Mr. Speaker, I am going to read from an article that appeared in The Hill Times, written by Michel Drapeau, a veterans lawyer. He stated:
The recent rise of suicides of Afghan veterans, which should have been predictable, has focused national attention to the despair and neglect faced by many of them. It has also drawn attention to the likelihood that the suicide rate amongst CF members is many times higher than the Canadian statistical norm. This is supported in a Statistics Canada report, which found that among CF members, 26.6 per cent of the male deaths and 14 per cent of female deaths were the result of suicide. This same report states that individuals with some military career experience are 45 per cent more likely to die as a result of suicide than those in the general population.
In the last few weeks leading up to this past Christmas, there were eight suicides. There was another death that was confirmed as a suicide yesterday, making it nine suicides. That is a number that is very high.
There are people suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder. There are people suffering with all kinds of ailments. There are people suffering with broken bones, bad backs, and everything else.
When these people joined the military and were asked to do things, they did not hesitate. The military is not a nine-to-five career. The military is not a career where if something is unsafe one says, “No, I'm not going to do it.” The military is quite the opposite. It is 9:01 a.m. to 8:59 a.m. the next morning. If one is asked to do something, one has to do it.
Let us go back in history and our involvement to when Canada became known as a country in Vimy Ridge in 1917, when we charged the bastions and we won. That was World War I. Thousands upon thousands of young men joined up. Some of them were as young as 15. They had to lie about their age in order to join the military.
In 1917, just prior to the Battle of Vimy Ridge, Conservative Prime Minister Robert Borden stated that:
You can go into this action feeling assured of this, and as the head of the government I give you this assurance: That you need not fear that the government and the country will fail to show just appreciation of your service to the country and Empire in what you are about to do and what you have already done. The government and the country will consider it their first duty to see that a proper appreciation of your effort and of your courage is brought to the notice of people at home…that no man, whether he goes back or whether he remains in Flanders, will have just cause to reproach the government for having broken faith with the men who won and the men who died.
Borden's speech was the promise and the moral recognition that Canada and the Government of Canada would never forget the sacrifice its veterans and their families make. This promise formed the basis of Canada's legislation to support our veterans. That was right after World War II.
The Pension Act that was enacted did not come about very easily. Yes, there were riots in the street. Yes, there was trouble. Yes, there was fighting, and yes, the veterans felt that they were left behind.
However, after World War II, a Pension Act was enacted that provided for the payment of pensions to veterans, to veterans who were taken prisoner by the enemy, to the surviving dependants of all such veterans, and to veterans who were killed or disabled in the course of their military service.
Section 2 of the act states:
The provisions of this Act shall be liberally construed and interpreted to the end that the recognized obligation of the people and Government of Canada to provide compensation to those members of the forces who have been disabled or have died as a result of military service, and to their dependants, may be fulfilled.
That was World War I, the war to end all wars. Unfortunately, that was not the case. A few years later, in 1940, there was another war. However, before we get to 1940, Canadians were again asked to join up, and men and women joined up. We sacrificed not only in battle but we sacrificed at home.
In 1930, there was the War Veterans Allowance Act, which was enacted to provide for special income support benefits to veterans in need. Section 1.01 states:
The provisions of this Act shall be liberally construed and interpreted to the end that the recognized obligation of the people and Government of Canada to those who have served their country so well and to their dependants may be fulfilled.
Over the years, the Pension Act and the War Veterans Allowance Act have been amended to include members who have served in World War II, the Korean War, and members of the Merchant Marine. We had the Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-establishment and Compensation Act, and then we come to 2005, when we have the new veterans charter.
However, before we get to 2005 and the changes that we have seen through the new veterans charter, we have to look at the history of what our military has done.
In the Korean War, we fought under a UN flag. The UN flag was for us to fight North Korea, where difficulties still exist to this very day. We have seen action in Cyprus, the Middle East, the Golan Heights, and Vietnam. These were peacekeeping actions. We have seen NATO actions and the Cold War. We have seen all kinds of action, and the men and women who served in those theatres, although not in actual war, were there as peacekeepers. This is what put Canada on the map. When Canadians who travel abroad are asked where they are from and say “Canada”, the first thing that comes to people's minds is that we are a nation of peacekeeping, a nation that fights for freedom, and a nation that supports other nations at times of need.
One of the supports that we also provide at a time of disaster, such as after the tsunami in Sri Lanka, after the earthquakes in Muzaffarabad, Kashmir, Haiti, Turkey, and most recently in the Philippines, is what is called DART. Successive Canadian governments are very eager to assist countries and offer DART, and the DART team goes in. The men and women of DART are there to provide support and help the people of a country get back on their feet. Usually deployment of the team is two to three months at most, and they provide special services and assistance.
I had the pleasure and opportunity to see DART at work in Sri Lanka, as well as in Pakistan. In Sri Lanka, it was right after the tsunami. I visited DART and I saw doctors and nurses, men and women, working on young people and older men and women who were hurt from the tsunami. In Pakistan, I met a doctor who was originally from Pakistan and spoke the Urdu language. He was a Canadian doctor with the military. He would wear his backpack, which was full of medical supplies and other medical equipment, and go up into the mountains to provide service to the people who could not come down the mountains to go to the hospital.
Now we come to the action in Afghanistan. In 2001-2002, Canada got involved in Afghanistan. A lot of men and women have come back from that action. It is said that if they got hurt but could get into Kandahar within two minutes, their lives would probably be saved. However, we lost about 158 personnel, and many were wounded and maimed.
The difference in this situation is that the men and women who came back from Afghanistan after 2006 are having to deal with the NVC, the new veterans charter. Although the NVC has a lot of positives, it also has a lot of negatives. It depends on who one talks to. A lot of people are saying that the new veterans charter, which is supposed to be a living charter, is something that we need to look at, update, and explore. We are in the process of doing that. If people get hurt or maimed, the new veterans charter provides a lump sum. A lot of personnel and veterans who served are very upset, and in one case the government is being taken to court.
Let us take a look at the new veterans charter. I mentioned the words “liberally construed and interpreted to the end that the recognized obligation of the people and Government of Canada”.
However, section 43 on the benefit of the doubt states:
In making a decision under this Part or under section 84, the Minister and any person designated under section 67 shall
(a) draw from the circumstances of the case, and any evidence presented to the Minister or person; every reasonable inference in favour of an applicant under this Part or under section 84;
(b) accept any uncontradicted evidence presented to the Minister or the person, by the applicant, that the Minister or person considers to be credible in the circumstances; and
(c) resolve in favour of the applicant any doubt, in the weighing of the evidence, as to whether the applicant has established a case.
All members of the House voted in favour of the NVC. We did so because the main objective of the charter is to foster the social and vocational re-establishment of veterans in Canadian society at large. Unfortunately, I was one of those people who voted for it. We were convinced at that time, but we were wrong, and the NVC has become a barrier for many veterans who have come home either physically or mentally injured.
The death and disability lump sum payments are woefully inadequate when compared to the payments received by claimants under the WSIB program or by court-ordered settlements for personal injury claimants. One veteran wrote to me saying that he had lost 5% of his brain in an IED attack in Afghanistan and because there was no mention of disability or dismemberment on his chart, he will receive nothing for his injury.
I asked the minister's office for the number of cases initially denied by Veterans Affairs Canada; how many of them were appealed to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board; and how many had been successful. I am still waiting for an answer after more than five months.
Let me paraphrase several veterans: “I don't mind fighting the enemy but I should not have to fight the government that sent me to war to get the benefits I have earned”.
A veteran wrote more specifically, “Soldiers do their work, come home to fight another battle. Many believe that their government will look after them but obviously we were wrong. The battles that we have at home hurt more than those that we fought in other parts of the world. Government believes that soldiers are expendable. I can go to court for years. In the meantime, soldiers and their families die. Governments do not lose. It is amazing that we as citizens that are willing to die for the country knowing full well that some politicians will play their games and look like fools. We have given millions, maybe billions of our tax dollars to other countries and shake hands with a devil, but we will not fight us using more taxpayers to that end. Too bad. So sad. I love my country but...”.
Six brave veterans have taken the Conservative government to court to get the benefits that they feel they and their brothers and sisters in arms are entitled to. They are supported by the Equitas Society. Government lawyers went to court and they presented their case. When Mr. Justice Weatherill of the Supreme Court of British Columbia asked, “Is a better way of doing it the same thing as we want to save money?”, the government lawyer answered, “There is absolutely no question that government is entitled to trim allocations if they feel there is a need to save money”. The government lawyer went on to say, “And if there is a complaint about it...the remedy is at the polls”. He continued, “Yes, the benefits, for the purpose of this motion, are conceded to have been more generous under the Pension Act. Yes, government has changed the benefit package, and there appear...to be disadvantages, economic disadvantage that flow from that”. The government lawyer all but admitted that the changes in compensation offered under the NVC were to save money.
Closing the nine Veterans Affairs Canada centres and laying off 89 case workers is part of the Conservative government's workplace adjustment. It is balancing the books on the backs of our veterans. However, it is a case of false economy.
There are nine district offices set for closure. The files from Corner Brook will most likely go to St. John's. It is an eight-hour drive from Corner Brook to St. John's. The Sydney files will more likely go to Halifax, a five- to six-hour drive. The files in the Charlottetown office will likely go to Campbellton or Halifax, a five- to seven-hour drive for both. The files in Thunder Bay will likely go to Winnipeg, which involves a nine- to ten-hour drive. The Windsor files will likely go to London, a 2.5-hour drive. Saskatoon files will likely go to Regina, a three-hour drive.
For Brandon, the files would probably go to Shilo, which is a 30- to 45-minute drive, or as we learned when the vets from Brandon were here, they were thinking that the files would probably go to Winnipeg, an hour-and-a-half to two-hour drive. For Prince George, the files are dealt with by Vancouver, or Penticton. That is a 10-hour drive to Vancouver and 8-hour drive to Penticton.
Government members will say there is a Service Canada office there. In that case, I would challenge any of them to phone Dennis Manuge, who took the government to court and won. He tells me he has to drive to Penticton. He is in Kelowna. The files would likely go to Penticton, an hour away.
Let us examine what service managers do versus Service Canada workers. Veterans Affairs workers receive specialized, ongoing training because Veterans Affairs services and programs, like the needs of the veterans, are vastly complex and always evolving. Service Canada workers have received limited training about Veterans Affairs services and programs and can only answer general questions, in addition to supplying and receiving forms. They would direct the veterans to go a phone and either dial the number for VAC centre, which is 1-866-522-2122, or use the computer. I did that and I have a screen capture of it here that says: “Service Canada--People serving people”. It shows contact information and gives that number, which is the Veterans Affairs number.
I am going to look at three of the offices the government is trying to close. Charlottetown has 2,135 veterans that it looks after. Sydney has 1,485 and Thunder Bay has 1,048. A lot of vets who are suffering from PTSD go to VAC centres.
I have a letter from Gordon Hockridge, which reads:
My dance with the devil.
I've come close to suicide a few times but never this close. The thought of my wife and kids have always aced my attempting suicide. But not this time. I ignited a firestorm last Saturday and it ended up with me sitting in front of my computer with a 45.70 in my hands. The mental pain was building all day Sunday, everything was out of control, I couldn't shake the pain.
This veteran tried to call the number at the VAC centre. It was Saturday and it was closed. A recording said that if this was an emergency, dial 911 or go to the closest hospital.
There was a challenge put out and the vets themselves came about and put in an emergency line. They have a number. It is 855-373-8387. It is manned 24/7. A vet in distress calling that number will reach another vet answering that call. He has been there. He has done that. He knows what PTSD is all about. He knows what the trigger points are and he can help. Gord was one of those people who called that number and he was helped.
Having caseworkers driving 10 hours is totally unacceptable.
Mr. Speaker, I know you are signalling me that I only have two minutes left. I could go on for hours, but I will end up with this. One veteran told me that he had paid four visits to two Service Canada centres and was told by the Service Canada staff that they could not help him. Should a veteran live in a community that does not have a Service Canada location, dialing the 1-800 number is even more frustrating. One veteran told me that he got so frustrated with pressing 1 or 2 that he put the phone down. It is extremely frustrating for someone who suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. They usually end up just hanging on. That is not the way to help our veterans.
Mr. Speaker, I seek the permission of the House to dial the Veterans Affairs number now on my cellphone, just to see what they say. It is after 4:30. Do I have permission?