Mr. Speaker, I rise to today to speak on behalf of the Liberal caucus, along with other colleagues, on this opposition motion put forward today by the hon. member for Châteauguay—Saint-Constant.
There is a crisis emerging in the support for injured soldiers and veterans alike. This is a crisis that has led to a number of tragedies and recent suicides. I want add my words of sympathy and compassion for the families and friends of those members and veterans.
However, like so many crises, this one did not appear overnight. Over a decade of engagement in Afghanistan has created an entire new generation of veterans as well as a generation of current serving members, some of whom are now suffering as a result of their service.
The men and women who enlist in the Canadian Forces to serve their country are called on to risk their lives and often go through traumatic events.
The government and the people of Canada are duty-bound to provide our soldiers, sailors and veterans with the best mental and physical health services, as well as access to government services that they can count on. The Conservative government has not been able to fulfill this solemn responsibility.
This is a debate I think we all wish was unnecessary. Unfortunately, the government, time and time again, has put its own economic and political self-interest ahead of the well-being of Canadian Armed Forces members and veterans alike, and sadly, the years of government neglect contribute to the tragic consequences of which we have spoken.
The hopelessness and despair that leads people to consider ending their lives is a hopelessness and despair that is added to when budgets are cut and services are worsened even when a crisis, and some of the steps that need to be taken to address that crisis, is identified.
Far from a complete solution to the complex issues facing our service men and women and our veterans, the motion represents a step forward, and that is why the Liberal Party will be supporting the motion.
The mental health crisis affecting both current Canadian service members and veterans did not arise overnight. Countless independent experts, armed forces medical officials, the National Defence and Veterans Affairs Ombudsmen, and even a parliamentary committee have sounded the alarm bells and offered solutions.
I would suggest that while the Conservatives have had a lot of words about how much they care for our men and women in uniform, but when it comes right down to the actions that have been identified that need to be taken, they have performed poorly. In fact, I would say that there have been eight wasted years. The Conservatives have simply chosen not to listen.
In 2009, the Standing Committee on National Defence issued a report that provided both an assessment of the government's CF mental health strategy and 36 concrete recommendations to address the issues and gaps they found. Recommendations included everything from prevention to early identification to addressing stigma to providing support to integrating resources and finding ways to make sure that medical professionals are hired and available. The committee recommended that the assessments continue over the course of years and that the military reservists be included.
Four and a half years later, this report gathers dust on a shelf in the minister's office. Many of the recommendations, I would say most of the recommendations, have not been implemented, and there has not been a single follow-up report from the government.
In 2012, the Canadian Forces Ombudsman recommended that the Canadian Forces evaluate its capacity to respond to the PTSD/OSI challenge and to address the “palpable and growing tension between commander and clinician...relative to OSI medical treatment and administrative support”. Yet the government seems to be caught by surprise, rushing forward to claim that now it will provide solutions while remarkably still ignoring the fundamental issues that created these problems in the first place.
There is not only a lack of resources, there is a lack of care and a lack of intention to make this a priority. More than just ignoring the issue, the Conservative government has actively made it more difficult to provide adequate care to Canadian Armed Forces service members and veterans alike.
The ombudsman made recommendations to enable “…more decisive leadership of the mental health system's capacity to meet the OSI imperative”, yet we found out that in 2010, there was a hiring freeze. Therefore, the efforts made by the Surgeon General and military medical personnel to fill the gaps in medical professional care have been consistently and routinely blocked by that hiring freeze, which the government and the minister responsible chose to do absolutely nothing about.
Of the 12 recommendations made by the ombudsman to improve the treatment of injured reservists, only 4 were judged to have been fully implemented in his follow-up. That is 4 out of 12. That is a failing grade.
Contrary to its claims of unprecedented support—and more than one photo op, I might add—the government has failed to reach even the benchmarks for mental health professionals set in 2003 under a previous Liberal government, to say nothing of the new levels now needed after over a decade of engagement in Afghanistan, including in some of the most dangerous terrain.
The Canadian Forces ombudsman's report in the fall of 2012 warned the government then that it had never reached the 2003 goal of 447 mental health workers. We knew what was needed to support injured armed forces members. We knew that back in 2003, and the level of support needed has only gone up. However, the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff, when questioned at the House of Commons committee on national defence, recently admitted that he is “very concerned about the capacity we have” to treat injured soldiers, given the government's Canadian Armed Forces budget cuts.
In September 2012, a national defence press release boasted about how funds earmarked for additional mental health workers were “identified personally by Minister MacKay”. At the time of the press release, 378 mental health professionals were employed. Remember, the goal set in 2003, before the primary operational period in Afghanistan, was 447. We had 378 of those positions filled, and now 18 months later, what has happened? The government has hired a measly 10 more. As of last month, 388 positions were filled. It is far short of what is needed, and the gap is costing lives.
The Conservative government may be earmarking the funds; it claims that it has the funds and that it has added funds, but it is making it impossible for the Department of National Defence to spend them. In their frustration, defence sources have gone to the media to share their frustration and alarm. According to a recent report in the Canadian press:
Even though the positions were identified and money earmarked, every potential hire—both contract and public service—has been subject to an increasing level of scrutiny....
Rather than being able to hire the staff they know they need, they are instead forced to justify every application in writing, put it up several chains in the department's bureaucracy and put it before a committee of assistant deputy ministers at national defence, by which time either most of those applications have been denied or the person being recruited had moved on to another position.
According to the ombudsman, Mr. Daigle, as of today there are currently 76 qualified professionals that could be hired immediately, but they have remained in the candidate pool because of a “cumbersome” and slow-moving hiring process. The government's own hiring freezes blocked the provision of necessary medical support positions. The support is not there. Over half of the military bases in Canada do not have a psychiatrist.
These shortages are not going unnoticed. They are affecting access and quality of care, but they are also affecting morale. When I talk about hopelessness and despair, imagine the plight of a serving forces member injured in Afghanistan who has to wait up to two years to get a medical diagnosis and before that medical diagnosis is made, that person cannot access the support and services that are needed. That is the situation that our men and women are facing.
While the government tells us one story with a lot of nice-sounding words about what it is doing, the service men and women I spoke to in Petawawa certainly told another story. There appears to be a gap between what their experience is and what is said by the government and higher ranks in the armed forces, and that is contributing to the sense of hopelessness and despair.
I will draw the House's attention to recommendation 2 in the standing committee's report that I referred to, which is entitled, “Pour de meilleurs soins: services de santé offerts au personnel des forces canadiennes, en particulier dans le cas des troubles de stress post-traumatique”.
Recommendation 2: The Department of National Defence should cause an independent audit to be conducted of military patient case management practices to determine the extent to which a gap exists between expressed Canadian Forces policy and the actual practices applied to the continuing treatment and care of injured Canadian Forces personnel. Once defined, appropriate measures should be taken, throughout the chain of command, to eliminate the gap and improve patient care.
Four years ago, it was already clear that there was a disconnect between what was being said and what was being experienced. The committee said, address that and take care of it in all levels of the chain of command. What has the government done on that level? It has done nothing.
This was echoed when I met with executives at the Alberta NWT Command Legion. They told me about mentally injured service members waiting months and months for diagnosis, without which they have no access to the operational stress injury clinics that would otherwise be available. I heard how the Legion itself was paying, from its scarce funds, rent for injured service members who were being discharged from the forces, and who were not receiving the retirement benefits due to them in a timely manner and unable to pay their rent. The Legion was providing support to fill the very gaps created by the government because of a lack of intention to correct the situation.
Retired General Rick Hillier, former Chief of the Defence Staff, neatly summed up the issue when he said:
I think that now this is beyond the medical issue. I think that many of our young men and women have lost confidence in our country to support them.
How sad is that statement? How sad are Canadians to know that there is that lack of support for the men and women in uniform who serve us so well? The government is balancing its budget on the backs of veterans and Canadian Armed Forces members. General Hillier is right: this is beyond a medical issue. This is a case of the government abandoning those who have served it.
When the Canadian Armed Forces cannot spend the money it is given, that money flows back into federal coffers as lapsed funds. In 2011 alone, the Department of National Defence gave back $1.5 billion of unspent funds to the federal treasury. There are announcements of funds, but those funds lapse and are given back. There are announcements of correcting problems, but those problems do not get corrected.
To date, up to $7 billion of funds have lapsed from the Department of National Defence. What kinds of supports could have been provided with those funds?
Why does the government say it is correcting these problems and filling these gaps and, meanwhile, not spend the funds available, but turn them back into general revenues, and not hire the medical professionals needed? This is not only with regard to mental health care or veterans' offices closing down.
I would ask how many dollars are being saved by closing down these nine offices that are so critical to injured veterans who depend on that kind of one-on-one care that they have been receiving. How much is being saved? What percentage is that of the $7 billion that have been allowed to lapse from the National Defence’s budget?
Clearly, aside from the commitment to the members of the armed forces and veterans for photo opportunities, there is no commitment by the government to provide these men and women who have served, and do serve, with the resources they need. As well as the lapse in funding, the government is now cutting funding outright, across the Canadian Armed Forces.
In shocking testimony in late 2012, before a Senate committee, Lieutenant-General Peter Devlin, the commander of the army, told the committee that the land forces operating budget had been shrunk by an eye-popping 22%, a figure that does not show up anywhere in publicly available defence documents.
Training has been hit particularly hard. According to Lieutenant-General Devlin, the training budgets for the formation are probably 45% plus lower than they have been. By 2014–15, the army will have only 75% of the budget it had three years prior. Between the strategic review and the deficit reduction action plan, the Canadian Armed Forces is dealing with $2.7 billion less than planned,and less than promised, because this is a government that made a huge show of its defence strategy. It calls it the Canada first defence strategy. I call it the Conservatives failed defence strategy.
The fundamental underpinning of the strategy was stable and increased funding for 20 years. However, that has simply not happened. By 2010, the budget freezes meant that statutory salary increases were coming out of the department's own budget and forcing them to shrink spending on other things. Since then, there have been billions in budget cuts. This is a Conservative failed defence strategy that impacts the men and women in uniform and our veterans every day.
These cuts have specific consequences. The Veterans Transition Network, founded by Dr. Marvin Westwood and Dr. David Kuhl of UBC in my riding of Vancouver Quadra, has been providing valuable support to returning service members since 1999. To date, the Department of National Defence has yet to fund a single participant. Of the countless veterans who could benefit from this program, Veterans Affairs has funded participation for a mere eight. It then used this program to celebrate the government's branding and to claim credit, but in fact, eight people have been funded; not eight events, not eight workshops, but eight veterans.
In testimony before the National Defence committee, the executive director said:
They're talking about supporting our program in principle, and I'm sure, with budget cuts as they are, that everyone is starting to ask where the money is going to come from.
That is one more example of the government's inability to follow through.
Even the most basic services, such as offices for veterans to interact with and housing for military families who support those who serve, have fallen victim to Conservative cuts.
The Conservatives are cutting 781 employees from Veterans Affairs workforce by 2014–15, some 22%, as well as closing the nine veterans service centres. How is that going to improve services to veterans? Of course it is not. It is going to make things worse. Instead of supporting veterans, the government has decided to nickel-and-dime their pensions. It is more willing to spend scarce resources on lawyers defending the government when veterans have to go to court to get served than it is to spend it on the veterans. It does not take much to figure out where its priorities are: in its own interest and not in the interests of veterans and the men and women in uniform.
I want to conclude with this. The issue of supporting our armed forces members and our veterans is not a Liberal, Conservative, or NDP issue.
It is a human issue. It is a Canadian issue. It is an issue of right and wrong. It is an issue of will, intention, and action, not words. The men and women in uniform stand up for Canada every day. Why is the government not standing up for them?
The government appears willing to spend time, money, and political capital on commemorating battles of yesterday. We want the government to spend that time, money, political capital, and will on supporting our armed forces members and our veterans with the resources they need and deserve today.