Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to rise today to debate Bill C-378, an act to amend the Department of Veterans Affairs Act.
I want to thank the member for Barrie—Innisfil for his advocacy on behalf of veterans. It is a real pleasure working with him on the committee for veterans affairs.
I do not think that there is a person here today who does not want what is best for Canada's veterans. I know that the Government of Canada respects what veterans have done for this country, and will ensure that those with service-related pain and suffering will be well cared for and supported for life.
In hindsight, it is no secret that the new veterans charter introduced in 2006 was not completely successful. Some parts of it worked, but many others did not. The matter of the transition back to civilian life was never properly addressed.
When the Liberal government took office in 2015, the Prime Minister clearly indicated that the time had come to fix that. Veterans and their families deserve our respect and gratitude, and the existing system needed a major overhaul to create a process that is easy to access, simple to navigate, and focused on the veteran.
To accomplish this, he tasked the Minister of Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence with an aggressive mandate, with 20 commitments that focused on three clear points.
First, the veteran must be at the centre of everything that Veterans Affairs Canada does. Second, we have to work harder to include the veteran's family in all planning, benefits, and services. Third, we have to do whatever we can to help every veteran reach their new normal.
A big step forward in achieving these goals is to regain the trust of Canada's veteran community, which is something the department has been making strides in by engaging with veterans and taking action. I have personally travelled to 12 wings and bases since March, and I have talked to our troops, veterans, and their families about how we can work together to get this right. As part of a military family, I believe it is important to listen to our veterans, our Canadian Armed Forces members, and their families, and I will always be willing to do so.
Veterans Affairs Canada has held stakeholder summits and working groups, has created six ministerial advisory groups, and has listened to concerns, ideas, and suggestions from veterans and veteran stakeholders from across the country. That feedback helped lead to our delivering on six mandate commitments in 2016, and to the initiatives that were introduced in budget 2017 that will deliver on eight more.
In budget 2016, the government committed to investing $5.7 billion over six years to restore critical access to services, ensure the long-term financial security of veterans with disabilities, and honour the service, sacrifice, and achievements of those who served in our military.
Budget 2017 provides for a comprehensive set of measures to recognize the important role of caregivers, help more families, support mental health, and pay for the education and training veterans need to find a job.
That includes the implementation of eight measures totalling $624 million over six years.
Our work continues as we enhance the financial security and wellness elements of the new veterans charter to help veterans and their families transition to post-military life and make choices about what they want to do next, whether it be work, education, or other activities.
There is no doubt that our government has worked hard to provide veterans and their families with the care and support they need, and to commemorate those who served, all in line with the principles laid out in the Veterans Bill of Rights. Applying to all former members of the military and family members, the bill of rights includes the principles of dignity, respect, and fairness, because this government knows it is due to their contributions and sacrifices that we are all here today.
As I can confirm, family should always be a part of the discussion, because when a man or woman serves, or when their sons are serving, as mine are, the entire family serves along with them.
While the new veterans charter, introduced in 2006, received all-party support, what emerged over the years was a patchwork system of policies and benefits, which made it more complicated for veterans to get the support they needed when they needed it. This was a consistent message from the veteran community, and something the department has gone to great lengths to address. For over a year, through a service delivery review, they reviewed and assessed how programs and services are delivered to veterans and their families.
We now have a plan to provide services that are faster, more flexible, and more responsive by focusing more on veterans when they contact the department for the first time and by providing a personalized response that meets all of the veteran's needs.
Regardless of whether veterans call, visit an office in person, go online, or send a request by mail, Veterans Affairs Canada will ensure that they get the same information and have the same positive service experience.
This type of change does not happen overnight, but we have an action plan in place. It is posted on our website. It outlines each recommendation and when it will be completed.
The department has already started making some of the important changes that will make a difference now. For example, it has simplified the approvals process for certain disability claims, like PTSD and hearing loss, and has reduced the burden on veterans. This has resulted in 27% more decisions being completed in the last fiscal year compared to the year before. It is a small step, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.
One of our biggest endeavours so far has been the guided support pilot project. Launched in a few cities, a group of veterans were identified to receive one-on-one assistance in applying for benefits and services to ensure that they are getting the most out of what the department has to offer. The pilot project received tremendous feedback and delivers on some of the recommendations for in-person service delivery. It also addresses the larger issue of veterans not always knowing the right questions to ask. The department does the hard work of navigating the system and provides the veterans with the specific information and advice they need. Veterans Affairs is currently looking at the next steps with the project in order to roll it out nationally.
Another recommendation was to bring back the client survey in order to ensure that all veterans and their families had a chance to provide feedback. I am proud to announce, on behalf of the department, that the results of this national survey are in, and it is clear that we are making progress.
Some of the results attest to the department's efforts to improve the long-term financial security and independence of veterans who are sick or injured. To restore critical access to services, Veterans Affairs Canada reopened 10 offices across the country last year, in addition to substantially improving access to front-line staff and case managers.
In this recent survey, 83% of veterans, RCMP members, and family members responded that they felt their case management plans met their needs. That is a significant increase from 2010, when only 24% were satisfied. Additionally, 81% responded that they were either satisfied or very satisfied with the support the department provides, and many felt that services exceeded their expectations. An overwhelming 94% found that VAC staff treats them with respect. That speaks volumes for the progress the department is making, indicating that it is headed in the right direction in respecting, supporting, and treating all veterans fairly.
The issue at the core of the bill comes down to how we treat veterans and their families in their dealings with Veterans Affairs Canada by calling on the department to treat them with fairness, respect, and dignity, and to recognize the unique experience of veterans and their families. I doubt there is a member in this place who disagrees with the importance of these sentiments.
The challenge presented by the bill is how we define these principles so they are interpreted consistently and not subjectively. These principles exist in the Veterans Bill of Rights, and if they can be strengthened, we should examine doing that. I would like to see the bill make it to committee where members can take a much closer look at these principles and how Veterans Affairs can and should apply them.
When it comes to our Canadian Armed Forces members, our veterans, and their families, we will always strive for excellence and to improve our services and benefits. Indeed, the very reason I decided to run for federal office was that I felt veterans and Canadian Armed Forces members and their families were not being treated as well as they could be. With two sons serving, I know that they, too, one day will be veterans, so I am committed to working hard for them and all military families.
I look forward to working with the member for Barrie—Innisfil to make sure that we do right by our brave men and women in uniform, those who have served, and the families who support them.