Mr. Speaker, better late than never. Half a century after the fact, we have our government acknowledging that a variety of Canadian civilians, such as firefighters and Red Cross personnel, took part in World War II and the Korean War and shared the merits and often the dangers of military personnel. Yet until now they have not been entitled to the pensions and other benefits received by uniformed veterans which are concrete expressions of this country's gratitude.
Bill C-41, which we are looking at now, has the praiseworthy objective of remedying that injustice. It does so only partially, however, as I shall attempt to demonstrate.
Another category of civilians also has been waiting 55 years for recognition of their merits. These are the merchant mariners. Until now, it appears that those in high places have forgotten that these are the people to whom we owe the fact that the weapons and ammunition, without which our soldiers could do nothing, were able to be shipped across the Atlantic on merchant ships hounded by German U-boats. Many of these merchant mariners now sleep at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Only this year did the surviving brave mariners, or the widows, get any compensation.
The compensation was awarded to the Merchant Marine veterans of Canada and Newfoundland who served in wartime and were not members of the armed forces, or to their surviving spouses if they were deceased.
This settlement for the Merchant Mariners is close to the amount of compensation mentioned in the dissenting report tabled by the Bloc Quebecois on this issue. We called for a minimum of $20,000. They received a maximum of $20,000. It is interesting that this amount is within $1,000 of the amount that would have been paid in 1945, taking inflation and interest into account.
The bill before us today concerns other categories of civilians who served overseas. They are primarily the members of the corps of Canadian firefighters for service in the United Kingdom. These men helped fight the fires in the German bombing raids in London and elsewhere for the first two years of the war.
Others benefiting from the bill are the Canadian members of the voluntary aid detachment of the British Red Cross during the first world war. It took 82 years to remember them. Welfare workers and voluntary aid workers in the second world war and the Korean war are also finally being recognized.
Not forgotten either are the civilian pilots in the ferry command, who often at the risk of their lives convoyed aircraft built here and destined for the European front between Canada and Great Britain.
The members of these various categories of civilians deserving of recognition by their country are, under this bill, being accorded the same treatment as military veterans—and this is fair—and therefore are entitled to a pension. As many of them are dead, their widows will benefit.
The part of Bill C-41 that grants them full eligibility for pensions from the Department of Veterans Affairs is an improvement over an existing act, namely the Civilian War-related Benefits Act.
Under that act, welfare workers who worked with the Canadian armed forces during the war have had limited access to pensions from the very beginning. The same goes for Ferry Command personnel. In order to have access to the benefits provided under that act, these people had to have suffered injuries during an offensive or a counter-offensive.
Many of these civilians did not get any disability pension following accidents that occurred in situations such as the moving of troops and materiel. Bill C-41 would eliminate that restriction, which has the effect of granting pensions, contrary to what is done in the case of veterans, only to those who were injured while on duty, under certain conditions.
The problem is that this good legislation will not be retroactive. It does not provide any compensation for the 55 years during which all these brave people were forgotten by their government.
This is an injustice. Since we are now recognizing that these people are entitled to national recognition just like military personnel who have been getting pensions since the end of the war, it is totally unfair to make them pay for the fact that the government waited for over half a century before recognizing their contribution, and thus their rights to national recognition.
Consequently, when this bill is reviewed in committee, I will propose that the government take action to correct this anomaly by making the act retroactive in this respect.
I do not find it acceptable for the government to permit itself what would be considered a reprehensible abuse of power by the courts if it had been the action of an individual against his employees. Can anyone imagine a business leader admitting that some of his staff had been unfairly treated for years and agreeing to remedy the situation only if no retroactivity were involved?
But this principle of obvious equity does not seem popular with the government, if we are to judge by its reaction to the Canadian Human Rights Commission ruling ordering it to compensate those of its employees who, because they were women, had for years been paid less than their male counterparts—another example. It will be recalled that Ottawa held out against making these retroactive payments for a long time. It only did so because it was forced to by the tribunal.
The purpose of Bill C-41 is to correct another anomaly. This one involves members of the Canadian armed forces who are still serving but are suffering from service-related disabilities.
These men and women are not currently entitled to disability pay before their release. This situation is going to be corrected. We need hardly say that we are in favour of this provision of the bill.
But we do not understand why clause 46 excludes the RCMP from this measure. I will be raising this in committee and calling on the government to withdraw this provision from the bill.
Another anomaly is corrected. As the result of an error for which the recipient is in no way responsible, a veteran might receive a higher amount of pension than his entitlement for a certain period of time.
Until now, when the error was detected, the person concerned was required to pay back the overpayment under conditions and a deadline that might be prejudicial to his quality of life. From now on the victims of these administrative errors will be treated more humanely. We approve of this provision, while once again regretting that it has been so long in coming.
I will now give some of the other provisions of this bill in favour of pensioners with which we are totally in agreement.
Permitting veteran disability pensioners who are married to, or living common-law with, each other to both receive the married rate;
Providing for a one-year continuation of a deceased veteran's pension to the guardian of the veteran's orphaned children;
Correcting the pension indexing formula to accommodate declines in the consumer price index;
Consolidating the provisions relating to service in special duty areas, peacekeeping and Korean war service, directly into the Pension Act;
Allowing compassionate awards to be continued to survivors without the necessity of a time-consuming high-level re-adjudication.
Finally, we naturally approve the housekeeping amendments to clarify regulation-making authorities, ensure the use of gender neutral language, correct cross-references, correct the French name of the department—it is called in French the ministère des Anciens combattants, with a small “c”, whereas it should be a capital “C”, thus ministère des Anciens Combattants—and, finally to repeal obsolete acts and provisions.
In conclusion, I come to the date the bill will come into effect. In light of the already considerable delay in the bill's correction of the various injustices, the Royal Canadian Legion would like, quite rightly, that once the bill has received Royal Assent and an implementing order has been issued for it, to have the changes it provides to be made effective not on the date of the order but rather as of March 1, 1999, the first day of the month the minister announced it.
Once again all these civilian and military individuals, who are entitled to recognition must not be penalized by the length of time it has taken to put a statute in place in order to correct the various injustices these people have faced up to now.
To summarize, we support this piece of legislation in principle, but reserve the right to propose certain amendments to improve it. Subject to these amendments we are happy with the content of Bill C-41.
I repeat, we regret that this legislation comes some 50 years too late. However, as I said at the start, better late than never. We will propose to the government that the text of it be amended, either to make it effective retroactively or to have it provide for the payment of an indemnity to correct, at least for those still living, the injustice this delay represents.
We will also propose that the RCMP not be excluded from the application of the law with respect to the pension for individuals wounded in the line of duty but still serving. I add that we will ask for a greater assurance of confidentiality for personal information that candidates for benefits will have to disclose to the department.