Mr. Speaker, I rise to support the motion before the House this afternoon. I will be splitting my time with the hon. member for Gatineau.
I would like to begin my comments today on the motion by thanking the member of Parliament for Sackville—Eastern Shore for his sponsorship of this motion and. more than that, for being an unwavering voice and a principled champion of our soldiers, our veterans and, of equal if not greater importance, their families. He already knows this but let me assure him and the House and those listening today that he is not a lone voice. Many of us on this side of the House will be speaking in support of the motion and in support of giving respect to our veterans and their families.
The motion and its call for an exemption of the Department of Veterans Affairs from cuts in the upcoming budget is nothing other than a call on the House to fulfill its part of a bargain made with this country's soldiers, veterans and their families.
The bargain I speak of is not an explicit one. It does not take the form of a legal contract. More important, the terms of the bargain were never even formulated as demands by our soldiers, our veterans and their families. Their part of the bargain was an offer, not a set of demands, to serve this country recognizing and fully cognizant of the fact that such an offer may ultimately cost them their lives.
To be clear, that is not a bargain just between our country and our soldiers. The family of the soldier, parents, spouse and children are all part of this bargain. The soldier's fate is his or her fate. The soldier's bargain, for better or worse, is his or her bargain.
I was reminded of this early in my tenure as a member of Parliament. I met with the president of a local community service organization in Beaches--East York to talk about the organization, what it does and the services it provides to our community. After that discussion, and recognizing that I was deputy critic of military procurement, he seemed to really want to talk to me about his family and his experience growing up. He lost his father in action in the second world war and his mother faced difficulties raising a family without the father around. He wanted to impress on me his desire that I bring to the House a respect for veterans. He wanted me to be an advocate for veterans to ensure that the spouses and families, the widows and widowers and families of veterans are respected and provided with the services and benefits they so deserve.
This issue of the family came home to me again when I spent four days aboard a frigate through the parliamentary program just this last summer. I had a lot of time to talk to the service members of the Royal Canadian Navy while onboard. The conversation that kept coming up was a personal one about their families. They talked about the difficulties of being a member of the forces and keeping a family together, keeping in touch with their children, keeping their relationships alive.
So, when we provide the uniform and we assume the authority to demand of our soldiers that they meet their part of the bargain and put themselves at risk on demand in the service of our country, we have sealed the bargain. It is up to us to now live up to our part of it.
A veteran is defined on the Canadian Veterans Advocacy web page as someone, whether on active duty, retired or reserve, who at one point in his or her life signed a blank cheque made payable to the people of Canada for an amount up to and including his or her life.
But it is not reasonable, fair or right to accept that offer and not also assume a responsibility on ourselves to firstly, ensure that we never take such an offer lightly or for granted by placing our soldiers in harm's way for anything other than the most critically necessary of circumstances.
Nor is it reasonable, fair or right to accept that offer without making our own promise in return to ensure that our soldiers will forever be treated with respect and will never want for care, and more important, to ensure that their families will forever be treated with respect and never want for care.
In this vein, the Royal Canadian Legion Dominion President, Patricia Varga, wrote a letter to the Prime Minister last fall, appealing for what we are appealing for today by way of this motion. In that letter she talked about our moral debt to our veterans and urged the Prime Minister not to reduce our financial deficit on the backs of our veterans.
More recently, Brian Forbes, chairman of the War Amps executive committee, wrote a letter to the Minister of Veterans Affairs expressing concerns about the combination of cuts emanating from the department's strategic operational review and the anticipated budgetary reductions. According to Forbes:
Should VAC’s budgetary capacity be impacted at this time, it is our considered opinion that the Department will be unable to fund crucial legislative improvements in order to fulfill its ongoing commitment to the overall veterans’ community.
In this letter he cites serious outstanding concerns with respect to the traditional veterans programs and the unfinished work and unfulfilled promises with respect to the modern-day veteran. He concludes:
Given these significant concerns, this is clearly no time to be suggesting any diminishment in the budget or resources of VAC. In our judgement, the financial responsibility and debt of gratitude that all Canadians owe to Traditional and Modern Day Veterans should now, and in the future, remain a paramount consideration in any evaluation of a Federal Deficit Reduction Plan.
We have both the Royal Canadian Legion and War Amps Canada saying this, and we have heard already about the position of the Veterans Ombudsman. Moreover, today this party here in this House is calling on the government to follow the lead of other allied nations, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, and exempt Veterans Affairs Canada from cuts in the upcoming budget.
Virtually every day in this House in response to questions on the F-35s, members on the government side rise to accuse the NDP caucus of not supporting our veterans and our men and women in the services. Just today, the Associate Minister of National Defence responded to a question about the F-35s with this comment:
—the only emergency here is the NDP's desire not to help and support our military men and women.
My father was a veteran of the RCAF in the World War II, and although he never talked about his service voluntarily, his sons were incredibly proud of his service. When he died, we draped his coffin with the RCAF flag. We set upon it a picture of my father in his uniform. My father was just one of thousands of veterans who served this country and who should be so respected and honoured.
Today, the rubber hits the road for the government. It has failed already on several occasions but has another chance today to demonstrate in some really concrete and meaningful way that it is living up to its hyperbole, to walk the walk, as we say, and to ensure that the services and benefits of our veterans and their families are sheltered and held safe from the austerity the government is about to visit on this country.
In closing, I would like to add this. A constituent of mine this morning, an associate of the delegation that appeared before the veterans committee last week, requested the following, that if the government truly respects veterans and wants to honour veterans and their families, it remove the member for Calgary West from the veterans committee. He has shown incredible disrespect for the veterans community and undermined the work and effort of those who appeared before the committee to give voice to the serious concerns of the veterans community of this country.
With that, I am happy to answer any questions.