Mr. Speaker, today's motion should not be one that has to be brought forward by the opposition. It is a travesty that the current Conservative government has ignored veterans for the length of its nine years in government to the extent that we are here still, in the dying days of a Parliament, asking the Conservatives to finally give our Canadian Forces veterans their due for accepting unlimited liability in the face of various conflicts and wars. In the shadow of the First World War, Sir Robert Borden made a covenant with those Canadians who fought, that their government would support them. On the eve of Vimy Ridge, he told Canadians:
You can go into this action feeling assured of this, and as the head of the government I give you this assurance: That you need not fear that the government and the country will fail to show just appreciation of your service to the country and Empire in what you are about to do and what you have already done.
The government and the country will consider it their first duty to see that a proper appreciation of your effort and of your courage is brought to the notice of people at home that no man, whether he goes back or whether he remains in Flanders, will have just cause to reproach the government for having broken faith with the men who won and the men who died.
Those soldiers accepted unlimited liability on behalf of their country, and the government assured them with the words made true by Colonel John McCrae that their sacrifice would not be in vain. Yet, our current Prime Minister seems to believe that appreciation of service to Canada ends once his camera crew is done with the necessary shots for this week's 24 Seven.
From its beginning a century ago, 625,825 Canadians fought in the First World War, a total of 61,082 never returned home, and 154,361 were wounded. In the Second World War, more than one million served, 42,042 died, and 54,414 were wounded. In Korea, 27,751 Canadians served, 516 giving the ultimate sacrifice, while 1,072 suffered injuries. Thousands have served as peacekeepers, and more than 40,000 Canadians served in Afghanistan.
Most of us watched as each of the 158 Canadians who died returned home. The thousands who were injured with wounds both visible and invisible are our neighbours, co-workers, friends, and family. These men and women and their families did incredible things that many of us here will never understand, because we have not had to face the rigours of combat or the terror that we or someone we love might not come home.
I have been fortunate, since being asked to take on the role of Liberal veterans critic, to meet with and speak to many men and women who have served this country, and the men, women and children behind them here in Ottawa and across the country. Last week I returned from the Netherlands with the Minister of Veterans Affairs, where I was fortunate to speak with many of the veterans who were there at the liberation 70 years ago.
These Canadians received a warm reception from the Dutch, not just those who had been there during the Second World War but their children and their grandchildren. In Groesbeek, we marched for over an hour side by side. I was at the front with a number of others from the Canadian delegation, the Minister of Veterans Affairs, and the mayor. As we approached the cemetery, I turned around, and there were 3,000 others still behind us, Dutch and Canadian alike, who were in lockstep as we moved in memory of those who had sacrificed to accomplish the liberation of the Netherlands and those throughout Europe and the Pacific who had brought about the end of the war.
I was struck by something when we arrived at a monument as we were walking. There was an inscription on it, which roughly translated from Latin, stated: “We live in the hearts of friends for whom we died”. Truly, we who live on are stewards for these brave souls. When another Canadian is willing to lay down his or her life for us, we are stewards for what comes next.
It is not enough that their memory lives on. We are responsible to make sure that not only the legacy of these brave women and men is preserved, but also their standard of living and that their families.
Gathering at these monuments is one thing. Reading the words and being moved by them is one thing. However, acting is a whole other thing.
There is another side of this coin. There are those whose battles with the enemy are done but whose battles with the Conservative Government of Canada are just beginning. Take Jennie Migneault, for instance, another person with whom I have been so fortunate to speak since taking on this role. We were more than prepared to send her husband off to fight on our behalf, but when he came back and his PTSD made life difficult for him and their family, the current government did not provide the necessary resources for them to confront their new reality. In fact, she famously had to pursue the Minister of Veterans Affairs' predecessor down a hall, and she still could not get a hearing. A government that has figuratively turned its back on the very veterans who served it quite literally rushed past the families left in the wake of its disastrous inaction.
Over the course of the current government, Veterans Affairs Canada has frankly been in crisis. Information published by the department clearly demonstrated that it lacked adequate staffing to deliver the services necessary to meet the needs of veterans and their families. In his message introducing last year's Veterans Affairs Canada report on plans and priorities, the Minister of Veterans Affairs' predecessor himself wrote of the complex and changing needs of our veterans and said that the department's processes must change for veterans so that they can better access benefits and services. That very same report highlighted that the first risk to the department is that “[t]he modernization of [Veteran's Affairs Canada's] service delivery model will not be achieved as expected, and will not meet the needs of Veterans, Canadian Armed Forces members, and their families”.
Worryingly, despite this advice, Treasury Board of Canada data on the population of the federal public service showed, as of last year, that 949 full-time equivalents had been cut since 2008, approximately 25% of the Veterans Affairs Canada workforce. All that is to say that last fall, Veterans Affairs Canada was at its lowest staffing level since 2000. The Conservatives may have recently tried to replace 100 positions, but that is only a tiny fraction of the 900 front-line staff they cut, and even then, many of them are just part-time. The Conservatives try to say that they are putting resources into new services, but there is nothing the current government has done to back that up. Closing the gap is beyond them.
On April 23 of this year, the Veterans Ombudsman observed at committee that while these announcements might contribute to closing the gap, “The announced changes do not encompass all that is needed for veterans”.
It is programs like disability and death compensation and the health-care program that have suffered the most significant cuts under the current government. It is the current government that has squandered $1.13 billion in funding for the department since 2006. It is the current government that could not find a dime for veterans, because those billions of dollars it let lapse, that it clawed back, went to falsely balancing its books in this election year. There are veterans coming forward and applying for programs that are understaffed and underfunded, while the Conservatives seem a little too busy getting the camera angle right.
A benefit delayed is a benefit denied, and as long as the Conservative government continues, it appears that the government is in the business of denying benefits.
In his report this fall, the Auditor General illustrated that one veteran in five is forced to wait up to eight months for mental health assistance, and Veterans Affairs Canada is largely unconcerned with “...how well veterans are being served and whether programs are making a difference in their lives”. The inability to provide adequate mental health services to these veterans is a greater threat to past and present Canadian Forces members than any enemies we have faced recently in the theatre of battle. In the same period of time we were engaged in Afghanistan, 160 died by suicide. That is just the ones we know about. As long as the current government continues to blindly accept incomplete data, which is skewed by leaving so many people out of the count, we will never know the true impact.
The faces at the helm of Veterans Affairs Canada may have recently changed, but the song remains the same. These men and women deserve more than a PR campaign to convince them that everything is going to change.
We owe a great deal to the brave men and women of the Canadian Forces who are willing to accept unlimited liability and to sacrifice everything, including their lives. We owe a great deal to their families who are left behind to pick up the pieces and continue their lives without a father, mother, brother, sister, son, or daughter.
The government is not delivering, and it is in large part because it does not believe it has more than a political duty to pay lip service to those very serious words of prime minister Sir Robert Borden, whom I quoted earlier. Until it is truly willing to fully embrace that duty to veterans, that sacred covenant, nothing it does can be taken in good faith.
For our part, the Liberal Party of Canada has clearly indicated its support for a social covenant with Canadian veterans. At our last policy convention, Liberal members passed a resolution confirming its commitment to the successive generations of Canadians who have served their country honourably as members of the Canadian Armed Forces. They know that service in the Canadian Armed Forces requires those men and women to make a personal and grave commitment to put their lives on the line on behalf of their fellow citizens and that they may be called upon to risk their lives anywhere in the world that we in Canada deem it appropriate they do so.
Liberals know that military service is a burden borne not only by the service member but by their families, as evidenced by the countless sacrifices made to ensure the success of Canadian Armed Forces missions. The only sacrifice the Conservative government seems to know when it comes to service missions is having to take down its propaganda videos once they have endangered the safety and security of our special operators, as we saw in the past weeks.
The Conservative government's approach to veterans' policy demonstrates an utter lack of regard for our country's obligation to those who serve on our behalf in the military. Liberals have resolved that a future Liberal government would uphold the principle of this social covenant in its defence of veterans policies and would present a government that would finally live up to Canada's sacred obligation to care for veterans and their families throughout their lives.
A little over a year ago, I travelled to France and Belgium with a delegation to commemorate the 97th anniversary of the battle at Vimy Ridge. As I stood before the monument on Vimy Ridge, overpowered by its immensity as a testament to Canada's sacrifice in the First World War, the enormity of the impact of war was made so clear. Before us stood a memorial to a conflict colossal in its overwhelming effect on the lives of all those who fought and died or who returned and lived and tried to carry on in its wake. The contrast of something so beautiful serving as a reminder of the horror and cost of war was stark.
I have told this story before, but I feel it is important. It is foundational for me and should be for all of us. Early one morning, as the trip drew to a close, I stood alone at Essex Farm Cemetery, on the outskirts of Ypres, where Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Guelph native, performed his work as a field surgeon in the Canadian artillery. It was here that McCrae's friend and student, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, died from wounds sustained in battle. It was here that he composed In Flanders Fields, a poem we all know, a poem that just celebrated its 100th anniversary. I had heard the words hundreds of times, worn the poppy every Remembrance Day, and now stood between those crosses.
Suddenly I was aware of a small group of Canadian high school students on a similar pilgrimage on the remembrance trails of the First World War. They sat quietly pondering the carnage upon the surrounding fields 100 years earlier and the transformation of those events into words written by McCrae. I listened as they recited the poem, each of three stanzas recited one by one. It was as if I was hearing it for the very first time. Everything was still as the last student recited:
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
In that single moment, I understood the fundamental truth of our sacred covenant to our veterans. Our solemn obligation cries out that we must not break faith with those who died. Therein lies our sacred obligation: that our commitment to their well-being, their families, and all who return home to tell their stories is bound forever by the sacrifice of those who lived and died on those fields and elsewhere.
We just celebrated the centenary of that poem, yet we seem no further ahead over the last decade than we were when it started. We have had another war to end all wars, cold wars, and other very hot conflicts around the world.
Canada has taken on terrorism, yet somehow it is beyond the current Conservative government's grasp to finally and formally recognize that there exists a stand-alone covenant, including, as the motion says, our moral, social, legal, and fiduciary obligation to the men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces and their families.
The current Conservative government could start right now. It could start by adjusting the new veterans charter disability benefits to encompass post-traumatic stress disorder. It could ensure that the amount of money received is fair and not leave veterans feeling that they could have been compensated better if they had been hurt on a job site or injured in a car accident in Canada rather than off somewhere else serving and protecting Canada and Canadians' freedom.
It could start by no longer spending millions of taxpayer dollars fighting veterans seeking benefits in court and instead spend some of those millions bolstering programs that veterans are literally begging for.
It could use some of those millions to rehire any of the full-time front-line personnel it has let go or to reopen the Veterans Affairs centres in communities like Brandon, Manitoba, and Sydney, in Cape Breton.
It could start by acknowledging that the social covenant is, in fact, a sacred obligation and not just political rhetoric.
Every year in November, we see the incredible outpouring of love Canadians have for our friends and families who have served this country. Remembrance Day across the country is observed at schools, at cenotaphs, and in halls. We stand and pause and promise “never again” and say “Lest we forget”.
However, it is not enough anymore. So long as veterans have to fight their government for benefits, we are forgetting. So long as veterans have to convince officials that their legs, which they lost fighting for Canada, have not grown back, we are forgetting. So long as the wife of a veteran has to chase the minister responsible for her husband's care down the hall in Parliament, we are forgetting. We are forgetting so long as we do not finally enshrine our social covenant with veterans and pay it more than lip service.
It is our duty to do more than support the motion. We need to implement it. I know that a Liberal government will but certainly hope we do not have to wait until the fall, for our veterans' sakes.