Mr. Speaker, I want to begin by speaking about the aspects of the budget bill that are contained in Bill C-12. I am really disappointed that members of the House were not given the opportunity for debate and study in committee of Bill C-12 to make it a better bill. Veterans have been shuffled aside for so long, but apparently, according to the Liberal government, not long enough. Veterans and their families are in despair. We hear it every day in the veterans affairs committee. Too many are absolutely desolate.
It is no secret that Veterans Affairs Canada has been badly mismanaged by past Conservative and Liberal governments. Pensions have been clawed back, front-line services have been cut, and the result has been increased wait times for desperately needed help. Quality home care is simply not as available as it should be and we all know that long-term care services are shrinking. Soldiers with PTSD face months of delays before even being referred for help and then that help is hard to get.
The changes in the bill to the earnings lost benefit and the disability award for veterans are good first steps. I hope the changes will result in more veterans qualifying for benefits and that those heroes of our country see a positive improvement to their quality of life.
However, this omnibus bill lacks the full support that veterans need.
First, there is no support for mental health in the budget, and this is a huge concern. Many veterans are suffering from the trauma of combat, the stress of their service to Canada. Yet there is a lack of support for veterans and their families to recognize and care for mental health issues that result from their experiences in the field and beyond on behalf of their country. Let us not ever forget that the government asked them to do their duty and they did not fail, and we must not fail.
Sadly and unacceptably, the budget bill would not increase support for spouses or caregivers of injured veterans. Partners of CF members are often required to leave their own jobs to care for the injured veteran. Those caregivers are provided with little training and very little support. This not only impacts the current income of caregivers, but it impacts their own pensions down the road.
Every member of the House knows that pension benefits are largely based on the earnings of an individual's years of employment. Therefore, caregivers who give up employment pay are at a terrible disadvantage. They pay a terrible price in their senior years because their pensions are simply inadequate.
When Canada sends its women and men in uniform into conflict, they and their families accept unlimited liability, and there is the very real possibility that what they are ordered to do could cost them their lives. As a country, we have nothing less than a sacred duty to our veterans to care for them when they return. It is time for a new era in the government's relationship with veterans, one based on respect that ensures dignity, financial security, and quality of life.
If the government is serious about repairing the damage at Veterans Affairs Canada, it should take immediate action and ensure all veterans have the income support they need. We are calling on the government to prove this in a new era by working with veterans and to immediately review, update, and improve the new veterans charter, including addressing the issue of lump sum payments, those payments currently offered to seriously injured veterans.
It is crucial that the government develop a one veteran one standard policy that would ensure all veterans would be treated equally, regardless of when or where they served.
It is time to end the unfair service pension clawback for retired and disabled Canadian Forces and RCMP veterans and show good faith by increasing the survivor's pension of veterans.
It is time to remove the archaic marriage clause restricting benefits for marriages that occur after age 60. Imagine in this day and age calling older spouses who marry, love, and care for veterans “gold diggers”. What a ludicrous and petty label.
The government should provide timely accessible care for veterans' health and well-being. We as a nation must improve and expand PTSD and mental health supports for veterans to ensure they get the care they need, and get that care quickly without barriers, without harmful delays.
The government should reverse the cuts to long-term care for veterans, and expand the veterans independence program to allow seriously injured and elderly Canadian Armed Forces and RCMP veterans to continue to live at home. It should not put that burden of care on partners, on spouses, on caregivers. The government must make sure that the veterans independence program is there, in addition to what caregivers and spouses provide.
I have spoken to this House about post-Korean vets who served Canada in times of great danger only to be turned away from long-term care in their time of need. It is disgraceful to say to a veteran that his or her contribution was less because it occurred after 1954.
Even though the wounds may not have been obvious at the time of release or active duty, they are wounds that come from dedicated service to Canada. Those who suffer those wounds must be respected. They deserve long-term care in a veterans hospital, if that is what they wish.
There must be increased supports for veterans' families and caregivers who are often the main support for veterans.
We have an absolute obligation to ensure that services are delivered with a veterans-first approach. This can be done by establishing a formal covenant for veterans' care that recognizes the government's moral, social, legal, and fiduciary obligation to care for Canada's veterans.
I submit it is also important that we eliminate the Veterans Review and Appeal Board, which is staffed by government appointees who have too often been unresponsive to the realities faced by veterans seeking disability benefits. It is time to replace the old VRAB with a medically focused review process for appeals.
Unlike WSIB, the court cannot overturn a Veterans Review and Appeal Board refusal. The court can only refer the issue back to the same people who decided against the veteran in the first place. How can this result in fairness for veterans? It would seem to me that the appearance of arm's-length non-interference in the VRAB from government is actually a refusal of government to take responsibility. It is politics at its worst.
Finally, Canadians wish very much to show all veterans that they respect them and that these veterans deserve our support. This can be accomplished by a government prepared to expand eligibility and increase funding for the Last Post Fund to ensure that all veterans can be guaranteed a dignified funeral.
New Democrats value the work and sacrifice of our Canadian Forces and RCMP veterans and personnel currently serving, whether they served at home, in war, or in peacekeeping missions. We call on the government to repair our country's relationship to one that is based on that respect, rather than on the current state of neglect.
We must ensure that our veterans and their families are well cared for from the moment they sign up to the moment they pass away, including that dignified funeral and burial I talked about.
Bill C-12 and the same measures covered in this budget bill do not come close to fully addressing the needs of our veterans. The manner in which we honour and care for our veterans and their families is a reflection of the integrity of this country. When we ask people to put their lives on the line for Canada, we must ensure that their sacrifices are recognized and their losses, monetary, physical, and emotional, are compensated, and that their service is recognized with grateful acknowledgement.
If we leave one single veteran living in poverty, one single veteran homeless, one single veteran suffering the agony of post-traumatic stress, or one single dependant of that veteran unsupported and out in the cold, we will have failed in fulfilling our sacred covenant.
I know we can do better. I have faith, hope, and optimism. I believe that we need, and can work towards creating, a system of comprehensive support for our veterans. This budget bill could have addressed the gaps we face in fulfilling our covenant to veterans, but sadly, it has missed the mark. We are capable of better. We cannot let anyone tell us it cannot be done.