Madam Speaker, it is with mixed emotions, quite frankly, that I rise on this subject today. There is an emotion that is clear and unequivocal.
This is a very simple motion that calls on the Prime Minister of Canada to apologize to veterans for the insensitive comments he made in Edmonton. The motion also calls on the Prime Minister to live up to the promises he made to veterans during the last election. There are veterans on the Hill today protesting not just the policies of the government but the inaction by the government, based on many of the promises it made.
To provide some historical context on this, I travelled across the country in my role as critic for veterans affairs. I was very proud to be in that role from October 2016 to August 2017. I met with lots of veterans. I met with stakeholders and their families. I met with organizations, and visited military bases. The one message I heard loud and clear was the role of Canada to have a sacred obligation with our veterans.
At that time, there was a lot of disappointment brewing because of what the Prime Minister, had said. When he stood up in Belleville in August 2015, and made that now famous campaign promise that he would immediately restore lifelong pensions to veterans and that no veteran should ever have to fight their government in court, he had not been fulfilled that promise at that point.
As I said in my question to the hon. member from the NDP, there was an expectation among veterans of what the Prime Minister promised. It was clear and unequivocal that he would restore lifelong pensions to the manner in which they were before the new veterans charter was introduced. The recent announcement in December falls short of that.
If members do not believe me, they can go among the veterans community and talk to them, find out how they feel about the recent pension announcement, notwithstanding the fact it was made two days before Christmas, at a time when veterans are extremely vulnerable. The minister made the announcement on behalf of the Prime Minister, because he knew it would fall short of what veterans were expecting, and perhaps it would get lost in the Christmas cycle.
The most telling part of that press conference, when I watched it, was Murray Brewster from the CBC. He asked a question of the Minister of Veterans Affairs that went like this: “Can you guarantee that veterans today, because of this announcement, will receive an equal or greater amount than they would have under the previous pension benefit?” The Minister of Veterans Affairs said, “No, I cannot guarantee that.”
Across the country, among the veterans community, one could almost feel the breath coming out of our veterans, because that is not what the Prime Minister promised in Belleville in August 2015. He promised he would immediately restore lifetime pensions to veterans. The understanding within the veterans community was that he was going to return those pensions, and he did not.
Then we get to Edmonton. Just a couple of weeks ago, when the veteran Brock Blaszczyk asked the question of the Prime Minister. The unconscionable response of the Prime Minister was that veterans are expecting more than he can give them right now. What veterans were expecting was exactly what the Prime Minister had promised, a return to lifelong pensions, and that no veteran should have to fight their government in court. One can imagine the response among the veterans community.
What we are doing today is asking the Prime Minister to apologize to veterans across the country for that insensitive comment.
The Prime Minister has no problem apologizing for many other things, in many cases with tears streaming down his face, but the level of disrespect that he showed our veterans is appalling. All we are asking for is that he apologize and that he live up to his promise.
The second part of that promise is the interesting one. He said that no veterans should ever have to fight their government in court. That was in direct relation to the Equitas lawsuit out of Vancouver. I guess the Prime Minister thought that somehow he was going to deal with this case, but the facts do not speak to that.
The previous veterans affairs minister, the hon. member for Durham, had an abeyance agreement with the Equitas lawsuit, and I am sure the member will speak to that. They effectively had an agreement in that lawsuit. That was why it was held in abeyance. Unfortunately, because of the election, the minister of veterans affairs at the time, the hon. member for Durham, ran out of runway and he could not deal with this. That abeyance agreement was to be held in place but it expired in May 2016.
The fact is that the Prime Minister, through the minister of veterans affairs after the election, restarted the Equitas lawsuit. That was broken promise number two to our veterans. Number one is the pension. Number two is that the government is reinstating the court case against the Equitas veterans.
I guess when one is sitting as a member of the third party, as the Prime Minister was when going into the last election, it is easy to shoot for the stars, hoping to hit the moon on a lot of these promises. That is exactly what the Liberals did, and we have seen it with other promises, such as the promise on electoral reform.
The veterans issue has really come to light over the last couple of weeks and that wound to our veterans' community is deep as a result of those broken promises.
The Prime Minister did make many promises to everyone in this country, including our veterans, to try to get elected. The most appalling thing was when he stood in Belleville with veterans behind him as a backdrop, many of them wearing their medals, including members of his own caucus who were veterans at the time, and many of whom presented this platform to the Prime Minister. I can speculate how that conversation went, “If we promise them this, we will get their support.” He used them as pawns.
I do not believe that the Prime Minister had any intention of living up to that promise. I believe that he knowingly deceived our veterans in order to gain their support because of some transgressions that had gone on in the past.
As I sit in the House, I find it rich and funny some of the comments that come back on me, some of the things that I have said to veterans as I criss-crossed the country. I acknowledge there were problems in the past between veterans and the previous government. I showed some contrition, as did the former minister of veterans affairs, the member for Durham. This contrition would start the conversation. It would give a sense of respect to veterans that things were not perhaps as great as they should have been under the previous government. However, in every meeting in every town and city across this country that I was in this past summer, the one thing I did not do was lie to veterans. We had open and honest discussions about what failed and what we could do better as a party in order to gain their trust again, a trust, as I said that the former minister of veterans affairs had started to build until he ran out of runway.
In all of the discussions I had, the one thing that veterans told me upset them the most is they feel they have lived through a generation of lies, a generation of deceit. I can say in all honesty that we are all guilty of that. All of us share that responsibility.
Members can imagine the feeling now when a prime minister, or member of Parliament hoping to be the prime minister, stands up and makes all of these promises. The reaction of veterans is, “Here we go again. Another one is standing up and telling us he is going to do something and he doesn't do it.” It is shameful.
Of the many meetings and stakeholder groups I met with, they all spoke about the sacred obligation. They all spoke about this military covenant. It goes back to when Sir Robert Borden stood before the troops just before the Battle of Vimy Ridge and gave this now famous quote:
The government and the country will consider it their first duty to prove to the returned men its just and due appreciation of the inestimable value of the services rendered to the country and Empire; and 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 are powerful words from a former prime minister, Sir Robert Borden, just before the Battle of Vimy Ridge. It is that inestimable value that I think all of us need to consider, and not just now but as we go forward in how we deal with our veterans.
Again, I have talked with many veterans since that pension announcement, and over the course of the last several years, and the shameful part is that there is a growing perception, real or otherwise, and I say it is real, that there is an inherent amount of value in the government of putting money into pet projects of the Prime Minister. It is abdicating our responsibility at home to our veterans by putting millions and millions into other countries, billions in some cases, for international development efforts. Our veterans, seniors, and many other Canadians are asking, “What about us?”
When someone says to a veteran in Edmonton, “You are asking for more than I can give right now”, do members not think those veterans and seniors are not seeing the amount of money that is flowing out of the government, the debt and deficit situation it is creating with $500 million going to an infrastructure bank in China that is going to develop infrastructure outside of this country? Do members not think it is right that people are asking these questions? They are being told that they are asking for more than what the government can give, yet the government is giving to its global pet projects, to curry favour with the United Nations. The government is giving to things that are not directly impacting Canadians, that are not directly impacting our veterans.
Members can imagine if the government made a $100-million announcement to give that money to some country somewhere else. What is wrong with saying that our first priority is to look after our veterans? How are we going to spend that $100 million here to help our veterans, to help our seniors, to help the marginalized? Let us talk about this as a priority of government. When the Prime Minister says that the veterans are asking for more than the government can give right now, maybe the Prime Minister should stop giving to some of his global pet projects and prioritize our veterans and seniors here in this country. At least, at a minimum, that could help him live up to the promises that he made.
Last night we talked about the sacred obligation. I have been working on a bill since October. Actually, I have been working on it a lot longer than that. I call it the military covenant bill, or the sacred obligation bill. It is one thing that veterans have told me right across the country that they would like to see from the government, this Parliament, and Canadians: a sacred obligation. Last night at a vote, that bill did not pass.
The bill proposed amendments to the Veterans Affairs Act, and talked about the fairness principles, how we treat veterans, how we treat our families, and dealing with things in a timely manner. I would have thought, after the Prime Minister had made those unbelievably insensitive comments to our veterans community, that at a minimum the Liberals would have supported that bill to at least go to committee to deal with some of the questions that were raised throughout the debate on the bill in the House of Commons.
What did the Liberals do? In an unbelievable display of further disrespect to our veterans, every single member of the Liberal caucus stood up and voted against that private member's bill. Every single veteran in the Liberal caucus, every single one of them who wears medals they have earned, stood up and voted against that bill.
I was really surprised, quite frankly, to see the member for South Surrey—White Rock stand up and vote against that bill. This is a person, a now member of Parliament, who has been the strongest supporter of the Equitas group that I have heard of. He has been there with them. He has been to their fundraisers. He understands the issue, and yet, when we talk about this sacred obligation, the member for South Surrey—White Rock stood up, because he was whipped by his government, and did not support a bill that would establish these fairness principles, this military covenant and a sacred obligation into legislation. That is absolutely unconscionable and shameful.
When the government talks about all of these programs and all of these things that it has created, it is multi-layered. There is a lot of confusion within the veterans community. However, one thing veterans are not confused about is that the Prime Minister did not live up to his promise. He did not live up to his promise to restore lifelong pensions.
If that was the case and the veterans were happy about what they have seen and heard, they would not be protesting outside on Parliament Hill today. There would not be a movement, a backlash, across this country on social media.
We can look at the reaction and some of the comments by those who were advocating for the lifelong pension, who actually thought that the Prime Minister meant what he said when he stood up in Belleville, that he was going to return to lifelong pensions.
Sean Bruyea, who is a veteran and veterans advocate, said:
[T]he government merely resurrected ghosts of Christmases past with a hodgepodge of benefits that amount to recycled, remodeled and repackaged programs that already exist.
Here is another:
It's fair to say the disappointment (with the new plan) has been immense because it just didn't do the trick.
If you're going to make a promise to provide lifetime pensions, then do it.
As said in the quote, “Do it.” Unfortunately, the Prime Minister failed to live up to that promise. We are asking again that he apologize to veterans. This has created a lot of animosity across this country. It has created a deep wound within the veterans community. I can speak to that clearly because I have heard from veterans how disappointed and upset they are that they were lied to and that they were disrespected.
To conclude, one of the issues, as I said, that came up across the country as I travelled is the issue of the sacred obligation, this covenant, this agreement between veterans and the government and its people. For the inestimable value of what they provide, the sacrifices and the services that not only our veterans provide but their families provide, we owe them no less, certainly no less than what was promised, certainly no less than an apology for those extremely insensitive remarks that the Prime Minister made.
I often say this, and I said it the other night as I finished up with a rebuttal for my private member's bill, that it is an incredible privilege to be able to sit in this place. There have been so many people who have sacrificed so much through times of war, families who have been decimated, lives that have been lost, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, blood that has been split. Oftentimes I will go up to the Memorial Chamber and look through the Book of Remembrance. I was there the day that my wife's Uncle Jackie's page was turned. He was killed over Poland as he flew a Lancaster bomber.
I think of those sacrifices that allow us the privilege to sit in our symbol of democracy. The Prime Minister owes those veterans an apology.