Mr. Speaker, I am not sure exactly when things cut out, but I will say again that it is not particularly pleasing to have to join a finger-pointing debate about whether the Liberals or the Conservatives have been the bigger failure to our veterans.
However, it was a sad moment for Canada when our Prime Minister responded to a veteran at the town hall in Edmonton with what he called an honest answer, when he said, “Why are we still fighting certain veterans groups in court? Because they are asking for more than we are able to give right now.” Apart from the tone deafness of his response to a veteran who was disabled and clearly sacrificed so much for his country, it evades the real question here. It is not a question of how much we can afford. It is a question of our priorities as a country. When we hear the Prime Minister say, “We can't afford this”, what he is really saying is “This is not important to me. Something else is more important.” That was an embarrassing moment, not just for the Prime Minister but for the entire country.
Let us look at the Liberal priorities. I want to start off with a look at two competing broken promises. It is not hard to find broken promises, so I am just going to focus on two. I would like to compare the promise to restore veterans benefits to those who are disabled and saying that veterans will never have to “fight the government” to get something that they've already earned, on the one hand, with the government's promise to do away with the stock option loophole for wealthy Canadians on the other.
The stock option deduction is beyond understanding for most people. It is an obscure tax benefit for rich Canadians, which costs us about $500 million per year. These executives take stock in lieu of pay, and therefore, escape taxation on a large portion of their income. In fact, the stock option loophole seems to make up about 25% of the obscene incomes of top CEOs in Canada, and 92% of the benefits of this go to the top 10% of income earners.
What does this have to do with veterans? Here is a promise the Prime Minister broke. He decided we could clearly afford to continue giving $500 million a year to the richest 10% of Canadians, but he could not afford to keep his promise to veterans. That is what I mean when I talk about priorities.
In the 2015 campaign, the Liberals clearly promised to start taxing those stock options that exceeded $100,000. They have not even done that. What we in the New Democratic Party have said is that this is a stock option that was created for start-up companies, and that is not what it is being used for now, so let us eliminate this tax loophole for all those other CEOs who are using it and limit it to only those start-up companies that it was supposed to benefit in the beginning. That would give us probably close to $500 million a year, which we could invest in veterans' benefits.
The Liberal list of things they are giving us in this debate are things they are promising to do, but still have not done. The lifetime pensions they are talking about clearly do not restore benefits to the levels that existed before they were cut by the Conservatives, but also they do not exist yet. They are still a future promise. We still have to wait before they are going to get around to doing these pensions.
Despite the finger-pointing at previous Conservative governments, even if much of it is richly deserved, it is clear the government is not going to keep its own promises to veterans, and that is what it needs to focus on. The Liberals should stop focusing on what the Conservatives did or did not do, and focus on what they are not doing now for veterans. They still are, as a government, fighting disabled veterans in court. Their pension promise will be three years late, and it will not restore benefits to the previous levels. It is clearly going to be a matter of very complex examples, which they are giving us here, of what the maximum benefits might be, but lesser benefits to actual disabled veterans than they were promised by the Liberals when they were running for office.
There are a lot of things we could talk about other than the specific promise to disabled veterans, because the other thing the Prime Minister indicated before he was Prime Minister was that he believed there was a sacred obligation to those who served, to make sure we provide the supports they need after they have finished their service.
I want to talk about two things that the government has not talked about specifically but are equally important in my riding. They are part of that implied promise to those who serve that we have an obligation to them when they get home. These two things are the question of veterans' homelessness and the question of mental health supports within the Canadian Forces and for Canadian veterans.
When it comes to homeless veterans, what do we know? The numbers are not exactly clear. Veterans Affairs Canada admits it has 785 homeless veterans in its database. Past studies have suggested that the true figure is closer to 3,000. Why is that 3,000 figure so much higher? I believe and I know in my riding it is because many veterans are reluctant to admit their situation is so dire.
It is clear in my riding that in addition to those who are visible on the streets of greater Victoria and in addition to those who are living in tents in the rural areas, there are many hundreds more veterans who are escaping homelessness only by sleeping on the couches and in the basements of their friends and relatives. This is something that we should all be ashamed of in this country.
When it comes to homeless veterans, what do we have from the Liberals? We just have platitudes about how the situation should not exist. Here is a news flash from those who work with veterans on the ground: homelessness does exist among those veterans. The Liberals have been promising a plan for over two years to deal with veterans' homelessness. Here it is, a cold February, and veterans are camping out in protest here in Ottawa. Now the Liberals have said we can expect the plan in the fall of this year, which means we will probably go through another winter without any real action on veterans' homelessness.
The national homelessness strategy released by the Liberals last fall said things like “veteran homelessness is unacceptable” and “one homeless veteran is too many”. These are the kinds of platitudes that do nothing to address the real problems that veterans in my riding face every day and these sentiments will not get a single veteran housed.
In my riding, the only ones to act have been the veterans themselves. Members of the Langford Legion and other concerned community members set up a non-profit foundation in 2009, which runs programs for homeless veterans. They regularly provide supportive housing for up to a dozen or more homeless vets in my community. They have an eight-bed, free-standing complex called Cockrell House, which provides assisted living with the supports that they need. They have another two units at another location. One would say, 10 to 12, that is not very many, but that is 10 to 12 more than the government has supported in my riding. The number the government supports is zero.
The people who are financing this project, the BC/Yukon Legion Foundation, has bought the project and is paying the operating costs, and other volunteer groups like the Esquimalt Lions Club, one of the prominent builders in the community Russ Ridley, and the City of Colwood. While Cockrell House reports that Veterans Affairs Canada does co-operate well and helps them get veterans into programs, the amount of government funding that Cockrell House gets is zero. It does not get a dime. In my riding, it is the local veterans that are actually trying to take care of those who are in need and are homeless.
The second area I want to talk quickly about, where Liberals are failing to serve members of the Canadian Forces and veterans, is mental health services.
On February 21 at 7 p.m. at the Pro Patria Legion in Victoria, I will be attending the second Candlelight Ceremony in Memory of Soldiers of Suicide. This is a ceremony that will coincide with ceremonies in many ridings and communities across the country to raise awareness of PTSD and of those who have lost their personal battles with PTSD and to try to address the isolation and the loneliness and the stigma that the families feel after those suicides.
Hopefully these events will help lift the veil of silence on PTSD-related suicides. Once again, we thank volunteers Megan Willet Hiltz and Jim MacMillan-Murphy for organizing this event. I encourage people in greater Victoria to attend this event and others to attend similar events across the country.
When it comes to the Canadian Forces and our veterans, we must make sure that our troops have the equipment, training, and support they need to do the difficult and dangerous work we ask them to do each and every day on our behalf.