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House of Commons Hansard #89 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was literacy.

Topics

Opposition Motion—Veterans AffairsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:25 p.m.

NDP

Annick Papillon NDP Québec, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the member for Beauport—Limoilou for his question. This government is planning to cut 68,000 jobs across the country, jobs that deliver programs and services. All departments and agencies, including Veterans Affairs, will be affected by cuts to programs and services. That is a problem. We hope that this will be a wake-up call for the government so that it understands the importance of reconsidering its position and supporting the motion.

I hope that all parties in the House will do the right thing and stand by veterans and all Canadians because we all know a veteran.

Opposition Motion—Veterans AffairsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:30 p.m.

Lévis—Bellechasse Québec

Conservative

Steven Blaney ConservativeMinister of Veterans Affairs

Mr. Speaker, it is always a great honour for me to rise in this House of Commons to speak and an even greater honour when it comes to speaking about our veterans. To begin, I want to say to our veterans who are watching us and to their families that all hon. members, regardless of their political differences—there are always differences—want to salute them and thank them for everything they do for our country, what they have done and what they continue to do. Veterans are at the heart of our society and our democracy. All parliamentarians can say thank you to our veterans and their families for what they have done and what they continue to do for us.

It is an honour for me to speak as a member of a government that, for six years, has been putting its heart and soul into improving the quality of life of our veterans.

I want to commend the hon. member for Sackville—Eastern Shore on his motion. I know that he works hard for veterans. He is an honourable colleague for whom I have a great deal of respect. However, I must point out that when it comes time to stand up in the House for veterans—and not just talk about them—by voting funding for them, with the exception of Bill C-55, the opposition members fail us, unfortunately. They are not there when we need them in the House to implement budget initiatives to improve the quality of life of our veterans.

As I just said, I certainly acknowledge the work of this member and the opposition regarding our veterans, as well as their great speeches today in support of our veterans. However, there have been times when I think those members had wished they had stood with our government and supported our new investment in veterans and their families.

Unfortunately, time and time again, the New Democrats and the Liberals have voted against the veterans and against our budget initiatives. For that reason, I find it rich that the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore would bring forward a motion questioning our government's support and commitment to our veterans and their families, which is rock solid.

We have a motion in front of this House that deals with providing programs and services to all military and RCMP veterans. We are also serving RCMP veterans. I want to salute them today, including for their valour.

Our Conservative government has a record of investing in our veterans and their families. Let us be clear, as I have said over and over in and outside this House: we will maintain benefits to veterans, because we believe in our veterans. However, and let me be crystal clear, this will not prevent us from cutting red tape for our veterans.

Our veterans deserve a streamlining of the processes. Our government will keep on improving our processes and making this the hassle-free service they deserve. For this, I seek the support of the opposition. Are they willing to maintain the cumbersome red tape facing veterans?

I think we have an opportunity today to say clearly that we will maintain veterans' benefits but also make sure that we are making life easier for them when they deal with the government and Veterans Affairs. That is why in this form, the motion is not helping veterans. Our country must be there for veterans when they need us, and in clear and plain language. Of course, our government is committed to providing these men and women with the benefits and services they need and deserve.

I am very proud to hold the portfolio of veterans affairs minister within this Conservative government. My predecessors have gone to great lengths to improve the lives not only of our traditional veterans but also of our modern veterans, and their families as well. That is what this government is committed to, and why this government's record over the last six years is unprecedented.

Canadians have not seen such a commitment to our veterans since the end of the World War II. That is a fact. That is the truth. The numbers tell the same story, whatever the opposition might try to say.

First and foremost, we have been making significant investments in the programs, benefits and services that our veterans, our Canadian Forces members and their families depend on. Everything we do is a reflection of our commitment to supporting our veterans with the care they need, when and where they need it, and for as long as they need it. In the last six years, our government has consistently increased its budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs to improve the care and support we provide to our veterans and their families. We have increased the budget for the last six years.

Where were the opposition? They were opposing our budget initiatives. They were voting against our budgets. Which members supported our veterans, steadily and readily, in this House for the last six years? They can be found here around me, the Conservative members of this government. I want to thank every single member who has supported our veterans' initiatives.

Just last week, we demonstrated our commitment once again when we tabled the 2012-13 main estimates. These estimates provide Veterans Affairs Canada with nearly $3.6 billion, an increase of $44.8 million, or 1.3% of it overall annual budget shown in the main estimates.

Last week, we went back to ask for additional funds to ensure that our veterans have access to the programs and services to which they are entitled and which they deserve. Tomorrow, I will be appearing before the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs and I hope to have the support of opposition members to approve not only the supplementary estimates (C) required to close out the current fiscal year, but also the budget for next year.

Once again, as in the past six years, we are increasing our investment. Why? For a very simple reason: we are creating programs for our new generation of veterans.

Just a few weeks ago, I was in Winnipeg announcing the cutting red tape for veterans initiative. This plan will reduce cumbersome red tape and provide our veterans with the hassle-free service they deserve. That is why we need the support of the House to make sure that we are cutting red tape. That is why we need to change the motion to make the lives of our veterans better when dealing with our department.

As I said during the announcement, much of what is needed to make these improvements simply involves returning to the basics and overhauling how the department works. With that in mind, we are putting in place updated and more efficient technology to significantly reduce bureaucratic delays. We are modernizing the tools that our officials use when they are serving our veterans.

I want to raise the high profile of our officials working in the department. They are dedicating their hearts and souls to making the life of our veterans better. It is not always easy and not always perfect, but they are doing their best to make sure that the veterans get the best service they deserve in a timely manner and that they, of course, respect the rules to which they are entitled and under which they have to apply.

Therefore, we are providing our officials with a new tool called the benefit browser. This tool is aimed at helping our employees make sure they get information on all the services our veterans can receive.

I announced our red tape reduction initiative two weeks ago in Winnipeg. This will ensure that our veterans have access to the services to which they are entitled in a more timely manner and with less red tape. I am very proud of this initiative.

We listened to veterans and the veterans ombudsman. They asked us to cut red tape and to communicate with them in clear and plain language. The work began a few years ago. The ombudsman has acknowledged that there has been some improvement and that our correspondence contains the elements for communicating with our veterans. Almost 41,000 letters a year are sent to veterans. However, there is a problem: the letters are often three pages long and can be difficult to understand because of the rather bureaucratic language.

We are therefore changing the way we communicate. We are improving it by providing reasons for the decisions rendered. That means that every letter sent to a veteran is divided into sections so that the veteran can understand the logical progression of the letter. What was the veteran's request? What is the decision? What is the evidence to support that decision? What factors, references, codes, regulations and tools allowed us come to that decision? How can veterans obtain more information or, if applicable, how can they request a review of the decision, sometimes with new information?

This is at the heart of the red tape reduction initiative. By communicating clearly and effectively with veterans, we will avoid many annoyances. Nothing is more insulting to a veteran, or to anyone for that matter, than to be sent a decision that he or she does not understand. That is why, as of two weeks ago, our department is communicating with our veterans in clear and concise language. I must say that we have already had very positive feedback from veterans. We are following up with them and we are receiving very constructive comments. Above all, this process is helping our veterans to better understand the decisions and avoid a certain amount of frustration.

Veterans are seeing a difference already with the consistent measures we are putting in place to make the lives of our veterans better. We have improved the response times at our national call centre and we are reducing the amount of paperwork veterans have to complete for many of the health benefits provided by the department. As well, with direct deposit now available for a number of benefits, veterans and their dependants are receiving their money faster and easier. That is why I invite the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore to support the amendment we will be putting forward because we want to make the lives of our veterans easier.

More than 41,000 disability benefit applications from veterans are presented each year and now we are responding in clear and plain language with the reasons for the decisions. We are moving forward and going ahead. We are cutting red tape, and this is only the beginning, because there are a lot of internal efficiencies we can make and many ways in which we can improve the way the government and the department are dealing with veterans. Are we getting support from the opposition to move forward and make the lives of our veterans easier? That is what I hope because this is where we want to go.

Our government will never be satisfied with the status quo. We will not do things just because they have always been done that way. We are looking at ways we can improve. It is most interesting that those improvements are coming from the veterans and from our officials who know how we can make things better.

That is why in January our right hon. Prime Minister announced funding for another great initiative that, unfortunately, the opposition decided not to support. However, the opposition was alone because we got support from the unions, provincial governments, workers and veterans because this program is called “helmets to hardhats”. The program is aimed at ensuring that military personnel who are leaving the forces can transition in a seamless manner into civilian life. This is a huge success. Everyday I receive calls from entrepreneurs who want to hire veterans. I hear from many groups that are willing to join in the helmets to hardhats initiative. We are ensuring that our veterans go into high paying jobs in the construction industry. Do members know who the winners are? Our country, our veterans and our economy are the winners.

We want to be on top of the wave when it comes to health, research and all aspects regarding our veterans' physical and mental health. Last December, I established the new scientific advisory committee on veterans' health. All veterans who want to get in touch with the committee can send an email to science@vac.gc.ca and they will be able to submit their information to the committee, which is working on health issues, the first one being depleted uranium. We are hearing the veterans, working with them and we are delivering.

That is not the only thing. Last fall, thanks to the leadership of this government, we announced significant enhancements to the new veterans charter which is at the core of our new program to meet the needs of modern veterans. Once again, we listened and took action with the committees, the Royal Canadian Legion and all the great stakeholders of this country. They told us that the charter that was initiated awhile ago did not go far enough. They said that it needed to be adjusted to keep pace with the care and support they required. It is a living document and these enhancements are doing just that.

Within the next five years, there will be an additional investment of $189 million. I will be going to committee tomorrow to ask for additional funding because there is a strong uptake by our modern veterans into our new programs. We expect that more than 5,000 veterans will benefit from these programs. The accrued costs are $2 billion.

Our government is investing in veterans. We are moving forward.

I spoke briefly about the improvements to the new veterans charter. Obviously, we have achieved many things over the past six years, whether it be the creation of the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman, the creation of the veterans charter or the broadening of the scope of many programs, including the veterans independence program. We are moving forward.

However, I had a bit of a problem with one thing that the hon. member said earlier in his speech, and that is when he said that he wanted to help me. And so, I actually found a way for the hon. member for Sackville—Eastern Shore to help me.

If the member wants to help our veterans, he should support them, support our government, support our budget and support the amendment I am willing to bring forward.

Opposition Motion—Veterans AffairsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:50 p.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer NDP Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

Mr. Speaker, if only I had voted for the budgets of the Conservative government where all of these initiatives were hidden, we would not have a motion today and every veteran and RCMP member would be well taken care of and there would be no need for a 1-866 number. What utter nonsense.

It was the Conservatives who voted against the veterans first motion that the NDP put forward, which was passed by the majority of members in the House. On three separate occasions, the Conservatives voted against ending the unfair clawback of veterans' disability pensions as well.

The minister says that the motion is not really good. Is the minister willing to stand up, look into the camera and tell the Royal Canadian Legion, the Army, Navy & Air Force Veterans Association, the veterans ombudsman and all the other veterans groups out there that told him in writing and at the meetings last month not to cut from the Department of Veterans Affairs in the upcoming budget?

Will the minister, on behalf of the Conservative Party of Canada, be voting for our motion tomorrow, yes or no?

Opposition Motion—Veterans AffairsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:50 p.m.

Conservative

Steven Blaney Conservative Lévis—Bellechasse, QC

Mr. Speaker, veterans are the primary focus of our actions. I can assure the hon. member that we will make sure we have all the flexibility we need to improve our services to veterans.

I will be crystal clear. Not only are we maintaining benefits for veterans but we want to streamline and cut red tape. That is why I invite the member to support our motion to maintain our veterans' benefits. We need to ensure that we make their lives better.

Will the member stand up for veterans?

Opposition Motion—Veterans AffairsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:50 p.m.

Liberal

Sean Casey Liberal Charlottetown, PE

Mr. Speaker, imagine my surprise when I heard the minister say that there have been consistent increases in the Veterans Affairs budget over the last six years.

The minister will be aware of a report prepared by Keith Coulter, a report over which there is a claim of cabinet confidentiality, a report that the disclosure of which has been denied by committee. The Keith Coulter report eventually made its way into the planning and priorities report and it advocated a $226 million cut to the Department of Veterans Affairs this year. That was an excellent opportunity to take that $226 million and reinvest it back to improve the services that are being delivered to veterans and to improve the benefits that are being offered to veterans. It was a missed opportunity.

For the minister to say that there have been consistent increases to the budget of the Department of Veterans Affairs is entirely inconsistent with the planning and priorities report of his own department and the secret Keith Coulter report. I would ask the minister to explain that discrepancy.

Opposition Motion—Veterans AffairsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:50 p.m.

Conservative

Steven Blaney Conservative Lévis—Bellechasse, QC

Mr. Speaker, the numbers indicate that for the last six years, this Conservative government has increased its investments in veterans and their families. That very member will have an opportunity tomorrow to support another increase in the investment of our veterans at the veterans affairs committee.

I would invite my hon. colleague to update his data and to look at the real facts. We have increased our investments not only over the last five years, but we will increase them for the next year as well. We support budget initiatives that make the lives of our veterans easier, such as the enhancements to the new veterans charter, and the helmets to hard hats initiative.

Will the member support the significant investments this Conservative government has been making for the last six years? He will have a chance tomorrow.

Opposition Motion—Veterans AffairsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:50 p.m.

NDP

Françoise Boivin NDP Gatineau, QC

Mr. Speaker, I listened carefully to the response given by the Minister of Veterans Affairs to my hon. colleague's question. I am still waiting for the answer. Are we to understand from the minister's speech that the Conservative members opposite will be voting against the NDP motion?

Opposition Motion—Veterans AffairsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:55 p.m.

Conservative

Steven Blaney Conservative Lévis—Bellechasse, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank the hon. member from the province of Quebec for her question. We are proposing a clear amendment in order to maintain the benefits available to veterans. I am proud to invite all of my colleagues to support this motion, but I would like to say one thing. We will do whatever it takes to cut the red tape. I receive letters, emails and phone calls from veterans about this. When I meet veterans, they ask me to do something to make it easier for them to communicate with my department.

Does my hon. colleague agree that we need to cut the red tape? She has an opportunity to do so today by voting in favour of the amendment we plan to introduce to maintain the benefits and continue to invest in the services offered to our veterans.

Opposition Motion—Veterans AffairsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:55 p.m.

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux Liberal Winnipeg North, MB

Mr. Speaker, let the minister be aware that there are hundreds of thousands of Canadians following this debate who are interested in knowing whether the government is committed to Canadian veterans. They are looking for a very simple answer from the minister with the motion that has been put forward.

The Liberal Party values the contributions our veterans have made to our country. We want the government to recognize those valuable contributions with resources through pensions and so forth that are provided to our vets.

Does the government support the motion that is being debated today, yes or no?

Opposition Motion—Veterans AffairsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:55 p.m.

Conservative

Steven Blaney Conservative Lévis—Bellechasse, QC

Mr. Speaker, I have been very clear. We are supporting a motion that would be helpful and that would streamline our processes for veterans. No, we will not support a motion that would prevent us from making life easier for our veterans.

Will the member stand in his place and say that he supports an amendment that would make the lives of our veterans easier?

This government intends to keep on acting and delivering. The member had an opportunity to listen to my speech. We are investing in veterans like never before and we intend to continue to do so.

Opposition Motion—Veterans AffairsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:55 p.m.

Conservative

Royal Galipeau Conservative Ottawa—Orléans, ON

Mr. Speaker, for over six years now, I have been rising in this House alongside my colleague, the Minister of Veterans Affairs, to vote in support of veterans. Every time, I am thinking of my father, who served during the second world war, and expressing my unwavering support for the Royal Canadian Legion.

What does the hon. member think would help veterans more: the demagoguery coming from the other side or voting in favour of improvements to the lives of veterans?

Opposition Motion—Veterans AffairsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:55 p.m.

Conservative

Steven Blaney Conservative Lévis—Bellechasse, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank the hon. member for Ottawa—Orléans for his question. I would like to commend the remarkable work he does for his community, and particularly for the Royal Canadian Legion. I have had the opportunity to take part in events in his riding, to meet with students, for instance, all with one goal in mind: to ensure that we continue to improve the quality of life of our veterans.

His question is simple: does the Conservative government want to continue helping veterans? Of course. Is the opposition making up numbers? That seems to be the case today, since when we look at the reality, our government has invested more in veterans than any other government, and that is what we will continue to do.

Opposition Motion—Veterans AffairsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:55 p.m.

Liberal

Sean Casey Liberal Charlottetown, PE

Mr. Speaker, at the outset, on behalf of my party and my leader, I want to thank the members of Her Majesty's Canadian armed forces and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for their service and dedication to Canada. I also want to thank the hon. member for Sackville—Eastern Shore for bringing this motion before the House today.

The motion is timely as it relates to the unveiling of the federal budget at the end of this month. My friends in the NDP will certainly remember that day last fall when the Liberal Party presented a motion to the veterans affairs committee calling for public hearings into the cuts to the Department of Veterans Affairs. We presented that motion precisely out of concern that the Conservatives were going to continue with more cuts to the department, cuts that will harm our veterans and impact their services, cuts that will make it almost impossible for those who serve veterans to do their jobs. There was an embarrassing moment when the motion came up for debate. The Conservatives were opposed to my motion to have public hearings and voted against it. When the motion came up for debate at committee, some Conservative members did not show up on time for the vote. As a result, the Liberal motion passed. It did so thanks to the support of the NDP members who, I would point out, were on time.

As one might imagine, the Conservatives were very angry at losing a vote in Parliament. Instead of doing the honourable thing by accepting the democratic decision to have public hearings, they took revenge. At the very next meeting, without consulting anyone in the opposition, including me as sponsor of the motion and vice-chair of the committee, the Conservatives brought in their own witnesses who dutifully, one might say robotically, recited the talking points issued by the minister, “Nothing to see here. Move along. All is well. Services will not be impaired”.

However, the minister's witnesses did give evidence that up to 500 jobs, not including the lost jobs due to the budget cuts or the transfer of the last veterans hospital in Canada, would be lost within the Department of Veterans Affairs. Once the Conservative witnesses had their say, they moved to an in camera secret meeting. They emerged from that secret meeting with a motion that shut down public hearings.

I share this background information to highlight the fact that the opposition parties and veterans groups have been on this issue for many months calling on the government to halt its cuts. However, it is not just Liberals or the official opposition who are concerned about the cuts to veterans. The vast majority of Canadians, including young Canadians, want to preserve the benefits and services we provide to our veterans.

Just this past weekend I had the honour of participating in the annual Prince Edward Island model parliament. These young people get it. They understand that veterans deserve respect. They had two days of debate, two days in which to identify their priorities and pass bills in their model parliament. One of the bills passed in those two days was the veterans tax act, exempting veterans from provincial income tax. That displays a deep appreciation from young people for the sacrifices our veterans have made for Canada. These are people whose great-grandparents, three generations removed from them, may know what it is like to be a traditional veteran. Many of them would be shocked to hear that the Conservatives are engaging in a process to cut money from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

If the example of our young people is not enough, let us consider what other countries are doing for veterans. The United States, which is in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, is exempting veterans from any budget cuts. Likewise, the United Kingdom, which also is in the midst of a terrible financial crisis, has exempted veterans from budget cuts, as has Australia. Canadians from all walks of life, from young people to seniors, are wondering why the Conservative government is not exempting Canadian veterans from cuts as well.

The parliamentary secretary and the minister, or whoever else is responsible for reading the Conservative roboscript, will say that the opposition is just trying to scare veterans. That simply is not true.

The proposed 5% to 10% cuts and the ensuing job losses at the department will have immediate and lasting impacts on the quality of service to our veterans. It must stop. The government must exempt veterans from cuts.

The minister's talking points repeat continually, regardless of the question posed, that veterans' benefits are statutory or quasi-statutory, meaning those benefits are automatic and not subject to yearly budget considerations. Again this is false. The fact is that the veterans affairs committee approves the yearly estimates. As the minister himself pointed out a few minutes ago, the money is allocated to the department by Parliament and the committee could at any time decline to authorize those amounts earmarked for benefits. Veterans' benefits are not guaranteed. They are discretionary. That discretion rests with the parliamentary committee and with Parliament.

As indicated, tomorrow the committee will deliberate on the estimates. The committee has the right and power to reject the minister's request for approval of additional funds. Again, the Government of Canada must exempt Veterans Affairs Canada from any budget cuts.

I want to disabuse another falsehood, that being the contention made by government that due to ongoing demographic changes in the makeup of veterans, almost all of the budget cuts will be achieved through attrition. Again, this is misleading. This really means that the Conservatives are on a death watch. They know that upward of 1,500 World War II veterans and Korean veterans, the traditional veterans as we call them, die each month. The Conservatives see the death rate as an opportunity to direct funds previously paid to veterans to other priorities, such as more politicians and bigger jails. If there are to be savings as a result of dying veterans, why would the government not invest those savings into providing better and more comprehensive services for veterans?

For example, it is disgraceful that a Canadian Forces member currently would receive upward of $13,000 for burial costs should he or she die in service, and yet veterans, if they qualify, receive around $3,600 when they die. For years the Last Post Fund has been pressing for an increase to no avail.

An uncomplicated application for a hearing aid from a veteran takes 16 weeks. In Halifax last week we heard from a family doctor who has restricted her practice to caring only for veterans. She has a patient who was recently released from the Canadian Forces. While in the Canadian Forces he was in regular need of nerve blocks. After his release he was treated as any other civilian. The wait period for his nerve blocks is 18 months. This is wrong and it must change.

We also know that the department conducts a national client survey wherein it polls veterans with respect to how they view the services provided. These surveys we now know have very low participation rates among veterans and are now under scrutiny from veterans organizations. I had the opportunity last week to meet with the president of Our Duty, a wonderful veterans organization, which today released a comprehensive examination of how the department conducts its national client survey. People should remember that these surveys help guide the department in how it serves veterans. Suffice it to say there are grave concerns about the very methodology used. I invite Canadians to review the study conducted by Our Duty.

The point I am trying to make is that the notion the government can simply use savings from dying veterans to pay down a deficit which the government created is very offensive to veterans who want better, not fewer, services.

We know well the record of the government when it comes to cuts and providing services. My colleagues from Cardigan, Malpeque and Cape Breton—Canso all remember how Canadians were impacted when services were cut. We all remember how cruelly the Conservative government treated EI claimants this past Christmas, when thousands of Canadians who were expecting their money waited for weeks upon weeks to get their money, all because the Conservatives failed them by cutting staff and services. More recently within that same department, Service Canada, the online service for jobs seekers has been out of service for weeks. We need investment in services to veterans, not cuts.

Consider what great work might be achieved if the government invested, for example, in the veterans transition program at the University of British Columbia. This is a group-based therapeutic program that helps veterans make the difficult transition back to civilian life after physical or emotional injuries suffered in combat. This program is able to survive, thanks to the Royal Canadian Legion, not the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Here, the Department of Veterans Affairs could use the money it apparently is saving as a result of the death of traditional veterans to invest in programs such as this. This program works; the committee saw it first hand. It should be supported by government.

Consider also the tremendous initiative led by Dr. Alice Aitken at Queen's University who, along with her team, has founded the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research, CIMVHR, dedicated to optimizing the health and well-being our veterans and active military personnel through world-class research.

Does the government not think that providing financial support to these efforts might result in new understandings and treatments for such issues as post-traumatic stress disorder, and in doing so provide better services for our veterans?

Some Conservative backbench members of Parliament know these cuts are wrong and will hurt veterans. I wish they would stand up and be heard.

I will close by suggesting that in the midst of this debate on cuts, there really is a meaningful context. Just two weeks ago, I spoke in the House about the life of the last surviving World War I veteran. Her name was Mrs. Florence Green and she died this past September. She was 110 years old when she passed away. I expressed at the time how deeply meaningful it was to consider the sacrifice made by so many to fight tyranny and to defend the liberty, freedom, democracy and, yes, the right to vote without impediment. Tens of thousands of Canadians have given their lives for these rights. I really do believe that sometimes we forget that. We work and are busy with life and sometimes we forget that we really do owe our veterans a debt of gratitude.

I would end by just saying this, and I hope my colleagues will remember it: We say to all those Canadians who have served in our military in conflicts past and present, they have already made their sacrifice. They stood for us and now we must be there for them, and we say no to any cuts.

Opposition Motion—Veterans AffairsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

1:10 p.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer NDP Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

Mr. Speaker, I thank my hon. colleague from Charlottetown, whose riding hosts the headquarters of Veterans Affairs Canada. This hon. member knows many of the people who work at DVA. He understands, just like anyone else, that the men and women who serve their country face an unlimited liability when they serve, and we as parliamentarians, regardless of which party, government or opposition, have the ultimate responsibility for their needs.

Dan Slack told me something very poignant today. He said that we send our very best over to Afghanistan. We give them the very best training. We give them the best equipment. We give them the best mission in which to pursue the goals that are asked of them. They are the very best. We hear that time and time again. Yet when they come back, they do not get the very best of services afforded to them if, indeed, they require help from Veterans Affairs.

Steve Dornan, whom the hon. member knows very well, was a sergeant in the military. He has cancer, possibly contracted from depleted uranium according to the doctors and specialists. Does the hon. member think it is fair that Steve Dornan had to go to Federal Court and fight nine years to finally get a benefit from the Department of Veterans Affairs? Alternatively, could he have received that benefit almost instantaneously if the department had given him the benefit of the doubt in deciding whether to help him and his wife? Does he think that is the way we should be going?

Finally, will the Liberal Party be supporting our motion?

Opposition Motion—Veterans AffairsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

1:15 p.m.

Liberal

Sean Casey Liberal Charlottetown, PE

Mr. Speaker, there were a couple of questions and I will deal with the last one first, which was whether the Liberal Party would be supporting the motion. The answer is yes, most certainly. Here I thank and congratulate the hon. member for Sackville—Eastern Shore for bringing this motion forward. He is well aware that we have been wanting a public discussion on the budget cuts for months. We tried to get that discussion to happen on the floor of the committee and were eventually shut down. This is a debate that is needed, welcome, overdue, and we will be wholeheartedly supporting the motion.

With respect to Mr. Dornan's case, the legislation calls for a veteran to be given the benefit of the doubt. The problem is that the interpretation of the benefit of the doubt within the department is not plain, which is what it should be on its face. That needs to change either by a directive within the department to truly give veterans the benefit of the doubt or a change in the legislation that would make it absolutely crystal clear that the present interpretation being given to those words is not what it should be. That would prevent the tragic cases my colleague spoke about, including of someone having to deplete his life savings and put up the fight of his life lives for nine years in court to get what is rightfully his.

Opposition Motion—Veterans AffairsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

March 5th, 2012 / 1:15 p.m.

Liberal

Joyce Murray Liberal Vancouver Quadra, BC

Mr. Speaker, I have a question for my colleague. The minister claimed there were no cuts. The Conservative member, however, for Ottawa—Orléans has said, “there may have been some cuts to veterans programs, but it can't hurt the dead”.

My colleague made the point that many services were underfunded. At the time, I was on the Standing Committee on Health, where members heard about veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder who were unable to get the services they needed, that there were no clinical psychologists employed by Veterans Affairs Canada and that health human resources were woefully inadequate.

I would ask my colleague this question. What would be the impact on these needs if there were further cuts to Veterans Affairs' budget?

Opposition Motion—Veterans AffairsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

1:15 p.m.

Liberal

Sean Casey Liberal Charlottetown, PE

Mr. Speaker, this has been an affliction within the Conservative Party since we started talking about budget cuts. It does not matter what the question is: the answer is that there will be no cuts to veterans' benefits. If the question is, “Will you be cutting the budget of the Department of Veterans Affairs, yes or no”, the answer is that there will be no cuts to veterans' benefits.

What we have here is a play on words. There is absolutely no question, as we know from the evidence before the committee, that separate and apart from the budget cuts being discussed here today, there will be 500 fewer jobs within the Department of Veterans Affairs. That will affect services. The $226 million that has been saved because of the death rate of veterans should be reinvested in understanding the more complex problems of the modern-day veteran.

Therefore there is absolutely no question that cuts are coming. We can see it in the minister's reticence to support this motion. Cuts are coming and there will be an impact on veterans and those who serve them. People should not believe otherwise for a minute.

Opposition Motion—Veterans AffairsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

1:15 p.m.

NDP

Andrew Cash NDP Davenport, ON

Mr. Speaker, many in the House today, including of course the hon. member for Sackville—Eastern Shore and member from Québec, have enumerated some of the most egregious cases of neglect on the part of the government. The government loves to whip Canadians with the stick of anti-patriotism and of our letting down our brave servicemen and women, and yet in Toronto, for example, we do have homeless veterans. There are many homeless people and among them is a community of homeless veterans.

I am wondering if the hon. member would like to speak to this issue and what it says about the government's real commitment to our men and women in uniform.

Opposition Motion—Veterans AffairsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

1:20 p.m.

Liberal

Sean Casey Liberal Charlottetown, PE

Mr. Speaker, the veterans affairs committee did have occasion to visit a homeless shelter in Toronto, the Good Shepherd Ministries, and there is some excellent work going on there. While we were there, the minister sent an employee to tape-record the meeting. That is where the priorities are.

Within the Good Shepherd Ministries, the amount of money being invested by the Department of Veterans Affairs to help homeless veterans in Toronto is zero. There is an embedded employee, so there is an employee who physically has an office there instead of in some other building, but the problem of homeless veterans is real, it is here, it needs greater support and greater funding.

Support for this motion would be an excellent way to make a contribution to that problem, a contribution that is now minimal, if not non-existent.

Opposition Motion—Veterans AffairsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

1:20 p.m.

NDP

Randall Garrison NDP Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca, BC

Mr. Speaker, I will I am splitting my time with the member for Abitibi—Témiscamingue.

It is a great pleasure today to speak to the opposition day motion put forward by the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore. I want to start by recognizing the fact that the member has been a tireless advocate for veterans, despite some of the comments the minister made in his speech, asking him to stand up for veterans. That is exactly what he has been doing since the day he was elected to Parliament, whether it is in this opposition day motion or in the many private member's bills that he has brought forward for the consideration of the House, all of which have been opposed by the Conservatives. There is no question about who has been standing up for veterans and certainly the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore is one of those.

I also want to thank veterans' organizations across the country that provide many services to veterans, whether they are funded directly through Veterans Affairs or through their fundraising, through bingos and other charitable events. In my riding veterans' organizations raise a lot of money for programs supporting veterans and also for other community organizations in my community.

I also want to thank the front-line staff at Veterans Affairs. I know they do the best they can to try to provide the best services for our veterans.

I want repeat something I have said in the House before. I honestly thought the Conservatives would be different than the Liberals when it came to the treatment of our veterans. If the Conservatives support this motion, that will finally prove to me that they have had a change of heart, that they have finally seen that our veterans deserve the full support of all members of the House of Commons.

In opposition, the Conservatives talked a good line. They talked about extending the veterans independence program to all widows. They talked about holding a public inquiry and ensuring there was full compensation for all the victims of agent orange. They talked about opposing the unfair reduction of veterans disability insurance payments, known as SISIP. However, the their record in government has been much more modest. In fact, it has been a record of only partial success.

The minister likes to talk about the continual expansion of the budget, which he apparently intends to undo in a single year. His proposed cuts will actually devastate service for veterans. It is a kind of new speak to imagine that we can have cuts up to $220 million and somehow magically none of the services for veterans will be affected by those cuts. We have numbers being tossed around in various papers, some public and some not, of 300 to 500 staff reductions in Veterans Affairs. How in the world can veterans expect to get the services they are entitled to as a result of their service to our country with those kinds of cuts to the personnel serving them?

The minister and the government have tried to justify these reductions by pointing to a decline in what are now called “traditional veterans”, those who served in World War II and those who served in Korea. However, what they are doing, in a way, is devaluing what I would call the modern day veterans, those who have served in peacekeeping operations around the world and those who have served in operations in combat, like in Afghanistan. It would also ignore those whom I had the privilege of welcoming home last weekend on the HMCS Vancouver, which returned from seven months in an active combat zone in Libya.

How are these modern day veterans somehow less entitled to veterans benefits than what are called the traditional veterans?

This new budget planning exercise we have been going through with the government reveals the real program of the Conservatives, and this is, as I mentioned, cuts of somewhere, and we do not know the exact figure but we will soon find out, between $150 million, $170 million and maybe as high as $350 million out of a Veterans Affairs budget of $900 million, cuts from somewhere between 300 and 500 jobs. In a kind of new speak, we are asked to believe that this will somehow result in better services for veterans.

Just the other day in the House, when it came time to vote on Bill C-215, which was also proposed by the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore and which I had the honour of seconding, the Conservatives voted against it. The bill would end the unfair clawbacks of pension benefits for veterans and members of the RCMP, benefits which they had paid for throughout their careers by paying into CPP. The clawback would result in reductions of up to $800 a month for some of these veterans and RCMP veterans, $800 a month which would go a long way for those veterans in maintaining their independence in our communities and not having to rely on provincial or federal government services.

Again, the Conservatives have been clear and they continue to make the point that somehow veterans should get by on their own, that they do not really deserve the kind of support that veterans have traditionally received.

Now that the Conservatives have a majority, they seem to be on course to cut that support. However, allies like the United States and the U.K. have exempted their veterans affairs departments from the across-the-board government cutbacks, recognizing that a general cut in government spending ought not to apply to those who have risked their lives in the service of their country.

In contrast, what would an NDP program for veterans look like? We would start by ending the clawback for retired and disabled Canadian Forces and RCMP service pensions. We would extend the veterans independence program to include RCMP veterans and all widows. In the case of marriage after 60, we would grant pensions and health benefits. We would provide better care for those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, shorten wait times for disability applications and eliminate or reform the Veterans Review and Appeal Board.

There is a large number of things about which I could talk. This is something which may seem small, but it has been a very big problem for many veterans and their families in my riding, and that is the lack of an increase in funeral benefits over the last decade. Even in death, we place a hardship on veterans by refusing to increase those benefits.

The hon. member from Toronto who sits in front of me raised the question of veteran homelessness. I think there is probably no greater shame for a country than for those who have served their country in our forces ending up on our streets without the dignity of a home to call their own.

I find it somewhat surreal to hear that one of the priorities of the minister is to come up with clearer language for the veterans who get a denial of benefits so they will understand exactly why those benefits have been denied. We ought to be working on ways to ensure veterans receive the benefits to which they are entitled rather than to find better ways to tell them why they are not entitled to those benefits.

There is also a disturbing tendency on the other side when it comes to seniors as a whole, and many of our veterans are seniors, to refer to them as a burden on our society. We heard this is the discussions about health care transfers, where it was argued that seniors were taking more than their fair share of health care services. We heard it in the discussions on the necessity to reduce the OAS, where somehow seniors who worked and contributed all of their lives would have to take less in the future. Once again, this is being applied to veterans in that somehow those who have served their country are not really entitled to fair treatment when they come back from that service.

I began my speech by talking about veterans' organizations, and all the things they did in their communities, and the staff of Veterans Affairs. I would point out that many legions across the country do incredible work in their communities. In my community, one very good example is the charity fundraising that the Royal Canadian Legion of Esquimalt does. We have Esquimalt Neighbourhood House, which provides service to both military and other families in our community. When the Esquimalt Neighbourhood House needed a new roof, the veterans of the Royal Canadian Legion stepped up and made a grant to the house in order to help it put on a new roof so it could continue its services to families.

Like all seniors in our country, veterans continue to contribute in their community, they continue to volunteer and they continue to raise money for charity. I would like to see us recognize the service they have given and continue to give across the country.

I want to conclude by thanking all those who have served their country, whether in the Canadian Forces or the RCMP. It is something I will try to remember to do on all the appropriate occasions and not just once a year on Remembrance Day. I invite all members to join me in those attempts to ensure that it becomes built in to our Canadian culture to recognize the sacrifices made both in times of war and in peace in terms of defending our country.

Today I do so by rising to support the opposition motion. In the budget consultations that went on previously, every veterans' organization called on the minister to back away from cuts to them. I hope when it comes times to vote on this, we will see the unanimous support of all members in the House in recognition of the service veterans have given to their country.

Opposition Motion—Veterans AffairsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

1:30 p.m.

NDP

Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet NDP Hochelaga, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank the hon. member for his speech.

This summer, with the minister in fact, I met Alexandre Fontaine, a young veteran who fought in Afghanistan as a reservist and who had difficulty getting the same health services as those provided to the regular forces, because he was a reservist.

First of all, does my colleague think that this is fair? Second, knowing how hard it already is to obtain services, does my colleague think things could get even worse for people like Mr. Fontaine?

Opposition Motion—Veterans AffairsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

1:30 p.m.

NDP

Randall Garrison NDP Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca, BC

Mr. Speaker, it is very important that reservists get the same kinds of benefits and treatment, especially when they have served overseas with the Canadian Forces, as other members of the forces get. We have to provide full recognition for that.

However, as I said in my speech, we also have a distinction that is being made between traditional and modern day veterans. Some of the veterans from World War II and Korea are entitled to different kinds of benefits than those that are available to modern day veterans. If the government is right on the reduction in the number of traditional veterans, there certainly is enough modern day veterans who could make very good use of those services which they are presently denied.

Opposition Motion—Veterans AffairsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

1:30 p.m.

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux Liberal Winnipeg North, MB

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the member's comments in regard to the senior pension issue. I would like to pick up on that. Imagine veterans who have served in Afghanistan, who are now approaching age 55, who are listening to this debate and hearing two things consistently coming out.

First, they will be unable to retire and receive old age supplement at 65, as the government is looking at changing it from 65 to 67. That will have a profound impact on them. Second, now they have been hearing about the cutbacks to Veterans Affairs. Again, we are trying to solicit support from the government in terms of making that commitment to our vets. If they are 54, 55 or 56 years old and they look at this budget, it is like a double jeopardy of sorts in terms of their retirement years.

Could the member comment on that and on why all Canadians should be concerned with the way our veterans are being treated by the government?

Opposition Motion—Veterans AffairsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

1:30 p.m.

NDP

Randall Garrison NDP Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca, BC

Mr. Speaker, as I said, there is a regrettable pattern starting to occur on the other side of the House, where all seniors, whether veterans or not, are somehow seen as a burden on our society and the idea that families and people should take care of themselves. The question I would ask the government is this. Where would we be if veterans had said, when we called upon them to serve their country, no, that they were going to take care of themselves and their families and that they really did not care what was going to happen to our country. We have to ask that question from both sides when we are talking about veterans and the benefits to which they are entitled.

Opposition Motion—Veterans AffairsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

1:35 p.m.

NDP

Andrew Cash NDP Davenport, ON

Mr. Speaker, I would like to underline the comments of my hon. colleague. He has made a very important point. We asked our veterans to make overwhelming, overarching sacrifices. This is not just any job. This is the job that governments must take a lot of time and deep consideration before engaging our military in any operation. We have had veterans who have come back and they have done the job that our governments asked them to do and yet they are being hung out to dry by a government that really does not stand up for veterans.

My colleague brought up the issue of seniors in the military. Would he continue that thought and talk a bit about how we could better support our veterans?