Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to speak to this motion today, because Canadian veterans are our heroes, and they should be treated with the utmost respect and provided with all the support we can possible give.
Conservatives continuously remind us to support our troops—we hear it all the time—but fail to understand that support must continue once those Canadian Forces are no longer active and they become veterans. We owe them that much. We were, and are, a country engaged in modern-day conflicts in places like Somalia, Bosnia, Lebanon, Cyprus, East Timor, Afghanistan, and now Iraq.
Our troops have answered the call to assist communities jeopardized by floods, earthquakes, ice storms, forest fires, hurricanes, and tornadoes domestically and around the world. However, Veterans Affairs Canada has not adapted to the very real needs of the veterans of the modern day. This government has failed to support the obligations we owe veterans who served in the great wars, in Korea, and on peacekeeping missions.
In fact, because of the shortsightedness of the Conservative government, our relationship with our veterans has been damaged and diminished rather than enhanced. Older veterans were told to learn to use the Internet, for example, for continued service when local VAC offices faced service reductions and closures.
The Conservatives have cut—and this has been said a number of times—more than 900 jobs from Veterans Affairs since 2009. That is 23% of the workforce.
Compensation for funerals under the Last Post Fund has not kept up with the actual costs, leaving cash-strapped veterans and their families to pay the difference. Veterans requiring long-term care beds have been shuffled off to provincial jurisdictions because they have had the misfortune of outliving their life expectancy.
The ministry refuses to extend our obligation as a courtesy to them beyond the contracted dates. These are veterans with special needs who need special care as a result of their service to our country.
New Democrats have long advocated for the continuation of the veterans long term care program. The rates of homelessness and suicide among our veteran population are horrifying, but testimony to that fact and effects of post-traumatic stress are not being seriously addressed. Families are left without the supports they need to deal with younger veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress, and injured veterans with obvious disabilities as a result of their service must suffer the delay and humiliation of proving to the department over and over again that they have been disabled, in order that they continue to receive support.
The current government's Bill C-58, as proposed, is a good start, but many veterans feel it just doesn't go far enough in enhancing programs and services for all veterans and their families under the new charter. New Democrats agree with these veterans and their families. That is part of why we have chosen to dedicate this opposition day to point out that financial compensation and support services to past and active members of the Canadian Armed Forces who have been injured, disabled, or died as a result of military service, and to their dependents, must improve. We have a moral, social, and legal as well as fiduciary obligation to do that.
Dr. Pierre Morisset, a retired major general and the chair of the Scientific Advisory Committee for Veterans' Health, was a witness before the veterans affairs committee last year, and he said, “When a soldier leaves the forces and is officially known as a veteran, then he's treated in the civilian health sector”. Dr. Morisset went on to say that the civilian health care system is “not necessarily tuned to the reality of what kind of life the soldier may have had”.
Similarly, Dr. Ruth Stewart of Athabasca University argued that:
The Canadian Forces represent a distinct culture, containing distinct subcultures. They possess unique languages, norms, and customs, and are socially stratified to a degree completely foreign to most north American civilians.
Once a soldier leaves the military, he or she is left to the care of civilian doctors who will do their best, but they do not have the expertise to deal with the specific issues veterans face. Veterans are our national heroes and, as such, they are a federal responsibility and should be looked after by the federal government. They are not, as the government believes, a problem to be dismissed, undervalued, or offloaded to the provinces.
This Parliament's veterans affairs committee identified three core themes for the study resulting in the new veterans charter: care and support of the most seriously disabled, support for families, and improving how Veterans Affairs Canada delivers the programs, services, and benefits of the new charter.
The Conservatives' Bill C-58 would only partly address some of the 14 recommendations contained in that unanimous report. It would, for instance, only provide assistance to help 100 of the most seriously injured.
The NDP believes that we have the obligation, and capability, to help all veterans and their families.
New Democrats will push for the retirement income security benefits to be increased from 70%, as outlined in the bill, to 100% of what the veterans received in VAC financial benefits before age 65, to ensure that veterans have financial stability.
The critical injury benefit proposed under Bill C-58 would provide a $70,000 tax-free award to support the most severely injured and ill Canadian Forces members and veterans. However, under the proposed criteria for qualification, only two or three people per year would qualify. This is simply not good enough for our veterans. They have given their lives and their careers for this country.
We have also heard from veterans who are disappointed in the government for not addressing the disparities and unfairness related to lump-sum disability payments, as compared with civilian court awards for pain and suffering.
Scott Maxwell, executive director of Wounded Warriors Canada, said the new benefits under Bill C-58 would go to just 1% of all severely disabled vets and Sean Bruyea, veteran advocate, has expressed similar concerns.
Injured and disabled vets should not have to fight their own government in court for the compensation and care they deserve, but sadly, this has become all too common under the current government.
If the Conservatives are serious about improving the care of our veterans, they should stop fighting those veterans in court and recognize our historic covenant.
Today, New Democrats are calling upon the government to restore our country's relationship with the veterans to one that is based upon respect rather than neglect.
Instead of including provisions to assist veterans in an omnibus budget bill—a cynical attempt to force opposition parties that support the measures for veterans to vote against them—the Conservatives should recognize the historic covenant that we share with veterans and honour it with decisive action.
I would like to speak, now, about the proud history of military service in London, Ontario.
I cherish the relationship I have been able to foster with the veterans in my community who have served us so well over the years. Their participation in our community enriches all of us. They support hospitals, young athletes, the homeless, the wounded, and the forgotten. I feel very privileged to stand with our veterans in the community.
Perhaps members have heard of the proposed demolition of many buildings at Wolseley Barracks, including the historic officers' mess. Bob Marshall, president of the Duchess of Kent Legion, would like to see the officers' mess repurposed as the Legion's new home, rather than demolition.
This is a reasonable proposal, a win for the Legion, a win for Wolseley Barracks, and a win for the community. I am fully behind it. I hope that the Minister of Defence has had time to consider this proposal adequately and that he will support it.
I would also like to remind the House that, when in opposition, the Conservatives promised they would make significant veteran reforms. Sadly, after nearly a decade in office, they have done little to address the gaping holes in the services offered Canadian veterans and their families. In fact, they have gone so far as to challenge the existence of our sacred covenant with those veterans.
The Conservatives have forgotten our veterans and the contribution of modern-day Canadian Forces veterans and RCMP who served in peacekeeping around the world. That is absolutely unacceptable. Canadians are passionate and proud in our gratitude for our veterans.
During Remembrance Week and beyond, Canadians choose to honour the men and women who gave us a strong and free country. It is long past time for our federal government to likewise honour all veterans, both past and present, by serving their needs.
Monuments and parades are lovely, but they are cold comfort to the veterans and families who are suffering neglect.
It is time to mean what we say when we repeat the promise to remember. It must be accompanied by real action. That is what New Democrats are promising and proposing today with this motion
The NDP is the only party with a comprehensive veterans policy that we intend to implement when we become the government of this great country.
I am proud to support today's motion. I hope everyone in this House will do so also.