Mr. Speaker, I rise on behalf of the Progressive Conservative Party and my caucus colleague the member for Saint John who sits on the national defence and veterans affairs committee. I will represent her but certainly not in the capacity that she could have spoken to the bill.
I do not think there is anyone in the House who would disagree that she passionately supports and defends the rights of veterans as well as the military. She has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that if there is anyone in the House who has the feel for what is happening in the veterans portfolio and certainly with the widows of those veterans, she is certainly the one who could put forward a very passionate plea to the government.
I am a poor stand-in but I will attempt to put our position forward. I hope to convince the government that it has an obligation, a right and a responsibility to change Bill C-50, if not in the legislation, then in the regulations as was explained by the minister this morning. And if it is not changed in the regulations and the legislation, then perhaps it should be fixed when the bill comes back from the Senate. There is an opportunity to sit down with the Senate and negotiate the necessary changes that could fix the injustice that has been articulated by previous speakers.
There is always good and there is always bad in any piece of legislation. However, the omission in this legislation is not only good or bad, it is repugnant. It is targeting a portion of our society that we should be assisting in their years of retirement. We should be providing those individuals with the VIP pension benefits. We should be showing them some respect for the sacrifices they have made and the losses they have experienced on our behalf.
There is good and there is bad. There is no question that Bill C-50 should go forward. We know full well that we would not want to stand in opposition to the bill because there is an opportunity to correct some wrongs in it. However, when the minister stood today and recognized that there is this sad omission, I did not feel confident that the minister would be able to correct it.
I do not have to explain the situation as it has been done before. However, for the purposes of those people who may be joining us just now, the problem is there is a large group of individuals who are excluded simply because of an arbitrary date that has been chosen in this legislation. I said a large group of individuals because I heard that the number is 23,000 but today the minister today said that he does not know. He does not know what the number is. He has to get confirmation of the number before he can actually mention what the number is. That is fair ball. I am okay with that.
Let us assume that the number is 23,000 plus or minus a few. The minister is not prepared to make that commitment to those 23,000 individuals because of an arbitrary date.
There is a mirror image here by the way. The mirror image is the hepatitis C compensation package that was put forward by the government. Maybe there is a model that the Liberals follow. Maybe there is a manual that is put in front of ministers. Maybe they are told that they have to follow this model which makes some people second class citizens and treats others not as second class citizens.
That model is that there is an arbitrary date. That date is May 12, 2003. Before that date those 23,000 people would have obtained these benefits but one day after that date those people do not obtain those benefits. It is not fair. It is not equitable. It is not right.
Quite frankly, we have to make sure that it is equitable, that it is made proper and that it is made right. The way to do that, as has been suggested in a number of fashions, is to change the regulations. Now I hear that maybe it is not just the regulations. Maybe it is not just the legislation. Maybe it is not just a change from the Senate coming forward. Maybe it is a matter of money.
Twenty-three thousand people are being excluded from this. I am told that the dollar amounts may well be anywhere from $23 million to $40 million. It is a lot of money, make no mistake about that, but it is not a substantial amount of money that the people excluded should not take advantage of it.
We have heard that there is ample opportunity for the government to find $43 million or $23 million. As a matter of fact, as I understand it, if we take the lower number, the Governor General spends more than that on an annual budget. I believe that the Governor General, because of her position in our society, should certainly have the ability to have funding. But I also agree that the widows of veterans or the widowers should have the ability to achieve a certain standard of living and a certain level of independence. To not allow that $23 million or $43 million to flow to those individuals in my estimation would be tragedy and a travesty for the government.
Maybe would could look at some of the areas to save that $23 million to $43 million. I think it is there. We are told there is a budget surplus.
However, it may not be money. If it is not money, then the minister must tell us what it is because I did not get an answer to my question.
I have a lot respect for the Minister of Veterans Affairs. He is a fellow Manitoban. I believe he is here for the right reasons and he does what he does for the right reasons. The problem, however, is that perhaps he does not have the influence to put proper legislation forward right now to correct a tragedy and a wrong.
Maybe the minister should get cooperation from his backbenches because I know there are many backbenchers in the government right now who support making this equitable and right. Maybe he should get that support to go forward with the regulations and come to this House today, tomorrow or next week and say he has taken the recommendation and has found the necessary money and, in fact, those 23,000 people will be looked after the way they should be.
There are others who agree with me. There are people who have sent letters to the minister and suggested he resign. Frankly, I do not subscribe to that. I believe that the minister should do what is right. He should fight for the veterans and their widows and widowers as one of his last duties in this House, as his last duty perhaps as a member of Parliament. We do not know. We may going into another election.
He should do what he believes in his heart is right. I believe, in his heart, he is concerned about those people, but unfortunately, he has not delivered. Not to deliver is not doing a job properly. Let us give him the opportunity to make that change and do it properly.
We are approaching Remembrance Day in the not too distant future. As a matter of fact, I have a poppy which is not a prop. I was told poppies can be worn only at a certain time. It is not true that we should not consider what the poppy really represents and what we as Canadians should consider when we consider our veterans and our military.
I can speak from experience. I have a Canadian Forces base in my riding. I can put faces to the people that are responsible for what we wish them to do in the military. We send them to Afghanistan and other areas throughout the globe on our behalf, and they do it willingly. Members of our military are the most professional individuals of any military anywhere in the world and they carry our flag on their arms with pride.
The reason why I mention the poppy and the military is because sometimes, other than November 11, we have a tendency to forget exactly what it is that they provide Canadians. Unfortunately, that is what is being reflected in this legislation. We are forgetting a segment of that military dependency and it is not in the best interest of Canadians.
I suggest that the legislation go forward because it is a good small step in the right direction. However, within the next month or so--if it will be that long that we are in the House and because it involves a small number of people--the minister should find out what that number is and the financial implication. He should then return to the House and tell us that either the change has been made in the regulations or that it will be fixed in the Senate when it comes forward.
It would make me very happy. It would make the Royal Canadian Legion and the widows of veterans very happy. It would make Canadians in general extremely happy to have this terrible injustice fixed. When that happens, we would all congratulate the government and certainly the minister for a job well done. All the calls for his resignation would be moot at that point, as well they should.
On behalf of my colleague who sits on the committee, who fights as hard as she possibly can for the rights of military personnel and veterans, I would suggest that the sitting backbenchers of the current government let their voices be heard and that they cooperate with the minister.
By the way, this should not be so difficult. The Prime Minister is already on record saying that he will fix this problem. Well, he is leaving soon, we think, but I do not think anybody knows just when. I do not even think the backbenchers in the Liberal Party know when, but he has said he will leave and he has said that he will fix this problem.
With his support and the support of backbenchers, and certainly with the Minister of Veterans Affairs having his heart in the right place, this should not even be an issue. This should simply be a slam dunk. The government should be able to come to the House next week and say that the problem is fixed and it is really happy to have fixed the problem.
I congratulate the government for going forward on that basis and I certainly wait with anticipation to hear that it has fixed this terrible injustice to the VIP benefits. I wish government members the best of luck in their deliberations in the not too distant future.