Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to add my 10 minutes to this very important debate today on Bill C-55, An Act to amend the Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-establishment and Compensation Act and the Pension Act. It is a very long title for an important bill.
Before I continue, I want to take moment and pay special tribute to the thousands of current and former military service people, their families, and most especially to all those who have paid the ultimate price for the freedoms that we all enjoy today.
In the words of my colleague from Etobicoke North, the life experiences of our veterans:
--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.
This must change and we have the power to change it. Bill C-55 is a step in the right direction.
As the vice-chair of the veterans committee and as an elected member, whenever I am called upon to speak or to vote on these matters, I remember the spirit that inspired these brave men and women to serve our country, and I try to conduct myself in accordance with their example.
As someone who grew up on Canada's east coast, I have seen firsthand that spirit, how it lived in the people of our communities and what it felt like each time a ship put out to sea with a crew of our finest young men and women.
I have also witnessed firsthand the challenges that are too often faced by that same crew upon their return home from the horrors of combat. The need for effective rehabilitation, services, and compensation are at the heart of why we are here today and, as we deliberate, I would certainly hope that all members of this House would remember that basic guiding ideal.
Let us right these past wrongs. Let us make Bill C-55 serve the people who need it the most.
We have all heard stories of elderly veterans who can no longer make ends meet. They are forced to give up their possessions, their independence and, ironically enough, they are forced to relinquish their personal freedom, all because they cannot access the appropriate services and supports they might need to truly return home.
We have all heard the terrible stories of young men and women battling marital breakdown, financial ruin, and even criminal implications prompted by battle-induced PTSD. What we do not often admit is that these things are actually avoidable.
National media headlines like “Veterans wanted dead, not alive, ombudsman charges” and “Canada's treatment of war veterans 'a national embarrassment'” tell a story of tragic failure on the part of the government.
Just this past July, the Toronto Star ran the story of John Sheardown. According to the article, Mr. Sheardown is an 85-year-old former bomber pilot. He is suffering from Alzheimer's and recovering from a broken hip.
Despite his distinguished service to Canada, Mr. Sheardon was left to languish in hospital, facing a wait of up to 18 months for a bed in a veterans long-term home in Ottawa. Now I ask, how is that okay? How is this appropriate treatment for a Canadian hero?
Our veterans deserve our help. They heroically stood for Canada and for Canadians, and now we need to stand with them, no exceptions.
What has brought us to this point? How is it that even after the implementation of the new veterans charter in 2006, we still have veterans falling through the cracks?
The Minister of Veterans Affairs tabled Bill C-55, Enhanced New Veterans Charter Act on November 17. The legislation consolidated several smaller announcements the minister made the previous fall, and it would make further minor changes to the new veterans charter, as called for by several veterans organizations including the Royal Canadian Legion.
Bill C-55 also proposes to introduce changes to the administration of the lump sum disability award, something we have heard a lot about at the committee level. Specifically, Bill C-55 would amend parts 1 to 3 of the new veterans charter, as well part IV of the Pension Act.
Despite all of this, on behalf of the veterans and in concert with many of my colleagues on this side of the House, I must ask why the government waited four years to propose any change to the new veterans charter.
Conservatives have suggested that the veterans charter is a living document or, as they call it, a work in progress that would be continually adapted to meet the changing needs of veterans, but I see very little evidence of this. How can they say this with a straight face when so many of our veterans have been left out of the government's plan?
Some on the other side of the House might say that I am being unfair with my criticism and so, as an example, I would ask why Veterans Affairs Canada did not live up to its 2006 commitment to review lump sum awards versus disability pension within two years. It would have saved an enormous amount of anguish for an awful lot of people if that had already been done, as was required in the original charter. I do not think it is an unfair question. It is a fair one that deserves an answer.
The former veterans ombudsman 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. With this in mind, Liberals have no intention of holding up this bill. We will work in the best interests of veterans and Canadian Forces members and, most importantly, to ensure that this bill rightfully addresses their needs.
However, to do this effectively, we are going to have to move fast. Canada, unfortunately, is now facing the possibility of an election. Again, when will the government get serious about the passage of Bill C-55 and its extra support for veterans? It will not happen if there is another election.
There is no real doubt that change is needed. A study by the minister's own department found that 31% of veterans are unhappy with what they are currently receiving. Yet, rather than making the necessary changes immediately, the government opted for a lesser approach. It simply divided the payment up differently.
Rather than fix the underlying problem, the government is proposing to permit the recipient to collect a partial lump sum and partial annual payments over any number of years or as a single lump payment. This is nothing more than bean counting and does very little to actually address the challenges already being identified by Canada's veterans.
I must point out that the Royal Canadian Legion would still like the department to address the overall amount of the lump sum payment, which currently stands at $276,000. In Canada, disabled workers receive on average $329,000. In Australia, service members receive about $325,000 and service members from the U.K. receive almost $1 million.
On a personal note, I would agree with the legion when it suggests that Canadian veterans have every right to expect at least what their civilian counterparts might expect to receive. I would even go one step further. Perhaps Canadian veterans should expect even more given what they have done for us.
This is but one example of what is lacking with the government. Whether we are talking about the government's lack of action on the agent orange file, the atomic veterans' concerns or the matter of PTSD most recently raised by the committee, the government has consistently failed to take a proactive approach to supporting veterans.
As I have also raised, the government has turned a blind eye to the changing demographics associated with our veterans. Canada's first contingents of regular Canadian troops arrived in Afghanistan in January 2002. Since then, thousands of our young men and women have served in what has been some of the most horrific and trying battle conditions seen in years.
In addition to the actual loss of life, Canada's newest returning heroes are facing a host of medical and psychological challenges: PTSD, heightened rates of suicide, marital breakdown, homelessness and even, according to some studies, higher rates of diseases such as ALS.
This is the new reality faced by Canadian veterans and as the former critic for Veterans Affairs, as the vice-chair of the veterans committee today and as an MP who thinks our war heroes deserve better, I am here to say that I think the government is simply not doing enough. The government has been quick to deploy and keen to arm, but very slow and lethargic to prepare for the human consequences of its actions and policies.
Liberals will be supporting Bill C-55. We look forward to it going to committee, an opportunity to try to improve a bill that does some things but clearly does not do enough.