Mr. Speaker, this is an important debate brought by my colleague today, because it highlights one of our most important duties as parliamentarians. As I have said in debates in this place, before Canada sends our men and women into harm's way, whether it is fighting ISIS or in other deployments, decisions related to the Canadian Armed Forces, those Canadians who serve us, are perhaps the most important decisions, debates, and questions we have as parliamentarians.
We should be very deliberative and thoughtful in our decisions with respect to deploying our military. We need to apply that same deliberate, compassionate, and honest approach in how we treat those men and women who come back with a variety of service injuries.
Unfortunately, in the last decade-plus, there has been a lot of rhetoric with respect to veterans' issues and veterans' care, but very little deliberate language trying to explain and understand how we best provide for our men and women. They are often used as political tools and I want to see that end, so I am going to devote most of the time I have for my remarks today to setting the record straight. Even some of the language I see from the minister's office shows he does not understand how programs and services are delivered to the people he serves, the same with people in his office. I hope they are tuning in.
I am also going to try to take a balanced look at the new veterans charter, and why, as minister, I tried to improve it, fix the problems, fill in the gaps, as opposed to making irresponsible promises that the Prime Minister and the Liberal Party, in the last campaign, either did not understand, did not cost, or did not care whether they fulfilled them. I certainly hope it is not the last one of those reasons. I certainly hope not. I think, at a bare minimum, all politicians, when talking about care for those who serve us, have to have honesty and respect underlying all of our comments, all of our promises, and all of our commitments.
We hear a lot about quotes from our past with respect to our obligation. I have often talked about the Royal Canadian Legion, and once a Liberal member mocked me for suggesting the Legion has a role, but the Legion has been serving veterans far longer than Veterans Affairs Canada. In fact, they were given a mandate to help veterans and help commemoration through an act of Parliament in this place in 1926. They still, in many ways, are at the forefront in their 1,400 locations across the country, where each branch has a veterans' service officer.
I want to start my remarks by saying, veterans started taking care of veterans first, and they still do. I spoke with many of them on the Hill today, because they are trying to take care of their comrades and in some cases, themselves. As I said, we owe them honesty and respect. That is why we are having this debate today. The Prime Minister has not provided honesty or respect in all of his commitments with respect to veteran pensions and veteran care.
We saw that first-hand two weeks ago in Edmonton, where an injured veteran asked him about his commitments, and the Prime Minister told that veteran that he was, in many ways, asking for more than the government could give. However, he was only asking for the Prime Minister to live up to his promise.
Let us talk about this pension for life charade from Christmastime. Even in the minister's own remarks, he suggests building upon programs in place. That was one of his responses. Many of the programs put in place where put in place by ministers of the Paul Martin government, when they started the new veterans charter. Then under the Harper government, we modified and enhanced benefits, including in my time.
When I introduced Bill C-58 in the last Parliament, which outlined a number of new enhancements, new benefits for veterans after direct consultation with veterans, I embedded into that legislation language with respect to the just and appreciation and the obligation we had to our veterans. This comes from a 1917 quote from Sir Robert Borden given to our men overseas who were injured in and around the campaigns of 1917.
Yesterday, Liberal members voted down a private member's bill put forward by my colleague from Barrie to enshrine that sacred obligation, that enhanced social covenant, that we owe to our citizens who we ask to serve with the risk of unlimited liability. That is why our veterans are in court. That is why they are asking for such a covenant. Their comrades in the United Kingdom have it. I is talked about it in Bill C-58.
One of the members from British Columbia brought forward an opposition day motion on it in the last Parliament. I am quite sure the Prime Minister voted for it then as third party leader. He whipped his members to vote against it yesterday, even though I know a lot of those members deeply care, including some who are in the House now. I wish their voices would be heard in their caucus, because right now veterans do not feel they are getting honesty and respect from the Liberal government.
We often quote Sir Robert Borden, who happens to have been my favourite prime minister because of his leadership during the Great War and the toll it took on him.
Here is a quote from a veteran who died 100 years ago, Talbot Papineau. Ironically the Prime Minister is also the member of Parliament for Papineau, but he is referred to as Prime Minister because he leads the government. Everyone in the House has a right to speak as members of Parliament.
The Papineau family, going back to Talbot Papineau's grandfather, has been so important for Quebec life that the Prime Minister now represents a riding named after the Papineau family. The Prime Minister also played Talbot Papineau, the Great War soldier, on television, so there is a direct connection there.
What did Talbot Papineau say to his troops days before he died in the Battle of Passchendaele? He said, “For those who have been disabled, who cannot carry on the good fight — it is certainly for us to see that they want for nothing.” He died on the day his regiment lost six of its junior officers on one of the worst days of fighting in Passchendaele. We honour Passchendaele. I know the parliamentary secretary was in Passchendaele.
The Prime Minister needs to do more than just act in the form of Talbot Papineau. He needs to live up to those words. This debate is about that. The fact that he whipped his members to vote against this concept yesterday is troubling.
We do owe a special, a sacred, a profound obligation to those who are injured while serving us. That is why the Conservative Party has brought this opposition day forward today. Veterans heard the Prime Minister of Canada, in my view, disrespect a veteran with his response in Edmonton because that veteran was asking the Prime Minister to live up to his promises.
Where did the Liberal government go wrong with veterans in its first two years? It boils down to two central pledges in the Liberal campaign. I was still veterans affairs minister during the campaign. During the 2015 campaign, unions were paying people to protest in front of my office. I was still trying to help veterans in need.
I remember very well when the Prime Minister, then third party leader, leader of the Liberal Party, had a rally not far from CFB Trenton in Belleville. The party flew in its star veteran candidates. The Minister of National Defence was there. The parliamentary secretary for U.S. relations was there. The parliamentary secretary for transport was there, all wearing medals, all behind the Prime Minister. It was very impressive form, very impressive people individually..
The Prime Minister said two things in those remarks that day. He said that he would never allow a circumstance where the Government of Canada forced veterans into court to be heard in their fight for benefits. He also made a commitment that day to return to the Pension Act, not make up a modified pension for life, which even the minister admits only 10% or so of people will see any enhancement whatsoever. He made a commitment to return to what veterans know as the old system, the Pension Act, where everyone got a pension for life.
I never made that promise as minister because the old act had inherent problems with it. Many people forgot that. My old friend, Peter Stoffer, the long-time critic for the NDP, agreed with me that the old system had problems and we had to fix the new system, the new veterans charter, because it was based on overall wellness of the veterans and their families. Honesty is not making a promise one will likely not keep.
Then there was the court decision. I have not told the House this before, but I will inform members of it today. I think the people involved with Equitas would be okay with my talking about this level of disclosure.
The previous Government of Canada, and I was minister at the time, and the Equitas veterans, who were in court because of their frustration, built a level of trust. As a veteran myself and with veterans on my team, I hired a new lawyer. I replaced the Department of Justice lawyer who had brought an argument suggesting in a pretrial motion that the Government of Canada owed no special duty to our veterans. I found that repugnant as a lawyer, as a parliamentarian, and as a veteran. We learned from the Equitas veterans. The family caregiver benefit, the retirement income security benefit, all the benefits the Liberals are now renaming and trying to claim as their own, a lot of them came from advice I received, and we virtually had Equitas settled. Why was it not settled? Because the Liberals dangled the promise of a return to the old Pension Act.
I said that if that was indeed the promise, I could not meet it. I asked whether we could turn our settlement into an abeyance agreement, or at least call time out on the litigation. I told the veterans that if they trusted the Liberals and wanted to go with that deal, as their friend now and not just as minister, I would respect that. I had told Prime Minister Harper at the time that we were close to settling Equitas. I looked at it as a failing of mine. Why did it fail? Because a promise was made, a deception was sown, and the Liberals need to take accountability for it.
I would much rather the Minister of Veterans Affairs admit that the Liberals have broken their promise than to dress it up in a press conference a few days before Christmas. It was shameful. They should step up and say they cannot meet their promise.
The Prime Minister in his town hall in Edmonton basically admitted the government could not afford it. Why did he promise it? We are looking at a return to the old system, a cost to the federal government of somewhere between $20 billion and $35 billion. That is because the old system wanted veterans to just quickly go on a pension. It was not about wellness. It was not about transition. If veterans had an operational stress injuries under the old system and because with mental health injuries they could have good times and bad times and they could respond to treatment, they did not get a permanent disability of 100% a lot of the time. If they were assessed at a 40% disability, they had a pension for life that committed them to poverty, or addiction, or family break-up or homelessness.
That is why the old system does not work. We need to focus on the wellness. For those who cannot transition, because of physical or mental injuries, give them lifetime financial support. I did that as minister, with the retirement income security benefit, with the critical injury benefit, with enhancements to PIA, all the things the Liberals are building on now, to ensure the moderate to severely injured, who could not transition, were supported for life. All Canadians want to see that.
Here is what is wrong with the Liberal system. The Liberals throw this number around, which I know they do not even understand. They said they spent $10 billion on veterans. That is not true. Some of that is accrual accounting, and they are not even forthright on it. It is not a cash accounting spend. It is an accrual. It is a commitment of the federal government to maintain a lifelong benefit. I would like them to break that $10 billion down into how much is in accrual accounting and how much is cash out the door. We will know in a couple of years when lapses in public accounts come in. The reckoning is coming. Why can they not just be forthright?
Here is what was not smart about the government's first act. The retroactive top-up of the disability award was very bad public policy. Every dollar I had from the treasury, working with Prime Minister Harper at the time, I wanted to go to the moderately to severely injured and their families, those who were struggling. The vast majority of the $2 billion or so the Liberals spent retroactively topping up the lump sum went to people with disability assessments in the 13% range. They spent at least a billion dollars on hearing loss. If they were more forthright, I would know exactly how much. Those funds should have put toward families.
Expand the permanent impairment allowance and give family caregiver benefits to everyone on PIA. That is where I was going. That would be sound policy because those are the people who have had trouble transitioning. Those are the people Talbot Papineau, 100 years ago, said, “it is certainly for us to see that they want for nothing.”
I know veterans with lower level injuries, such as musculoskeletal and hearing. Some of them go on to work on Bay Street, or in government, or are deputy ministers. Do they need the transitional support? Generally, not. Therefore, any funds should go to the ones who need it.
To say I am profoundly disappointed to be having to debate this here today is an understatement. As I stated at the outset, the two things that veterans deserve are honesty and respect. They did not get that.
If the Prime Minister wants to show those things, he should admit he did not understand the cost of his pension promise, instead of suggesting the veteran in Edmonton was asking for too much. The Prime Minister did not know what he promised. That is shameful. He should admit that.
The other thing he should do is meet with the Equitas veterans. They are wonderful people. They have served us. I know a lot of the Liberal MPs have met them and like them. Why is he forcing them to go to the Supreme Court of Canada? I agreed with his promise. Veterans should not have to face off against their government in court. He is making them do that. The lawyers from the Justice Department, who I removed from the case, he reappointed. They went back to their old argument that we had stopped them from making.
This is about owning leadership. Leadership is not just photographs, or as the Prime Minister suggested to the Ethics Commissioner, he is like a networker-in-chief for Canada. He owes it to the veterans of our country to tell them why he has broken his promises on a return to a pension for all injured, and for returning Equitas veterans to court. Until I see responsibility from the Prime Minister and the minister, the Conservatives will continue to fight in this place for those who serve us.