Madam Speaker, I am honoured to be here today to talk about something that is near and dear to me, our veterans.
The Government of Canada's support for Canadian Armed Forces members, for veterans, and for their families starts at recruitment, continues throughout their careers, and extends throughout their lives.
We owe an immeasurable debt to our veterans, to the fallen, and to the families who love them.
These words were from our Prime Minister, this November, who went on to say:
Just as our servicemen and women have taken care of us, we must also take care of them. It is our sacred duty as a country to be there for our heroes when they need us most.
Words count, but it is actions that matter most. Our Prime Minister did indeed make several promises to veterans, and to all Canadians, and we have been working hard to deliver on them. Since coming into office, our government has delivered on many commitments made in the campaign and given to the Minister of Veterans Affairs in his mandate letter.
We increased compensation for pain and suffering by increasing the disability award from a maximum of $310,000 to $360,000. We made retroactive payments to 67,000 veterans under the new veterans charter. We increased income replacement from 75% of a veteran's pre-release salary to 90%.
We reopened the nine Veterans Affairs Canada offices that had been closed, thereby restoring veterans' access to services in Corner Brook, Brandon, Sidney, Kelowna, Saskatoon, Charlottetown, Thunder Bay, Windsor, and Prince George. For example, the Kelowna office reopened in 2016, adding eight new front-line employees to improve access to Veterans Affairs Canada services for veterans and their families in the province. The new office serves some 3,500 veterans and enables approximately 100 veterans to meet with their case manager in person. We also opened a new office in Surrey. It serves about 7,500 veterans and enables some 206 veterans to meet with their case manager in person.
We created a brand new education benefit that will give up to $80,000 to Canadian Armed Forces members to go back to school once they have served a certain number of years. We are investing in families by expanding access to all 32 military family resource centres. I have had the great pleasure of visiting a dozen of them across this country.
As the proud mother of two Canadian Armed Forces members, I am grateful that these resources are there for them. In two years we have implemented many of the changes veterans asked for.
The member for Barrie—Innisfil said it best when he said, “The previous government had lost and had become disconnected with veterans, lost a lot of the trust.” He called it a fair criticism, and I will take him at his word.
This December, we announced one of our key promises. The Prime Minister was clear in his mandate letter to the Minister of Veterans Affairs:
Re-establish lifelong pensions as an option for our injured Veterans, while ensuring that every injured Veteran has access to financial advice and support so that they can determine the form of compensation that works best for them and their families.
We did this.
The pension for life is based on three pillars. The first is a monthly tax-free payment for life up to a maximum of $1,150 per month to recognize pain and suffering. Veterans experiencing severe barriers to returning to civilian life could be eligible for the second pillar, which is the additional pain and suffering compensation, to a maximum of $1,500 a month, tax free, for life. This equals $2,650, tax free, for life. The third pillar is income replacement, where we streamlined economic benefits, to make them more accessible, into a monthly payment of 90% of a veteran's pre-release salary.
We understand that this can sound complicated and abstract, but let us take, for example, a corporal who served six years in the Canadian Armed Forces and suffered a 100% disability. She would now be entitled to nearly $6,000 a month in benefits. This veteran could also be eligible for nearly $72,000 through the critical injury benefit, $40,000 to go back to school, and additional finances to modify her vehicle and home to meet her needs. On top of that, and perhaps most importantly, she would be eligible for vocational rehabilitation, career transition services to help her find a job and to help educate her employer about her needs, and a network of 4,000 registered mental health providers and a wellness system to help her find her new normal in civilian life.
With the income replacement benefit, veterans may also earn up to $20,000 a year before any reductions would be made, encouraging them to engage in activities meaningful to them.
It is also worth pointing out that this new plan takes survivors and dependant children into account as well. We understand that veterans need to know that their immediate family will be looked after financially.
With pension for life, in the event of a veteran's service-related death before the age of 65, the survivor and dependant children would receive the same income replacement benefit amount as the veteran would have until he or she reached the age of 65. The survivors and dependant children would then receive 70% of the benefit to which the veteran would have been entitled after 65, and this would continue for life.
Additionally, if a veteran is receiving the pain and suffering compensation at the time of her or his death, any outstanding amount would be cashed out to the survivors and dependant children. If a veteran was eligible for pain and suffering compensation but had not applied for this benefit, his or her survivors and/or dependant children may apply and receive a lump-sum amount.
While we understand that well-being is about more than dollars and cents, we also understand that financial stability is critical. That is why we are holding round tables with veterans and stakeholders across the country. That is why the six ministerial advisory groups were formed in the early days of this mandate. Throughout, we have maintained an open-door policy with veterans. We want to ensure veterans and their families fully understand the scope and impacts of changes we are introducing and to hear from them.
However, let me back up a bit.
The needs of Canada's veterans have changed significantly over the past century. Since the Pension Act was introduced in 1919, our programs and services have evolved to meet the changing needs of veterans.
By the 2000s, the Pension Act benefits were not meeting the financial security needs of many veterans. Yes, it was a monthly payment in recognition of pain and suffering but it did not always support veterans' getting back to work or to whatever gave them purpose in the years after their release from the Canadian Armed Forces. We also know that our service men and women who served in recent conflicts like Afghanistan had many different needs and that the Pension Act did not address those needs.
That is why the new veterans charter was brought in, with unanimous support of all parties, but even then it was supposed to be a living document. It was supposed to adapt to the emerging needs of our modern-day veterans and their families. Unfortunately, the previous government did not listen to those needs and it did not listen to the veterans who were asking for those changes to the new veterans charter.
In 2015, the same veteran whom we talked about earlier would have received a lump sum of $310,000. She could apply for five different income replacement benefits, each with their own eligibility criteria and application forms. Even then, instead of 90% of her pre-release salary, she would have only received 75%. She would receive $4,500 less in caregiver benefits. She would still have access to vocational rehabilitation but career transition would be a $1,000 grant to help write a resume instead of comprehensive assistance. Let us hope she did not live in one of those nine communities where a Veterans Affairs office was closed, because then she would have a hard time getting someone on the phone after the government cut front-line workers.
We were out there. I was out there, at the MFRCs in Val-Cartier, Oromocto, Winnipeg, Kingston, Nova Scotia, on base and off, talking to military members, veterans, and their families across our great land, those who were critically injured and those with varying degrees of illness and injury. We asked them what they needed with respect to financial supports and benefits and services to help them re-establish in post-military life. Every week my office and I speak to veterans, serving members, and their families. I hear some of their frustrations, their concerns, their questions. Those conversations are what drive me to continue to improve our benefits and services. It is what drives us all.
I also fully understand there are concerns about timelines, so I would like to elaborate.
There are two reasons why it will take until April 2019 to fully implement the new pension for life. The teacher in me would like to explain further.
First, we need to ensure that all Veterans Affairs Canada staff, systems, and processes are properly in place to efficiently deliver the new pension for life to the more than 74,000 veterans it will impact. Until it comes into effect, veterans will continue to receive the current benefits and services for which they are eligible.
Second, the pension for life changes need to be finalized through government legislation and, as we all know here, that takes time. That is unfortunately the one thing I have learned in my short time here on the Hill: change takes time. I know veterans and their families have been overly patient, and I thank them for their patience and I wish I could make things go faster.
Between now and the projected start date of April 1, 2019, the department will ensure that front-line staff are being trained to handle additional questions and to help guide veterans and their families through the process of transition to or applying for the pension for life. In the meantime, we are continuing to work in implementing many of the initiatives that we put forward in budget 2017, which come into effect this April.
We know that every veteran has a unique story and situation, which is why the pension for life is designed to allow veterans to decide what form of compensation works best for them and their families as they make that transition from the Canadian Armed Forces to their post-military life. The needs of one veteran and his or her family could be completely different from the veteran living on the other side of the country, or even the one living right next door. We need to ensure that they are all supported in every aspect of their lives, financially, professionally, emotionally, and physically based on their own needs and also understanding that these needs change throughout their lives.
That is why the programs, benefits, and services that veterans and their families asked for and that we are bring forward have to be nimble.
Let me give the example of a Canadian Armed Forces member who releases from the Canadian Armed Forces and a few years later realizes his knees are bad. He goes to the doctor and realizes that having jumped out of a helicopter for 20 years as a Canadian Armed Forces member, it is normal that his knees may be shot. He applies for benefits through Veterans Affairs Canada and starts receiving those benefits. A few years later he decides he would like to change his career path and comes back to Veterans Affairs Canada for the new training and education benefit so he can go back to school and start a new career. Unfortunately, some things like PTSD manifest years later, so if he presents with PTSD, he can come back and ask for more help. When he needs us, we will be there.
While the government is working through that legislative process to implement the new pension for life, the Minister of Veterans Affairs and I are already always meeting face-to-face with veterans and their families across the country to talk about the new programs, discuss some challenges and opportunities, and ensure veterans' questions and concerns are being addressed.
As I said earlier, I will always listen to veterans. I have learned so much from them over the past two years and I am so thankful for their willingness to reach out and share their stories. They, and their families, are what drive me to do better.
Veterans have been asking for years for changes and improvements in the new veterans charter and it will take time to implement those changes. In the two years since the election, we have essentially been flying the plane at the same time that we have been building it. We opened the VAC offices and hired more than 450 employees to serve our veterans and their families. Combined with over $6 billion in initiatives that we announced in budgets 2016 an 2017, we have invested an additional $3.6 billion into this flexible package of benefits and programs. Again, I wish it could be faster. We can always do better and we will continue to do better.
We need to better communicate with veterans to ensure they are aware of what they are aware of what they are eligible for and we need to truly treat the new veterans charter like a living document and adjust it to the realities of ill and injured members of the Canadian Armed Forces and their families. We need to get faster at providing responses to our veterans and address the backlog.
Veterans and their families have earned Canada's respect and gratitude. Our government is giving back to those who have given so much in services to all Canadians.
I want to explain to people why I decided to run for federal office.
As I have said, I have two sons serving in the Canadian Armed Forces. I will be honest that I was frustrated and angry, like many military families. I felt as if the government was not listening, and I could either stay quiet or I could get involved. I was worried that if one of my sons became ill or injured, would Canada be there for him?
As my two sons serve in the Canadian Armed Forces, and as my husband and father were firefighters, unfortunately PTSD has a chair at my kitchen table. I wish veterans did not need our services. I wish they never became ill or injured, but that is not reality. However, I want them to know that if they do, we will be there. I will be there.
Earlier today, veterans came to advocate on behalf of their comrades in arms, right outside here. I applaud them for that, and I will be outside to listen to them shortly.
We have a lot of work to do as a government and as a nation to rebuild the trust that was broken. Many veterans and their families are still hurting, and they are frustrated. I meet with them every chance I get. I speak with them, I listen, and I read their social media posts. I have met with our incredible veterans at Ste. Anne's Hospital in my home province, and I again thank them for reaching out. Their stories and, more important, their suggestions help me in making decisions every day.
In listening to the veterans who have reached out to all of us, one thing comes out loud and clear. Veterans and their families, and Canadians are really tired of the partisanship. So am I. While we can stand here and make claims of who treated veterans better, who did what or does what to help them, how does that achieve our objective to help veterans in need? It does not. It helps politicians. It helps for content and clips for social media sites to help fuel claims. I will not do it.
I ask members of the House to please stop this. Let us use our energies and come together for our common cause. Let us work together to get the timelines down. Let us collaborate on how to make that transition easier. Let us share those best practices. Let us focus our energies on what is really important: those brave men and women outside today, those who proudly wore that Canadian flag on their shoulders like my sons do.
We have come a long way in supporting our veterans, but there is still so much to do. We need to make that transition between the Canadian Armed Forces and civilian life seamless. However, all members in the House and any veterans or family members listening today should rest assured that I will never cease in my efforts to improve their lives.
I know veterans have heard it all before. Why should they believe me now? I stand in the House and I ask all veterans and Canadians listening today to let me show them. Let me give them a reason to believe.