That, in the opinion of the House, the government should examine all possible options to ensure a fully unified “continuum of care” approach is in place to serve Canada's men and women in uniform and veterans, so as to: (a) eliminate all unnecessary bureaucratic processes, both within and between departments, related to service delivery; (b) eliminate duplication and overlap in the delivery of available services and supports; (c) further improve care and support, particularly for seriously injured veterans; (d) provide continuous support for veterans' families during and after service; and (e) strengthen the connections between the Canadian Armed Forces, the Department of National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada.
Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to rise today to kick off debate on private member's Motion No. 532.
This motion will address issues of importance in the effective delivery of services to Canada's veterans. The measures proposed in Motion No. 532 are complementary to the 14 substantial recommendations deemed most important by the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs, which were tabled in June in a report entitled “The New Veterans Charter: Moving Forward”.
That report was unanimous, a rare event here in Parliament. Everyone on all sides worked very hard to make it so, and everyone was prepared to put a little water in their wine to move the yardsticks ahead in a substantial way for our veterans.
I will address what Motion No. 532 says, describe how it relates to the committee report, and discuss the government response and the way ahead.
Serving our veterans has been a stated objective of every government of Canada, and our government is no exception. This objective has always been, and will always be, a work in progress. No matter what any government does, there will always be more that we would like to do and there will always be those who will find fault. That is because everyone loves veterans for what they have done and for who they are, and that is the way it should be.
Canada's development as an independent country with a unique identity stems in no small measure from its achievements in times of war and in other less dangerous but nonetheless important missions. The Department of Veterans Affairs exists to repay the nation's debt of gratitude toward those whose courageous efforts have given us this legacy and have contributed to our growth as a nation.
VAC's mandate stems from laws and regulations. The Minister of Veterans Affairs is charged with, inter alia, the following responsibilities:
...the care, treatment or re-establishment in civil life of any person who served in the Canadian Forces or merchant navy or the naval, army or air forces or merchant navies of Her Majesty, of any person who has otherwise engaged in pursuits relating to war, and of any other person designated
...the care of dependants or survivors of any person referred to...
The department meets its responsibilities through its various programs. These include programs for disability pensions, veterans allowances, pension advocacy, health care, and commemoration.
They provide compensation for hardships arising from disabilities and lost economic opportunities, innovative health and social services, professional legal assistance, and recognition of the achievements and sacrifices of Canadians during periods of war and conflict.
The mission of Veterans Affairs Canada is to provide exemplary client-centred services and benefits that honour the sacrifice and achievements of our veterans and clients and that respond to the needs of veterans, other clients, and their families.
I want to go back to what is a key phrase in the quote of the minister's responsibilities, and that is “re-establishment in civil life”.
This is the key concept in the overall philosophy of service to veterans by the department. The aim of veterans' programs is not lifelong financial dependence, unless that is the only option; the aim of the programs is to give veterans every support possible to help those who cannot or do not wish to continue to serve in the military the tools they need to succeed in carving out a good future on their own terms.
Motion No. 532 proposes five things. It says that in the opinion of the House, the government should examine all possible options to ensure a fully unified “continuum of care” approach is in place to serve Canada's men and women in uniform and veterans, so as to do five things: first, eliminate all unnecessary bureaucratic processes, both within and between departments, related to service delivery; second, eliminate duplication and overlap in the delivery of available services and supports; third, further improve care and support, particularly for seriously injured veterans; fourth, provide continuous support for veterans' families during and after service; and fifth, strengthen the connections between the Canadian Armed Forces, the Department of National Defence, and Veterans Affairs Canada.
The veterans affairs committee identified three core themes in its recent study. First was the care and support of the most seriously disabled, the second was support for families, and the and third was improving how Veterans Affairs Canada delivers the programs, services, and benefits under the new veterans charter.
Committee members unanimously agreed that the principles of the new veterans charter should be upheld and that these principles foster an approach that is well suited to today's veterans. This does not mean that improvements cannot be made; however, the legitimate criticisms of various aspects of the new veterans charter should not overshadow the fact that it is a solid foundation upon which to help veterans transition to civilian life when a service-related medical condition prevents them from continuing their military career.
While implementing the recommendations in this report would not solve everything, the committee believes that the recommendations represent a major step forward and express more fully Canadians' solemn commitment to veterans and their families.
The committee also hopes that this report will help to foster an improved relationship of trust that must exist among veterans, Canadians, the parliamentarians representing them, and the Government of Canada that must earn their confidence.
The story we heard over and over again at committee was that in too many cases when someone left the Canadian Armed Forces, he or she spent time in a no man's land before getting connected to the services of Veterans Affairs. This gap led to many difficulties of financial, physical, and psychological natures and made it much harder to transition to a stable and productive civilian life.
Private member's Motion No. 532 addresses some of those challenges directly and is in lockstep with the first recommendation of the committee report, which, in abbreviated form, says that military members seriously disabled as a result of service will not be medically released until the individual is in a stable medical condition, medical records have been given to the individual and transferred to Veterans Affairs Canada, applications for services and benefits have been adjudicated, the file has been assigned to a case manager who has already established contact, and supporting health care and rehabilitation professionals have been identified and their responsibilities defined in the area where the veteran is planning to live.
Recommendation 1 also states that an internal committee should be struck by Veterans Affairs Canada and the Canadian Armed Forces to develop an interchangeable and unified list of service conditions to ensure that the service-related condition identified by the Canadian Armed Forces that led to the veteran’s medical release will be recognized by Veterans Affairs Canada for adjudication purposes and that a follow-up protocol should be established for all military members who have been released for medical reasons.
I think members can see how this blends nicely with private member's Motion No. 532 in a continuum of service that this act would provide.
Overall, the philosophy of the report and of private member's Motion No. 532 is to ensure that the provisions of the various acts and the veterans bill of rights shall be liberally construed and interpreted to the end that the recognized solemn 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.
There are many other substantial recommendations in the report, and I will abbreviate them.
One is that the most seriously disabled veterans receive financial benefits for life, of which an appropriate portion should be transferable to their spouse in the event of death.
Another is that the earnings loss benefit be non-taxable and set at 85% of net income, up to a net income threshold of $70,000, and that it be adjusted annually to the consumer price index.
Another recommendation is that all veterans with service-related disabilities, and their families, be entitled to the same benefits and support whether they are regular force or reserve.
Another is that military family resource centres be available to veterans and their families to provide additional support in their transition to civilian life.
Another is that access to psychosocial and vocational rehabilitation services be given to spouses or common-law partners, that access to psychological counselling be also given to parents and children of veterans, and that financial support be provided to family members of seriously disabled veterans acting as primary caregivers.
Another recommendation is that VAC undertake a comprehensive review of the amount of the disability award to more adequately reflect awards in civil liability cases for personal injuries, and improve support for financial counselling throughout the process.
Another is that the Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Canada together, as quickly as possible, eliminate overlap between the service income security insurance plan, or SISIP, programs and those provided by Veterans Affairs Canada.
A further recommendation is that eligible vocational rehabilitation training programs be allowed greater flexibility.
Another is that VAC establish a more rigorous case manager training program, review the case manager-to-veteran ratio, and provide necessary resources for its adjustment.
Another is that VAC and DND build on existing collaborative efforts to provide adequate resources for research and understanding of known and emerging manifestations of operational stress injuries.
Another is that VAC consider moving towards a payment system with one comprehensive and clear monthly payment, while ensuring the net benefit to the veteran is not reduced.
Another is that VAC and DND table their official response within 120 days and also table a report outlining the progress made on implementing the recommendations by January 30, 2015.
The first milestone has been met, and I know that there is some very concentrated and intense effort going toward meeting the second milestone in a manner that will give veterans confidence that the government has listened and is acting, because we have and we are.
Contrary to some misleading and outright false comments by some hon. members and some people with axes that they just will not stop grinding, the government has not rejected any of the recommendations of the report. It is, in fact, quite the contrary. Building on these enhancements to the new veterans charter, the government is pleased to indicate that it agrees with the spirit and intent of the vast majority of the committee's recommendations. Many of these recommendations involve potentially complex changes to some veterans programming, and the implications of any potential changes must, therefore, be carefully assessed. Any government would have to do the same thing.
Therefore, the government plans to address the recommendations made in the report using a phased approach, and private member's Motion No. 532 will be helpful in guiding that process.
The first stage is to address those recommendations that can be quickly achieved within existing authorities and budgets of Veterans Affairs Canada and the Department of National Defence, and which will improve the continuum of service provided to veterans and their families when they leave the Canadian Armed Forces.
The more complex recommendations require further interdepartmental work, budgetary analysis, and coordination with a wide range of federal departments, as well as with the Veterans Ombudsman and veterans' groups. These recommendations will be considered in a second phase.
This is the only approach that makes common sense. There is no magic wand that any government could wave to bypass legislated requirements for ensuring that processes with taxpayers' money are followed. It just does not happen that way. Anyone with any grasp of the complexities of the financial and regulatory realities of government will understand that this is true.
I know and understand why people want everything fixed instantly, but that is just not realistically or practically possible. What we need is steady and measurable progress to achieve our objectives, and that is what we will see. I know that people want to play politics in this place and that's what this place is all about, but surely this is one area where we can all come together to make a great many of the changes for which people have been advocating.
There are many people and organizations dedicated to improving how we look after our veterans. I am one of those people and our government is one of those organizations. Everyone across the floor is that kind of person as well.
We are joined by members of the opposition parties and many stakeholder organizations such as the Royal Canadian Legion, ANAVETS, True Patriot Love, Veterans Transition Network, Wounded Warriors, military unit foundations and many more. By working together to pursue progress, we will succeed at what I have already said will probably always be a work-in-progress. There will always be new circumstances and new challenges as Canada continues to play an important role in world affairs. That is no more apparent than in what is happening in the Middle East, in Iraq and Syria, and so on.
We should not let anyone's image of the perfect be the enemy of the very good.
I proudly served in a regular force uniform for over 30 years and in an honorary capacity for another five years. I am one of the almost 700,000 veterans in Canada, but I am not one of the approximately 200,000 clients of Veterans Affairs Canada because I currently have no issues that require assistance. At some point, I probably will have need of some service or benefit, and I have every confidence that I will be supported by the people whom I know are dedicated to providing the best service possible.
I would like to go further than Motion No. 532 in terms of the integration of Veterans Affairs Canada and the Canadian Armed Forces and Department of National Defence. I would personally like to see an in-depth study of the possibility of merging the departments under one roof. I can understand why that may be a bridge too far for some right now, but I think that this could be an area for further study in a future Parliament.
Until that time, I firmly believe that private member's Motion No. 532 is a substantial step in the right direction in conjunction with other measures I have described, and I urge all honourable members to lend it their support.