of work remains to be done to provide services to those who return from military missions with psychological trauma. They return to Canada and must return to society. Fifty-seven per cent is more than half; almost 6 in 10 have serious problems with reintegration.

The state of health, the degree of disability and the determinants of health of regular force veterans released from military service between 1998 and 2007 were worse than those of the general Canadian public.

I have some more statistics. Seventy-three per cent of veterans are very satisfied with their financial situation. Once they leave the forces, the satisfaction rate falls to 50% for veterans covered by the new veterans charter. Thus, 57% are dissatisfied with their financial situation once they leave the forces. Veterans covered by the new charter have their average income reduced much more sharply. Their income may be reduced by up to 64%. The income of veterans on a disability pension may drop by 56%.

There is still a lot of work to be done. This bill introduces new measures. The minimum compensation for earnings loss for a veteran in rehabilitation has been increased to $40,000, and this will affect 2,300 veterans over the next five years. Access to the permanent impairment allowance and the exceptional incapacity allowance has been improved. This means that 3,500 more veterans will be eligible. There is an additional $1,000 per month being offered to veterans who receive the permanent impairment allowance and who cannot return to work. Five hundred veterans will benefit from this measure over the next five years.

That is a step in the right direction. However, there is the issue of the lump sum payment, which the veterans have requested. Replacing this amount and reinstating the lifetime monthly payment are major advances.

The minister is here, and I would like him to listen to this. We are talking about accessibility to services and services tailored to families, services that are close by, especially in rural areas such as my riding of Berthier—Maskinongé and other regions of Quebec.

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5:35 p.m.

Jonquière—Alma Québec

Conservative

Jean-Pierre Blackburn ConservativeMinister of Veterans Affairs and Minister of State (Agriculture)

Madam Speaker, first of all, I would like to thank the member for Berthier—Maskinongé for his support for Bill C-55, which will significantly improve the various services we offer to our veterans, particularly modern-day ones, and notably in terms of finances.

That said, I am hearing some things that surprise me. I told myself that perhaps I was not fully understood, so I would like to take the time to say it again. First of all, when someone suffers from post-traumatic operational stress disorder, or PTSD, the minister does not decide whether the person is afflicted with this disorder or not. Psychologists and psychiatrists meet with the person and determine whether he is suffering from the disorder. When the files were reviewed, it was found that 80% of first-level requests were granted. I just recently got these statistics from the department.

Next, I would like to speak about the permanent monthly allowance. I said earlier that we have three types of services. First, if a veteran participates in a rehabilitation program, he or she will receive a minimum of $40,000. For example, a soldier who is wounded in Afghanistan and participates in a rehabilitation program upon returning home would receive this amount. Second, there is the permanent monthly allowance, which is somewhat reminiscent of the old pension system. This is an allowance that ranges from a monthly minimum of $536 up to $1,609, depending on the extent of the veteran's injuries. An additional $1,000 per month is added to that amount if the veteran is unable to return to work. So, if we take this monthly amount and add it to the $40,000, the veteran is receiving a minimum of $58,000. If the veteran is very severely injured, he or she will receive up to $71,668. That is what will be granted. However, we look at the two amounts separately, we see a permanent monthly allowance that is equal to the lifetime pension. Under our bill, this amount will increase from $1,536 to $2,639 for veterans who cannot return to work. I think it is important to clarify that aspect.

Finally—

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5:35 p.m.

NDP

The Acting Speaker NDP Denise Savoie

The hon. member for Berthier—Maskinongé.

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5:35 p.m.

Bloc

Guy André Bloc Berthier—Maskinongé, QC

Madam Speaker, as I said in my speech, this is a step forward and that is why we will vote in favour of this bill. However, the minister is giving us examples of people who can no longer return to the labour market because of a significant physical disability. I absolutely agree that it is also important to take care of those people. This bill clearly provides more generous support to these individuals. That is why we do not object to it.

However, as I clearly said in my speech, most of the people who are affected by a disability—I am talking about those for whom the extent of their disability has been evaluated at 20% to 25%—return to the labour market and receive lump sum payments of approximately $40,000 to $60,000. That is what this bill is proposing they be given.

The bill proposes to divide that amount into 3, 4, 5 or 6 payments. In the end, veterans will be receiving the equivalent of a car payment for two or three years. We are questioning this lump sum payment and we are not the only ones. We met with several witnesses. A number of petitions were sent to the minister's office. This bill does not meet the needs of these veterans. They are calling for a return to the former veterans charter, which included a lifetime monthly pension.

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5:40 p.m.

Liberal

Kirsty Duncan Liberal Etobicoke North, ON

Madam Speaker, I would like to ask the member about the fact that veterans families need support. Individuals within the military and veterans organizations have been asking that medical and psychological treatment be extended to family members in order to increase resiliency and improve their quality of life. There has been some concern that VAC is equipped to deal with some of the easier cases but many of our vets have PTSD and other conditions.

I am wondering what recommendations the member would make to the minister in order to address these issues.

I will raise one other issue again regarding multiple sclerosis. People are being treated differently in Canada and the United States where it is seen as a presumptive issue.

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5:40 p.m.

Bloc

Guy André Bloc Berthier—Maskinongé, QC

Madam Speaker, I thank the member for Etobicoke North for her question.

More and more studies talk about screening. We could look into that more. Some people may be more likely to develop post-traumatic stress than others, and techniques and scientific studies could help better identify these people.

Something I mentioned in my speech is the confidentiality issue. That is something very important that the Department of Veterans Affairs should be looking at in the coming months. There have been some scandals in recent months: the medical records of veterans were consulted over 1,000 times. These records seem to be like library books available to anyone who wants to open one up and look at someone's medical history. So that is something very important that we will be working on in the next few months. I urge the minister to also look into this situation. The media have exposed some rather troubling situations regarding management of the confidentiality of veterans' records.

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5:40 p.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer NDP Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

Madam Speaker, the government is apt to point out the maximum lump sum payment that a person can receive is around $276,000 but the average payment is about $40,000. Very few people actually receive $276,000. The problem is that the maximum lump sum payment in Britain is almost $1 million, yet British and Canadian soldiers fight side by side in many circumstances.

Would the hon. member agree that the amount of payment, no matter what it is, spread over a period of time should be increased to meet the needs of the veteran to compare with what other countries are paying their severely disabled personnel or families of deceased personnel?

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5:45 p.m.

Bloc

Guy André Bloc Berthier—Maskinongé, QC

Madam Speaker, I thank my hon. colleague for the excellent question. He has also been a member of the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs for several years and does a great job.

The lump sum payment could always be increased. Perhaps a certain sum could be calculated that could serve as a life-long monthly payment. But the lump sum payment poses another problem: even if it were increased to $1 million—as it is elsewhere, as he said—and it were given in a single payment, a young man of 22 or 23 might have a very hard time dealing with receiving such a large sum, especially when returning from a very difficult combat mission, and not spending ridiculous amounts of money. He could lose that money for the rest of his life. That is the Bloc Québécois's concern.

If the lump sum payment were larger and the percentage, say 20%, became $200,000, and it could be paid in several payments, I would not allow people to choose. People tend to think one way at 22 or 23, and another way at ages 30, 40 or 50. Furthermore, when a soldier returns from a difficult combat mission, he or she might have a hard time managing that. Then the family is left to deal with it and forced to help the person who spent all that money.

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5:45 p.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer NDP Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

Madam Speaker, I rise on behalf of the federal New Democratic Party to indicate its initial support for Bill C-55. As I have already told the minister in private and in public, New Democrats will be supporting the principle of the bill. It has been indicated to the minister privately and publicly that it is a tiny step forward, that the government should have moved one way but went the other way.

We know that any time opposition can get the government to move, that is a good thing. It is nowhere near what New Democrats would like, but in fairness to the minister, I honestly think he is trying to do the very best he can within the constraints of the Conservative government.

Let us go over the merits of Bill C-55. I first want to thank the minister for listening to the debate today and working with members possibly through committee to make slight alterations to the bill to improve it. In all of the bills that come from government, especially the Conservatives, we see the word “may” written often. For those of us who have done collective bargaining, which my colleague from Hamilton would know very well, the word “may” means whatever one wants it to. It means that one may or may not do something.

Subsection 3(2) is where the bill gets a bit redundant. This program is already enshrined in the new veterans charter, but it is repeated in the bill, which states:

The Minister may, on application, provide career transition services to a member’s or a veteran’s spouse, common-law partner or survivor if the spouse, common-law partner or survivor meets the prescribed eligibility requirements.

That is already in the new veterans charter. One has to ask why it is in this bill.

If we go further down the page, there is a mistake. Section 12 is complete in the French language, but it is not complete in the English language. I would ask the minister to ensure his staff or the legal people get that completed before it goes to committee.

The word “may” is all over the map in the bill. New Democrats have a concern with that. The minister is right that he does not determine who has PTSD or any kind of medical concerns. That is up to the experts. However, when those experts make a decision and that decision is forwarded to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board or to the Department of Veterans Affairs , then the minister may want to do something. The minister may wish to allocate this or that program. The minister may or may not decide to do something to help veterans or their families. That word in a couple of paragraphs needs to be changed.

The word “shall” in some paragraphs should be changed. When it comes to the payment aspect, New Democrats will agree that the word “may” can stay, but not in any collective bargaining or contractual obligations. We call it a weasel word. We know the minister did not intend to do that in any way, shape or form, but we will have this discussion at an appropriate time.

As well, I have been in contact with all veterans organizations over the past few months about the bill. One of the things they have asked me to do on behalf of New Democrats and the opposition is to ensure that I talk with my Bloc and Liberal counterparts to seek their support to move the bill through the process fairly quickly. I indicated that I would and I am glad to see that Liberal and Bloc members have, although with reservation and they are right to express concern, agreed to move it forward.

I remember the days when the veterans charter was being discussed. Jack Stagg, the former deputy minister, may God rest his soul as he is no longer with us, before the implementation of the bill invited the various veterans groups to the process of the bill making, as well as the critics of the opposition, before the bill was even drafted so the minister could say that this is what he wanted to do and how could he get members' help to move it through even quicker.

The bill could have already been passed by now. If the government really wants to speed this along, I have advice for the minister for next time, and we hope there will be a next time, very soon hopefully, because we know this is one step forward of many steps that have to happen. The next time legislative changes are required that need the opposition's support, he should call us in advance. We would be more than happy to sit down with the department to give our acceptance or not in that regard. That way he would know how quickly something could be passed.

We know when it comes to veterans the last thing we wish to do, in any way, is to hold up something that may be beneficial to veterans and their families.

I talked about the fact that the bill is a small step forward. The new veterans charter divided veterans in this country into three classes. Right now, for example, World War II and Korean veterans who have a disability that is severe enough may be eligible to go to a hospital like the Camp Hill in Halifax, Ste. Anne's Hospital in Quebec, Colonel Belcher in Calgary, or the Perley here in Ottawa. Not every World War II or Korean veteran has access to those beds.

By the time we go to bed tonight this country will lose another 110 to 120 of its World War II and Korean heroes because of the passage of time. It is unfortunate, but time has caught up with them.

What will happen to those hospital beds when the last of the World War II and Korean veterans pass away? Right now, modern-day veterans from post-1953 do not have access to those beds. This is going to be a problem. We hope the government will look at this problem seriously and understand that there are now over 750,000 current veterans, RCMP members and their families.

There are going to be some 600,000-plus Korean and World War II veterans, many of them in their late 60s and early or late 70s, who are going to require long-term care or hospital care as a result of injuries suffered during their time in service. Right now they have to depend on the provinces to get that help. We hope the government will look at this serious problem and work with us to facilitate their having access to facilities.

Over the holidays we heard about SISIP. My friend, Dennis Manuge, a veteran from Porters Lake, challenged the government on the SISIP deductibility from his veterans pension, which is a clawback. Representing over 6,500 veterans in this country, the class action law suit made it all the way to the Supreme Court which ruled unanimously that the class action suit can proceed.

There are 6,500 disabled veterans this class action law suit affects. They have been asking for years that the previous government and the current government fix this problem once and for all. In fact, two DND ombudsmen have said to fix it. The previous veterans affairs ombudsman said it must be fixed. Two votes in the House of Commons said it must be fixed. The veterans affairs committees of the House and the Senate said it must be fixed.

Yet 6,500 veterans and their families have had to seek legal redress to get this fixed. The minister and the government could stand in the House of Commons and say that this court action and this legal action will stop now. Officials would meet with members of the class action law suit, Dennis Manuge and his group, and come to a reasonable compromise that is fair for the veterans and fair for the taxpayer.

I suspect, because I have seen it before, that the government is going to continue to spend millions of dollars of taxpayers' money fighting disabled veterans for what they so rightfully deserve. That is one thing the government could do to fix it right now. We said that the bill is step in the right direction, but it needs to go further.

We have talked about vocational training. I thanked theMinister of National Defence for his comments when he said that the DVA is now starting to look for veterans to be employed within the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The problem is that a military person with 23 years of experience may have 5 or 6 weeks of vacation entitlement time. If they become disabled, become a veteran and then go to work for DVA, they go all the way back to the bottom of the vacation entitlement plan. They go down to three weeks. They are not entitled to carry their years of military service over to DVA. Under the law, members of the military are not considered public servants.

The same applied to the RCMP and the RCMP were successful in taking the government to court to change that aspect of it.

We are telling the government that it is one line that it can change that would allow members of the military who are injured and need to leave the service, if they get jobs in DVA or other aspects of the public service, which the new veterans charter allows them priority service hiring, to take the years of service they provided to Canada with them. That is a simple thing that can be done and it would bring smiles to many veterans who find themselves in that case. It is a simple thing to be done and we hope the government will do that.

The government could do another thing to help veterans out. Let us imagine military persons with over 35 years service who have served their country, have travelled the world and have left behind their families many times as they have gone to serve in Bosnia, Afghanistan or wherever. They are 55 years old right now and all of a sudden, unfortunately, their spouse passes away. As sad as that is, it happens all the time.

If they are lucky enough and fortunate enough to remarry another person at 59 years old, great. They live for 20 years, they die and their second spouse would be entitled to their superannuation pension. However, if that individual had the audacity to marry the second person at age 60, lived for 20 years and died, the second spouse would get nothing. That is called the “marriage after 60” clause or, as we call it, “the gold digger clause”.

In fact, Werner Schmidt, a former Reform Party member of Parliament, now the Conservatives, and my colleague over there knows him quite well, introduced legislation in the House to ban the marriage after 60 act. If we were to remove one line in the legislation, we would be done, but, no, after all these years we are still fighting that clause. The reality is that when a military person, an RCMP member or whomever remarries, it should not matter to the government when they remarry. We know the law was put in during the Boer War, well over 100 years ago. The British government was worried that young girls would marry older veterans for that pension cheque. I am sure even the minister would know that is rightly unfair.

That is one thing the government could do right now to help many veterans and their spouses. If they are fortunate enough to find the love of their life once, that is great. If they get to do it twice, that is really remarkable. When they remarry should be no concern at all to Government of Canada, whether they remarry at 59 years and 364 days day, but on that 365th day, at age 60, they get nothing later in the future. That needs to change.

Those are just some of the aspects of change that could happen.

Another one is the agent orange aspect. We know that the current government, when it was in opposition, promised so much more on agent orange compensation for those folks who were affected from spraying in Gagetown from 1958 to 1984. In fact, the former minister of veterans affairs and the current Prime Minister, who was then leader of the opposition, said very clearly in Gagetown that they would look after everyone affected by chemical spraying from 1958 to 1984.

However, when the Conservatives became government, they implemented a plan that was even more restricted than what the Liberals were offering. The Liberals were offering that only those people in 1966 and 1967 affected by the spraying of agent orange that could be claimed back to the American aspect of the involvement in Gagetown would be compensated.

However, then we need to go to February 6. I am glad to see that the minister just recently changed that requirement and allowed many more people to make the application for agent orange.

However, the minister and the government knows that will only help about 1,100 more people. There are thousands upon thousands more people who were affected by chemical spraying in Gagetown. The one simple thing that we would ask is exactly what they asked when they were in opposition: a public inquiry into the spraying at Gagetown. If the minister were to stand and say that we will have a public inquiry as to the spraying at Gagetown, that would go a long way toward alleviating a lot of concerns for veterans and civilians. Those are the things that the Conservatives called for when they were in opposition.

Those are just a few of the items that the government can do in order to move the yardstick on veterans' care.

I will give the current minister some high marks. I have travelled with him on a couple of occasions already and I have seen that his interaction with veterans and their families is truly sincere. In fact, all of the ministers with whom I have associated since my time in 1997 have been nothing but sincere and true. Whether they were Conservatives or Liberals, I know that each and everyone of them truly wanted to do the very best they could to help the veterans and their families.

It is time to put those kind thoughts and words into action. Bill C-55 is a small start. There are a couple of small amendments that we may have to look at in committee. However, one of the recommendations I would make for the government for future legislation is that it increase the amount of payment that comes out, which right now is $276,000. It should easily be double and never in a lump sum payment for younger people. I do admit that if the government is willing to offer quite a large amount of money to people in their late 50s or early 60s, it may be something that they would want to think about. However, for people in their early 20s or 30s, it would be a major mistake to take that kind of money right off the bat.

We have a lot of people in DVA who will make the determination of whether a person is severely injured or not. We know it will not be the minister doing that. We would like to know how that determination is actually done, because we frequently hear that people who are severely disabled or severely injured or cannot continue in their employment, they can receive these benefits. Who determines that? How is that preordained?

Right now in many of the cases we have, one of the things I despise the most within the Department of Veterans Affairs, and I say it with great respect to people in that area, is the Veterans Review and Appeal Board. That is something I would like to see done away with in a heartbeat. If it cannot be done away with, then we should do what the minister said. He did not say this but I will say it for him. Instead of putting political friends on the Veterans Review and Appeal Board, the government should starting putting people on that board who have military, policing or medical experience so that when people go before the VRAP, they are adjudicated by their peers, not political hacks and flacks.

That, by the way, is what the Conservatives said in the convention in 2005 or 2006. At the convention, they actually said that the Veterans Review and Appeal Board would be replaced by people of medical, military and policing history. That is what we would like to see on the Veterans Review and Appeal Board.

Right now we have a bunch of folks there who have never served one day in their lives and they are adjudicating on people who have served valiantly for their country, who have signed the unlimited liability. We have the ultimate responsibility for their and their families' needs.

At the same time, when we talk about veterans and their families, we also need to include members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which is why I happen to be wearing the RCMP tie today. I believe the members of the RCMP serve their country just as much as those in the military and they should be treated together. I would hope that some of the benefits that are applied to veterans eventually will apply to members of the RCMP.

Those are some of the issues we have issued to the minister. We want to thank the minister for cracking open the door on the new veterans charter. It is a living document. We do not want it to die on Bill C-55. We want it improved and we want it done quickly. We know the resources are there to help. We in the NDP, and I am sure my Liberal and Bloc colleagues, will do everything we can to assist the Minister of Veterans Affairs who is a really decent guy, to move forward quickly on all the aspects we have talked about in order to make the lives of our true heroes of this country better for the long term.

Enhanced New Veterans Charter ActGovernment Orders

6:05 p.m.

Jonquière—Alma Québec

Conservative

Jean-Pierre Blackburn ConservativeMinister of Veterans Affairs and Minister of State (Agriculture)

Madam Speaker, I want to thank the hon. member for Sackville—Eastern Shore for his support and collaboration throughout the development of the new measures in support of our veterans that we are preparing to implement through Bill C-55. I also want to thank him for understanding that we have to move quickly in order to pass this bill before the budget is introduced. Since there are election rumours, we do not know what is going to happen and in that context, our veterans deserve to have this right away.

The hon. member is talking about taking tiny steps, but this is a whole new chapter we are writing for the new veterans charter, new measures that will help protect in a much more tangible and significant way those who, by misfortune, might return injured from Afghanistan. In that context, these measures are a step in the right direction.

I want to come back to the amount that other countries give as a lump sum payment. I want to remind hon. members that in the United Kingdom, the payments are usually around $8,927, while in Canada it is $28,532 and on average it is $40,000. Only a very small number of people have received the maximum amounts in the United Kingdom, while here far more people have.

We could add many things, but at some point we have to set priorities in life and it is exceptional for a minister and a department to get $2 billion from their government during a recession. That shows how important veterans are to us and that is why the government is moving forward to support our veterans.

Enhanced New Veterans Charter ActGovernment Orders

6:05 p.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer NDP Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

Madam Speaker, when people put their life on the line and face the bullets for us to have a good night sleep and protect freedom and democracy, the last thing we should be worrying about is how much it will cost to care for them. We cannot start nickel and diming and saying that one veteran fits in a particular box, another veteran who did this fits in another box and the veteran who did not go overseas fits in another box.

A veteran is a veteran is a veteran. We should get DVA to the point where when a veteran calls up to say that he or she needs help, the only question DVA should ask is: “Did you serve”? If the answer is, “yes”, then it should be, “How can we help you?”

Veterans are not asking for the Lexus and a trip to Florida. They are asking for coverage for prescription drugs. They want to ensure their families are taken care of. They want to ensure they have enough money on a monthly basis to not only care for their day-to-day needs, but to get rehabilitated and get back into the workforce.

That is the beauty of the new veterans charter. It was not just to give out money and for them to go away. It was actually to give veterans some assistance to help them become productive citizens again and move their life forward. That is an important change.

At the same time, the government should not talk about having certain restraints when it can find $1 billion for a G20 conference and $16 billion to $20 billion for certain fighter jets, which there is no question that we need, but we do not know if we need these ones. If the government can allocate that kind of money without thinking, then surely our veterans should have access to those kinds of funds without thinking as well.