Mr. Speaker, I move that the third report of the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs, presented on Tuesday, June 3, 2014, be concurred in.
This being Veterans' Week, I am very pleased to be the first to speak to this debate and to take the time to honour the memory of all of our Canadian veterans who made sacrifices to keep us safe and protect our values and our ideals.
This year, Remembrance Day will be especially significant for Canadians. The shocking events that took place just two weeks ago remind us of what our soldiers are ready to do, what our veterans are prepared to sacrifice to protect us. This year, Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and Corporal Nathan Cirillo and their families will be in the thoughts of all Canadians.
Following those incidents, veterans across Canada decided to guard their local memorials. With great pride, they once again answered the call to protect these sacred memorials. I would like to thank them all. Canadians are extremely proud of them.
I was also amazed by Canadians' great generosity following these incidents. In just one week, the Stand on Guard fund for the Cirillo and Vincent families raised over $700,000 to help these families. I would like to thank all of the generous Canadians who gave to help these families overcome these utterly inexplicable tragedies.
Lastly, I would like to congratulate my colleague from Scarborough Southwest on the bill he introduced this week to make Remembrance Day a statutory holiday for all Canadians as of next year. I would also like to thank all of my House colleagues, who almost unanimously supported this bill. We will never forget.
We are here this morning to concur in the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs' report on the new charter. On June 3 of this year, the committee presented its unanimous report on enhancing the new veterans charter. The committee held 14 meetings and heard from 54 witnesses. Naturally, the witnesses included many groups of veterans' representatives, veterans' health care research experts, and compensation experts. We heard from experts in all veterans-related sectors so that we could carry out a comprehensive study of ways to improve the new veterans charter.
From the beginning of the study, all the witnesses and veterans' groups testified to the urgency of the situation and the importance of improving the new veterans charter as soon as possible. Many also sent a clear message that the problems with the new veterans charter were known and had been identified much earlier in many reports and that the minister already had plenty of reports to support acting quickly to improve the charter.
Financial support, including the lump sum payment, the earnings loss benefit and the permanent impairment allowance; fairness for reservists; family, transition and employability were all among the most recurring themes raised by the witnesses during the study.
Of course the committee members really wanted to come up with a unanimous report because they did not want any ambiguity and they wanted to be able to act quickly to address the most critical and most obvious shortcomings in the new charter.
We therefore concentrated our efforts on the main priorities to show the government and the minister that certain points in the new charter had to be addressed immediately. Veterans have been waiting for these improvements to the new charter for eight years—eight years during which they have submitted various reports to our committee or the Senate committee and the ombudsman has also submitted reports.
Over the past eight years, since no changes were taking place and veterans' groups were increasingly dissatisfied, many tried launching class action suits. They felt the only way to get justice was to sue the government. Of course the government had every opportunity to improve the quality of life of our veterans, but it chose to make them wait.
The minister wants to wait. He says he supports the report, but the changes will have to wait because he needs more time. It is totally ridiculous. As I said, the witnesses were practically unanimous. The minister has all the information he needs to act quickly, but more than six months after the report was tabled, we are still waiting for the minister to do his part, make the changes to this new charter and improve veterans' quality of life.
We are extremely disappointed that the minister is saying that he needs more time. The report was unanimous. I had hoped that the minister and the government would listen to reason and act quickly.
The government has decided to adopt a two-phase approach.
First, the minister will study the non-budgetary recommendations and those that might be covered by Veterans Affairs' current budget. If the minister thinks we can improve the charter and the quality of life of our veterans without significant additional funding, then he is sadly mistaken. Veterans should not have to pay the price for the Conservatives' political choices and suffer because of the government's austerity measures. They made sacrifices for their country and deserve to get proper compensation befitting those sacrifices.
As far as the second phase is concerned, the fact that the government has not provided any timeframe worries me greatly. The way things are going, veterans might have to wait until 2016 to get tangible results when it comes to the lump sum payment or the earnings loss benefit.
If the government does not introduce financial improvements until the next budget, the election may very well be called shortly afterward and the budget bill could die on the order paper, which means we would have to wait for another bill along with the studies that go with it. Veterans might still have to wait for years. This is totally unacceptable. We need a bill right away. We must improve the quality of life of our veterans now—we needed to yesterday—not tomorrow, not in the next budget, which could die on the order paper given that the election will be held in October. We need the minister to act on this immediately.
I am not the only one to say this. In fact, the Royal Canadian Legion made largely the same comments in a press release.
Here are some excerpts from a press release issued shortly after the minister's response was tabled:
The Royal Canadian Legion is disappointed with the current government’s lack of progress...
...it is the belief of the Legion that the government has had more than enough time, and certainly enough input from subject experts, to be able to take solid action on improving the [New Veterans Charter]...
The lives of these Veterans and their families’ cannot become an election or budget issue.
Like other veterans' groups, the Legion is also asking the minister to take immediate action and allocate the legislative and financial resources to ensure the well-being of our veterans and their families. They just cannot wait any longer.
The Veterans Ombudsman issued this statement:
...I am concerned with the timetable of the phased approach...
Budget for these four substantive recommendations must be included in the Government’s 2015 budget or change will not happen for several more years.
The Legion and the ombudsman agree with us. They are also worried about the possibility that the key measures will die on the order paper. Our veterans cannot wait any longer. It is imperative that we take action right now. I cannot say it enough: the situation is urgent.
The minister had everything he needed to take action last month and the month before that, but we are still waiting for proposals to improve the new charter. That is completely unacceptable.
I will now talk about the main problems with the charter and about how the Conservatives and the minister have failed to take action on certain issues. These needs are urgent and I will explain why.
The committee studied the government's obligations and duties towards veterans. The veterans' group Equitas Society filed a class action lawsuit against the government, since it felt that the new charter was completely unfair and that it violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Over the course of this lawsuit, the government's counsel argued that the Canadian government had no sacred duty towards veterans and that there was no difference between veterans and other Canadians.
Most veterans' groups were quite rightly outraged by the counsel's statement. What is most shocking is that after these veterans' groups said they were outraged by the comments, the minister chose not to call in his counsel and instruct him not to make such comments, since that sacred duty has existed for more than 100 years.
No government before this one has dared question the sacred duty of all Canadians to take care of veterans wounded because of the nature of their duties.
The committee therefore decided to add a few amendments to the preamble of the Pension Act. The government responded that it would introduce a bill to amend the charter by incorporating this recognition of the government's duty to our veterans. However, it took months for the minister and the government to recognize this duty.
I am very pleased that the government is finally coming to its senses and acknowledging the existence of this sacred duty and of the pact between the government, Canadian citizens and our veterans.
Furthermore, the lump sum payment is another problem raised by most of the witnesses. Right now, the maximum lump sum payment to compensate for service-related disabilities is $300,000. If we compare that to the compensation provided by civil courts, the Commission de la santé et de la sécurité du travail, for example, offers maximum compensation of $350,000. That is a difference of $50,000.
Can we compare the injuries of a civilian employee with the injuries of a soldier? Obviously, they work in very different work environments. Directly comparing these two different kinds of compensation does not take into account the fact that soldiers face immeasurable risks to their safety and their lives. When soldiers are ordered to do something that puts their lives or their safety at risk, they cannot refuse. However, when employers ask civilian employees to do anything at all, they have the right to refuse if they feel that it puts their safety at risk. That is one of the key differences between military and civilian employees, so the two cannot really be compared.
The allowances disadvantage soldiers, and yet they cannot refuse an order even if it puts their life in danger. They deserve to be generously compensated, just like civilian workers. I think most Canadians would agree.
When the minister said that a veteran can get nearly $800,000, or something like that, there was a catch. He mentioned that a few months ago. I want to try to explain this a little. When the minister said that, he was adding up all the veterans' allowances and the benefits under the service income security insurance plan, which is something that soldiers pay into from their salary. Military personnel pay for their own insurance, while the government sends them into danger and they have no right to refuse. The minister should therefore stop considering this insurance as some form of benefit for veterans and active military personnel.
There is also another problem with how the amount paid out is determined. The amount is paid based on the table of disabilities. Sum X is paid depending on the type and degree of disability. Getting the maximum amount would require a total and permanent disability. A number of injustices were brought to our attention.
I am thinking about a veteran named Bruce Moncur, who is a striking example. He got a serious head injury and underwent several surgeries to save his life. He lost 5% of his brain in the process. Then he had to courageously face the side effects and the necessary rehabilitation.
After those surgeries to deal with the injury, he was awarded $22,000 in compensation from the government. That is right. This veteran received $22,000 for a major brain injury that greatly affected his quality of life. Obviously, that is nowhere near enough. This veteran, in his early thirties, will have to live the rest of his life with the scars and with unreasonably low compensation.
The government cannot continue to award lump-sum payments that do not adequately represent the degree of disability, as in the case I just mentioned. Veterans have to be awarded an amount that demonstrates the appreciation Canada has for those who have sacrificed their physical and psychological well-being, especially in light of a deployment to Iraq. The government needs to resolve these issues quickly, so that our soldiers serving overseas can have peace of mind knowing that they will be adequately compensated. Should they get seriously injured, they should not have to be concerned about their financial security afterwards, as is the case for far too many veterans.
One of the other priorities presented to the committee was the amount for the earnings loss benefit. It is set at 75% of the soldier's gross income. In comparison, injured federal public servants receive 85% of their net income as compensation, as stipulated in the Government Employees Compensation Act.
I could go on for much longer. I will quickly conclude my remarks. As I mentioned, the earnings loss benefit was one of the key elements. An amount equivalent to 85% was proposed, the same amount paid to federal public servants. Our veterans and military personnel deserve the same compensation as other government employees. That is not the case, as they receive 10% less. We must quickly fix this.
Another problem brought to the attention of the committee concerns everything surrounding the earnings loss benefit. The ombudsman pointed out that 48% of veterans with a total and permanent incapacity are not receiving the benefit or the supplement, while those eligible for the benefit qualify for the minimum amount.
Therefore, nearly half of all veterans are not eligible for the earnings loss benefit. The few veterans who do qualify—less than half—fall in the third category, which pays the least. We definitely have to address this problem.
A huge number of problems were raised in committee. I will conclude by saying that the minister has known about these problems for a long time. He must act quickly and introduce in the House substantial improvements to the new veterans charter that will address all the problems raised by this committee.