Madam Speaker, it is with great respect that I rise today on behalf of the Bloc Quebecois to participate in the second reading debate on Bill C-61, an act to amend the War Veterans Allowance Act, the Pension Act, the Merchant Navy Veteran and Civilian War-related Benefits Act, the Department of Veterans Affairs Act, the Veterans Review and Appeal Board Act and the Halifax Relief Commission Pension Continuation Act and to amend certain other acts in consequence thereof.
The purpose of this bill is to provide financial compensation to make up for our governments' negligence.
The government passed legislation providing numerous benefits for armed forces veterans returning to Canada at the end of World War II, but refused to help merchant navy veterans who were trying to resume their lives, which had been interrupted when they volunteered to serve their country, particularly during the two world wars in the heavily torpedoed convoy lanes.
For over 50 years, the Canadian merchant navy veterans, the fourth arm of the fighting services as they were called during World War II, have been discriminated against by the government because they were paramilitaries.
This bill will correct certain anomalies and has the support of the Bloc Quebecois. But unless these individuals receive retroactive compensation and the same treatment as their military comrades, the injustice inflicted on them by our government will never be erased.
It is important to give some background when talking about the merchant marine. On November 16, 1939, two weeks after Great Britain declared war on Germany, the first merchant marine convoy left the Port of Halifax.
This convoy opened the war-time route to England and the Soviet Union, carrying vital supplies to overseas allied forces, and many of the crew members on these ships lost their lives. Their losses were proportionately higher than those of all the other military forces.
The merchant navy was the backbone of the supply system in the North Atlantic that helped preserve the freedom of the British and of their allies. At the beginning of the war, Canada's merchant navy, which was governed by the very strict measures in the Canada Shipping Act, had a total of 37 ocean going ships and about 1,400 seamen.
The government played an active role in the evolution of the situation. A Canadian interdepartmental merchant navy commission was established. A crown corporation, Wartime Merchant Shipping Limited, was set up in 1941 to look after the merchant navy and, the following year, the Park Steamship Company was created to supervise merchant seamen and ships under construction.
Recruiting offices were set up to send people where demand was strongest. Merchant seamen were under the authority of DND's naval section. Ships left in convoys or alone, with sealed orders from the British admiralty that were handed out locally by the commander of the naval forces.
In spite of the casualties, by the end of the war, Canada had 157 ships and some 12,000 seamen, or an additional 120 ships and 10,600 seamen. We had the third largest merchant navy in the world.
On February 8, 1944, C.D. Howe, the Minister of Munitions and Supplies, said on CBC radio that “without our merchant seamen, our combat forces would have been immobilized and the brilliant campaign in North Africa would not have been possible. We would not have succeeded in landing on the coasts of Sicily and Italy”. Without our seamen, thousands of soldiers would not have been transported to the battlefields of Europe or the Pacific, as members of inter-allied operations clearly remembered. They were also responsible for delivering Malta.
Their precious cargoes made them immediate targets for the Axis powers. The German strategy was to follow the merchant marine to cut the supply lines to Canadian ships. German submarines and planes knew their itineraries and unmercilessly attacked the merchant ships. In addition, the German submarines hunted them up and down the Atlantic coast in an effort to find them, monitor them and catch them.
In fact, in 1942, they penetrated deep into the Gulf of St. Lawrence where they attacked a convoy and sunk six merchant ships, including two Canadian ships and two of their Canadian escorts.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill admitted, and I quote: “I was much more concerned over this battle than I had been over the glorious air battle known as the Battle of Britain”. He acknowledged that all would have been lost had the merchant marine failed. However, it succeeded and kept the British and their allies in the war.
Before the start of the second world war, the German navy had planned a campaign to attack allied merchant marine ships en route from North America. The destruction of the merchant marine ships, which were neither well armed nor well armoured, became the prime objective of the Nazi warships, planes and submarines.
Packs of 10 or 12 German submarines roamed the Atlantic to hit and sink the supply ships. German aircraft bombarded them as they approached the coast of Europe. German warships disguised as cargo ships used their hidden deck guns to attack the merchant marine fleet at sea. Alone or in convoy, these ships faced the risk of attack at any point.
As the orders of the German high command indicate, the merchant seamen were at the heart of the Battle of the Atlantic. As the merchant ships were constant targets for enemy ships, the allied warships were unable to detect or combat German submarines. Until 1942, the mere sight of a submarine periscope was enough to put convoys to flight. Slower replenishment vessels trailed behind and were torpedoed. Merchant ships were not equipped for serious fighting.
While they were required to carry anti-aircraft guns as well as gas and fire protection equipment, merchant ships were seldom able to defend themselves against torpedoes, bombs and shells launched by heavily armed enemy ships. This was what the merchant marine was up against during the war.
In other cases, the most valuable cargo was placed in the middle of the convoy, the surrounding ships acting as buffers. The ships on the outside were the easiest targets. When under attack and heavily damaged, they were left to their own devices. If the ship sank, seamen then faced the perils of freezing water, icy gusts of wind and 10-foot waves. They knew they were likely to die. The German submarine commanders had received the order to take no prisoners. Fortunately, some did anyway.
It was not until 47 years after the second world war that legislation was finally introduced in this respect.
In 1992, the government passed a bill to correct these anomalies, namely the Merchant Navy Veteran and Civilian War-related Benefits Act. This act provided wartime merchant seamen with the same rights to all the benefits that were currently available to the armed forces, but not retroactively, and without recognizing the merchant navy as a paramilitary force.
Bill C-61 introduces some technical changes by which merchant navy veterans will be covered by the major pieces of legislation that apply to veterans, but once again without retroactivity.
At the present time, benefits to merchant mariners fall under the legislation applicable to civilians. This denigrates the efforts of these veterans, yet they plied the same waters as the navy, faced the same enemy aircraft as the airforce, had to dodge the same bullets as the army. Canada did not, however, consider them veterans. In all other allied countries, they would have been entitled to the same benefits and the same war service status as other veterans.
In short, this omnibus bill makes it possible to amend a number of acts at one time with a very specific objective in mind. Primarily, these changes will make it possible for the programs available to veterans to be extended to merchant navy veterans.
I repeat, the Bloc Quebecois is in agreement with these principles of equality, of recognition, of equity, and of support for all those who risked their lives, or lost their lives, in the cause of peace. Our greatest regret, moreover, is that this government was so long in acknowledging the role played by the merchant mariners in the two world wars and in Korea, and most especially the fact that it refuses to grant retroactivity for benefits merchant mariners did not receive, while army, air force and navy veterans did.
The major features of this bill are as follows: inclusion in the definition “member of the forces”; payment of a veterans allowance under the provisions of the War Veterans Allowance Act; a prisoner of war allowance; assessment increases for survivors of disability pensioners; deadline extension for termination of war veterans allowance payments; regulations assigning funeral and burial programs to a non-government body, such as the Last Post Fund; continuation of pension payments for those blinded during the 1917 Halifax explosion and provision for the board to review earlier decisions.
Recently, three former members of the merchant marine staged a hunger strike on the steps of the Parliament Buildings in order to obtain compensation for something that should have been sorted out right after the war ended.
As Bloc Quebecois critic, I recognize that merchant mariners have suffered for too long at the hands of government bureaucracy.
Former members of Canada's merchant marine have been fighting for a very long time for recognition of their courageous actions before, during and after World War II. Members of the merchant marine were the first to enter the war and the last to come back to peace. They transported our troops and supplies to Europe throughout the war, and brought them back afterwards.
It is true that merchant mariners working on board the Park Steamship Company's vessels formed a union in 1944 in order to improve their working conditions, obtain mattresses, drinking water, food, blankets and better wages, and that they were reluctantly recognized by the government, although they had promised not to strike.
Nonetheless, a special V-Day commemorative ceremony was organized in February 1944 in Montreal to honour merchant marine veterans and their contribution to the war effort. Newspapers ran headlines reading “Merchant marine veterans demand soldier status”. And throughout the war, they were constantly referred to as Canada's “fourth armed force” by many of the politicians of the day, including Prime Minister Mackenzie King, C.D. Howe, the Hon. J.T. Michaud, Minister of Transport, and many others. The idea was taken up by the media and the House of Commons, but dropped when the war ended.
After the war, merchant seamen were no longer needed. The fleet was privatized. It was estimated that less than 4,000 jobs would be available to the 12,000 seamen, who were very badly treated, even though they asked to be considered as veterans in order to get the related benefits.
When we ask the minister why he will not retroactively give merchant navy seamen what soldiers got, he says that merchant seamen are entitled to the same benefits as other veterans. What he does not say, however, is that they do not get equal treatment when it comes to retroactivity. In my opinion, without equal access to retroactivity, there can be no equal treatment in terms of the benefits involved. This is why Bill C-61 is not complete.
After World War II, merchant navy veterans were deprived of all the benefits that other veterans enjoyed. These seamen were paramilitaries. Yet, they were ignored by the government for several decades and this is why I plan to move an amendment to the bill, so that they can be entitled to tax-free retroactive compensation. This retroactivity would compensate merchant seamen for lost opportunities, while also ending the discrimination practiced by previous governments.
Where these people discriminated against because they formed a union so as to be treated like human beings, or because the fleet was privatized?
Let me give you some examples of discrimination. The governments denied that merchant seamen were the “fourth arm of the fighting services” or the “fourth arm of the armed forces” as they were called during the war.
They denied that merchant seamen were bound by their enlistment contracts. They could not leave at any time they wished; they were assigned to their post by order in council and by ship's articles. They were thrown in prison, if they were absent without permission.
The authorities denied that they had suffered the highest losses of all the services, even though this fact was admitted during the war. They were easy prey in the submarine war.
The authorities denied that they had criss-crossed dangerous waters for the six long years of the war. The war went on in their theatre longer than was the case for any other service.
The authorities denied that they had sailed under admiralty orders.
They denied that the merchant mariners were badly paid. They were not as well paid as their counterparts in the navy, although government files indicate otherwise.
The authorities denied that they were subject to disciplinary measures, although they reported to the judge advocate general of the navy, and were part of the structure of the military operations groups and could be incarcerated by the military police and the RCMP.
The authorities denied they paid income tax.
After the war, they could build houses for their military comrades if they worked in construction, but they could not get one of their own.
There were not given the employment preference reserved for the military in the public service. The Canadian Corps of Commissionaires was not open to the merchant marine until 1989.
They had no say in the drafting of Bill C-84 in 1992.
In 1946, briefs were submitted to the special veterans affairs committee of the House of Commons calling for their inclusion in the veterans rehabilitation programs. Most of the demands made at that time have never been dealt with.
They were denied representation at official Remembrance Day ceremonies, although they had been represented during the second world war.
And then there is the whole miserable history of the Hal Banks period. In 1963, after nearly a year of investigation, the industrial inquiry commission on the disruption of shipping, under British Columbia Justice Norris, brought down a report that strongly denounced Banks, his methods and his associates.
In it, Banks was compared to Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini because of his dictatorial tendencies. Justice Norris described the outcome of his acts as “industrial death”. Sailors were deprived of the opportunity to work at sea and labelled as communists and thus unemployable on land.
They were subjected to brutal treatment. One of the most favoured means of dissuasion was to put a sailor's legs up over the curb of a sidewalk and then to jump on them in order to break them. These acts of brutality were not reserved for sailors alone; even captains were attacked for something as minor as delaying a sailing.
Since the merchant mariners' average age is 77, and that of the prisoners 87, the following retroactive benefits are being demanded: a public apology by the federal government; reimbursement of income tax with compound interest; reimbursement of forced savings and unclaimed wages; compensation and benefits retroactive to the date of death or injury for medicare and the veterans independence program, benefits under this having been refused since its inception; a tax-exempt lump sum payment for merchant mariners with wartime service, with an additional amount for merchant mariners who were POWs for more than 36 months; exemption from income tax for the rest of their lives; and inclusion of unionized merchant mariners in the programs available to their comrades.
Government can afford to rectify the situation since there are millions of dollars in unspent funds available, according to Public Accounts of Canada, Volume II, part 1.
To conclude, given that neither Bill C-61 in 1961 nor Bill C-84 in 1992 rectified the situation, I hope this government will not make the same mistake today with Bill C-61.
While the minister was seen on a number of occasions, at memorial services in Europe, crying his heart out for those who died 50 years ago, he remains ice-cold today, apparently unmoved by the representations of their surviving brothers in arms, who are suffering physically and mentally.
I think this circus has been going on long enough. I ask that this government take action and rectify once and for all the situation of merchant seamen and retroactively grant them these benefits.