Mr. Speaker, this is an excellent time to have this debate on this very topical member's motion.
In response to my hon. colleague from St. John's South—Mount Pearl, we have already said we are supporting the motion, so let us put that aside.
I would like to take a little bit of time to be as factual as I can and as non-partisan as I can and lay out on the table what is actually happening in the Veterans Affairs world.
I am a veteran. I have had the pleasure of serving in the Canadian Armed Forces alongside some of Canada's finest. The hon. Minister of Veterans Affairs is also a veteran. That is one of the many reasons his understanding and depth of knowledge in these matters is second to none. He understands the challenges of the military lifestyle and he knows first-hand how positive these changes at Veterans Affairs Canada will be for our men and women in uniform. I am glad to see more veterans being elected to this House, and hopefully more will be elected in October.
Veterans will get the services they need, and they will get them when they need them. The minister has clearly communicated with Canadians that how we serve and care for our veterans is a priority for this government and that veterans and their families will continue to get the support they need and deserve.
Our government has always supported veterans, and in doing so, we often see veterans join our team. One of these fine veterans is a man named Tim Laidler, who is now a candidate for us in British Columbia. We look forward to having him on the team.
Historically, the support from the government for veterans is based upon the Pension Act, which was first introduced in 1919 as assistance for soldiers returning from a war that is now a century old. As time evolved, different conflicts arose and our armed forces faced new challenges.
We cannot forecast all these things. In 1938, did we understand that we would have hundreds of thousand of World War II veterans? In 1949, did we understand that we would have thousands of Korean War veterans? In 2000, did we understand that we would have thousands of Afghan veterans? Tomorrow, or ten years down the road, will we be saying the same thing about some other conflict?
Veterans needs change, and we have to adapt with that. It is our responsibility to adapt and apply new laws and legislation that better address the needs of today's veterans while not forgetting the needs of our traditional veterans. There are almost 60,000 Second World War veterans still with us.
The Liberals' new veterans charter was designed from 1999 to 2005, culminating with its introduction and passage in Parliament in a single day. It has been said that the new veterans charter represented a new social contract with Canadian veterans.
We are all aware that the new veterans charter required some practical tuning. The government has taken on those challenges. Arguably, it could have been done faster. As with all governments, that is an easy charge to make, and frankly, I wish we could have done things faster.
The fundamental concept behind the new veterans charter is based on the wellness and rehabilitation of our injured veterans and ultimately their transition back to civilian life. It is not intended to provide lifelong financial dependence unless that is the only option. It is all about getting the veterans and their families rehabilitated and back to a life of their own choice and under their own control.
It works alongside other benefits and programs from the Government of Canada, such as the service income security insurance plan, and ensures that military personnel who are seriously injured while on duty will see an increase in overall compensation the moment they leave the forces.
Our government has applied many changes that work to benefit veterans and their families, such as adding new monthly benefits so that veterans are not just receiving a single payment if they are seriously injured. We have also changed the single payment or lump sum so that veterans can break it out into smaller payments spread out in any way they like.
We also realize that the system is far too complex, like any system that has evolved over many decades. There was one payment for this situation and another for that. There were these forms and those forms. It does get very complicated. We are trying very hard to simplify that and cut through the red tape.
Qualifying veterans now have access to five different monthly payments in addition to the lump sum. It was said that a lump sum would kick them to the curb; that could not be further from the truth. Those who are seriously injured and need the help will get it in the form of the earnings lost benefit while they are in rehabilitation. They will get it, and that goes till age 65. That has now been added to by the retirement income security benefit, which now extends that benefit for life. We might call that a pension.
They are also compensated monthly with the permanent impairment allowance, and for those more seriously injured, the permanent impairment allowance supplement. Those go for life. We might call those a pension.
Also, for the worst off, there is the Canadian Forces income support, and I have already mentioned that we are adding the retirement income security benefit.
Over the coming months we will be examining options for consolidating all veterans' benefits so we can provide those veterans who need it the most with a single monthly payment. They would get all those things I just talked about but instead of five payments showing up in their bank account, they would get one. They will still get a breakout as to where it comes from, but this simplifies the process and cuts down the red tape and confusion.
We have vastly increased post-secondary training, allowing veterans to benefit from two distinct retraining programs, one with DND, another with Veterans Affairs, as they transition from the Canadian Armed Forces. One of these benefits from Veterans Affairs Canada is a retraining allowance of $75,800 to do post-secondary training. We have loosened up all the restrictions on that. It is extremely flexible, even to the point where if the veteran cannot use it, the veteran's spouse can. Therefore, the family unit can make progress and get back to a life under its control.
We have also worked with and listened to many of the veteran stakeholder groups, the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs and the Veterans Ombudsman. The Veterans Ombudsman and the Canadian Forces Ombudsman are now working hand and glove on all matters.
At the veterans affairs committee, we sat through dozens of meetings and met dozens of witnesses. Certain items were identified that needed fixing. Between the measures already taken as a result of the recommendations, every one of which was acted on, contrary to some things members might hear, and the introduction of Bill C-58, which is now a key component of our budget implementation bill, our government has addressed each and every one of those items and each and every one of the recommendations in that report, specifically compensation after age 65 for our most seriously injured veterans. I mentioned that the earnings loss benefit and rehabilitation goes to age 65. That was the cut off. We have now extended it under the retirement income security benefit for life. Add to that the permanent impairment allowance and the permanent impairment allowance supplement for life. Together, those are pretty nice pensions.
We have addressed the disparity in benefits between reserve and regular force veterans. If a reservist goes to Afghanistan and gets a leg blown off, it does not just affect the reservist's career if he or she stays in the reserves, it would obviously affect his or her life career, whatever that happens to be. Therefore, it only made sense that those two soldiers be treated equally. That is now the case.
We have addressed the problem that there were too few supports for family members of our seriously injured veterans. We have extended more of those benefits to them because when soldiers suffer, and I use the word “soldier” as a generic term, meaning army, navy or air force, for whatever reason, the families suffer, so we have to address the family unit because that is what needs to be fixed.
We have introduced post-65 support for survivors and widows of veterans who had died either in service or from a service-related injury. That is an important change. I know a number of the widows of the Afghanistan soldiers who died who are very pleased with that.
We have created compensation for veterans who are seriously injured but who may also completely recover after years of hospital rehabilitation treatment. At the end of the day, they may not need a big lump sum but they certainly need something to compensate for the pain and suffering while they are going through that treatment process, whether they are recovering from surgery or whatever it might be. Therefore, we introduced the new critical injury benefit, which is a tax-free amount of $70,000 and is immediate and upfront.
We have introduced important new supports for the families of Canadian veterans. We understand that those who stand beside our veterans play a key role in helping them successfully transition to civilian life. If the family member is not in good condition to help the member, then the family unit will not work.
We are making real and significant progress.
This government is also committed to closing the seam between Veterans Affairs Canada and the Canadian Armed Forces. When many veterans leave they have become lost in the gap between DND and VAC, and that is changing rapidly now. They are out there not as a soldier anymore but not holding hands with VAC yet, maybe because they have not come forward or they do not understand what is available because they have not seen the advertising that was put out there to tell them what is available so they can get those services. They tend to fall through a gap sometimes.
What this means is that is our legislation includes new authorities allowing Veterans Affairs to evaluate the applications of veterans while they are still serving in the Canadian Armed Forces, before they even become a veteran.
Each year, 5,000 to 6,000 men and women retire from the military to civilian life. That adds some highly qualified and character-rich civilians to help Canada prosper in all the ways that they do. About 1,200 of those people are medical releases. Unfortunately, the majority of retiring members present their case to Veterans Affairs only after leaving life in uniform. That is changing. The average time spent before they are released medically is between three and five years. During that time frame, they are being evaluated, they are going to rehab and they are also getting paid 100% of their military salary whether they are doing a military job or not.
Some of these delays in seeking programs create an uneasy transition for veterans and their families alike. Some get lost in the transition. However, what is happening is that the Department of National Defence and Veterans Affairs are holding hands all the way through the process. The soldier, before he becomes a veteran, will be dealing with Veterans Affairs so that when he leaves, there is no gap. It is a seamless transition.
I am pleased to say that we have also taken concrete steps to support a veteran's transition to civilian life in other ways. We are ensuring that contact between medically releasing members and Veterans Affairs is made at the earliest point possible, long before the member actually walks out the door of the Canadian Forces and becomes a veteran.
We are ensuring that rehabilitation professionals are identified as early in the transition process as possible and where the veteran intends to reside after his or her medical release.
The benefits the veteran expects to get will be adjudicated before he or she leaves the Canadian Armed Forces. Again, it would be a seamless transition, so when the soldier becomes a veteran, everything is already there.
More money is going into research to better understand the transition from military to civilian life, to guide suicide prevention activities, to improve the recognition, diagnosis, and treatment of mental illness in veterans, and to support the development of national standards and a certification process for psychiatric service dogs, to name just a few.
Extending more psychological counselling to families of veterans is also important. That includes parents and children. By the end of the year, an established network of 26 operational stress injury clinics will be there to support the needs of veterans.
There is also a four-year pilot project to increase access to military family resource centres and related services in seven locations. Traditionally, the services and programs offered through these centres have been available only to still serving members of the military and their families. This is a tremendous resource. I have seen it in action often. It gives them access to a wide range of services to help address their needs as they transition to civilian life. Those services will now be available to veterans and their families.
All of this work builds on progress made by our government to improve benefits and support for Canadian veterans.
There is always more to do, and there always will be more that we will be trying to do. However, the key word is progress, and that is what we are making. The government continues to demonstrate true appreciation for veterans and their families. The key components are care, compassion, and respect.
As we continue to improve the way we care for veterans and their families, we do so with three objectives in mind. First is to have a veteran-centric approach to everything we do. Everything has to be about the veterans and their families. Second is to facilitate a successful transition from military service to civilian life by closing the seam between the Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs. Third is to strive for excellence and make access to services easier by reducing red tape and eliminating administrative burdens.
The Minister of Veterans Affairs has reached out and listened to veterans organizations and advocates. He has established and maintained an open dialogue that continues to grow and is a continuous source of knowledge and inspiration. Recently he had a very successful stakeholder summit.
We will continue to focus on our Canadian Armed Forces members and our veterans and to adapt and improve our service to them. That is why in addition to the new measures introduced we are putting more resources where they are needed to ensure service excellence. Case managers offer the front-line service that is critically important to veterans. My own niece, Beverly Martin, is one of the leading case managers in the western part of the country.
The minister has taken action and announced last month that more than 100 permanent, full-time case managers will be hired to improve one-on-one service. Effectively, veterans' needs will be addressed more quickly and efficiently. We know that, and we are taking action. The target is an optimal 30 case-managed veterans for each case manager. Better service and flexibility will allow better access to the services needed by veterans as a result.
Our government also committed the financial resources for the department to hire more than 100 new disability benefits staff, both temporary and permanent. That means that veterans and their families will have faster access to disability benefits, health care, and mental health treatment.
Our government is striving for service excellence and to ensure that veterans are treated with care, compassion, and respect. We are evaluating options for considering consolidating all Veterans Affairs benefits into one single, clear, and easy-to-understand benefits system. One might call it a pension. The goal is to reduce stress on the injured soldiers as they transition to civilian life. We understand that any administrative process that serves to delay or complicate support needs to be fixed quickly.
Even more importantly, if an administrative hurdle or form actually goes so far as to impact the overall wellness of a veteran, there is something seriously wrong, because everything VAC is structured to do is to help ease the burden of transition for a veteran after a service injury.
Speaking of forms, that has come up. I have a form that has been questioned. It is called “Medical Questionnaire: Activities of Daily Living”.
That form is 11 pages long, and it is a little bit complex, but it is designed for every veteran who is receiving benefits. The whole form is designed to ensure that the member's condition is still there and that the services and benefits that they are receiving are still relevant. If they are not, it ensures that changes are made so that they are improved. The whole form is all about making sure that the veteran is getting the service that he or she needs, and nothing else.
It is understandable why someone with PTSD might read something into some of the questions, but nowhere on that form does it say anything about missing limbs.
Our government also took action, and last year announced the addition of a new operational stress injury clinic in Halifax. There is also a network, that I think I mentioned, of 26 operational stress injury clinics across Canada, and they will be expanded to speed up access for mental health services for those with mental health conditions. These clinics play a key role in providing specialized assessment, diagnosis and treatment services for veterans and their families who are living with operational stress injuries.
These and many more actions are being taken to improve the programs, benefits and services that Canada's veterans and their families need and deserve. I urge all members of the NDP and the House to support the measures included in the support for veterans and their families act and in the economic action plan. We are committed to ensuring that veterans and their families have the support and services that they need. Under our government, benefits for veterans have gone in one direction, which is up.
The other thing that has come up a number of times is the lapsed funds, which shows a deliberate misunderstanding, because I know that they understand how it works. Those who have been in government certainly understand how it works. It shows a deliberate representation that is not accurate.
Funds for the Department of Veterans Affairs or any other department are allocated through authorizations. Those funds are forecast. If we need more in any department, we go back and ask for more. If we forecast something and we need less, it is often because the demand is not there. All of these programs are demand driven. If there is a demand, the funds will be spent without question. If the demand is not there, we are not taking funds away from something that could have been done. The demand was not there. If it had been there, it would have been met. Consider it a line of credit. At the beginning of the year, we fill up the line of credit. At the end of the year, if we have not used it all, the line of credit goes back and it gets re-issued again next year.
We are not talking about $1.3 billion that has gone to somebody else. That is simply not true. Anybody over there who has been in government knows that, or should know that. If the demand is there, it does get met.
We also understand that the needs of veterans are changing. As new conflicts arise around the globe, as the previous generation comes to retirement age, and as the nature of treating injuries becomes ever more sophisticated, so too must the support provided to veterans be enhanced, especially for those who have been injured in the course of service. Before tabling the support for veterans and their families act, we consulted with veterans and their families in communities across Canada on the best ways to support them and to support those who bravely served our nation through the years.
As a member of the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs, I do know first-hand that all of the veterans affairs experts were consulted prior to developing the new veterans charter moving forward. These are supports that the members in the House have called for, including the NDP, and rightly so. These are supports that the Veterans Ombudsman has called for. These are supports that veterans and their families have called for. We have responded and we understand that there will still always be more that we need to do, because we want to adapt to changes as they come about.
The increased benefits that we recently announced are evidence of our commitment to ensuring that Canadian veterans and their families are treated with care, compassion and respect. We know that there is an obligation. It has been recognized as far back as by Conservative Prime Minister Robert Borden, but we are not frozen in time. Every single government from Robert Borden on has tried its very best to honour that obligation. In fact, our government tabled support for the support for veterans and their families act, which included the following purpose written in the act:
The purpose of this Act is to recognize and fulfill the obligation of the people and Government of Canada to show just and due appreciation to members and veterans for their service to Canada. This obligation includes providing services, assistance and compensation to members and veterans who have been injured or have died as a result of military service and extends to their spouses or common-law partners or survivors and orphans. This Act shall be liberally interpreted so that the recognized obligation may be fulfilled.
This purpose, coupled with our strong action in support of veterans and their families, shows that we do understand the value and importance of providing those who have served our country with the support that they need and deserve. I am heartened by the new team at the Department of Veterans Affairs, many of whom are veterans, including the minister, the parliamentary secretary, the deputy minister and many others in critical positions.
It is not time to play politics, but I know that is inevitable in this place. I urge the NDP and all members of the House to work with us for the health and well-being of Canada's veterans and their families. The Conservatives are supporting this motion, even though we know it is intended to be political, we know it is intended to wedge us, but we support it because it is the right thing to do and, in fact, it is what we are already doing.