Madam Speaker, I am delighted to participate in the debate on Bill C-55.
From the outset, I want to point out that I support Bill C-55, as the son of a World War II veteran who served at D-Day and went through the battle of the Falaise Gap and Caen. My father came home with shrapnel in his legs and that was there until the day he died. He lost hearing in one ear. I know what it is like to live with a veteran who had to seek services from Veterans Affairs. I know what it is like for someone who, through no fault of his own, did not come back the same person as when he left for the war. Yet my father would say every day that he would do it again.
At the end of World War II, no country treated their veterans better than Canada, bar none.
As the vice-chair of the national defence committee and the vice-chair of the Afghan committee, I have had the opportunity to visit Afghanistan on three occasions and meet with our soldiers in the field. I have had the opportunity to meet with veterans here. As a member of the Royal Canadian Legion in Richmond Hill, Branch 375, I have talked to veterans. All they want and deserve are services that will respond effectively to their needs.
When a veteran, in his eighties, needs a new pair of eyeglasses and it takes months to get a response, that is unacceptable. When a veteran needs a new hearing aid and it takes months, that is unacceptable.
Whether these amendments are made or not, the charter still does not deal with the issue of customer service. We need to respond more effectively and efficiently to the needs of veterans. As more and more people come home from Afghanistan, we will have a larger number of veterans. The defence committee last year did a post traumatic stress disorder study. We found that there was a discrepancy in the country between east and west in terms of the services available for veterans.
I wrote the Minister of Veterans Affairs on October 25 about the $4,100 currently paid for burial. That is about 70% less than a normal burial in our country and one-third of what it would be if one was killed in action in Afghanistan. That is unacceptable. Some families do not have the money to cover full burial costs and the government only provides $4,100. I hope the minister will respond effectively on that issue.
There is no question that the bill before the House tries to address some of the issues. We know that the Royal Canadian Legion, for example, is supportive of these changes. Our party has no intention of holding up the bill. We want to ensure we move forward as fast as possible.
The charter was passed in 2005, and this is a living document. It is too bad that it has taken four years to come to this point. We need to act quickly to deal with some of the issues that are before the House and get this done.
One of the issues the government did not deal with effectively was on the lump-sum payment. That is surprising, given the minister's departmental study found that 31% of veterans were unhappy with the lump-sum payment. Although the minister said that he would improve the system, under this legislation, all the minister has really done is divide up the payment differently. Veterans have not been asking for that. That is not what that study showed.
Clearly dealing with the issue of partial payments over a number of years for recipients or a single lump-sum payment still does not address the issue that many veterans have articulated. That should have been addressed in the legislation. Again, the minister has had four years and nothing has really been done to address it.
In fact, if we look at Australia, the Australian veterans receive an average of $329,000, whereas the British receive up to $1 million. We need to address this kind of issue for our veterans.
Pieces of the legislation address the concerns of a number of people and a number of associations, such as the proposed legislation dealing with $58,000 per year for seriously wounded or ill veterans, an improvement, and for those too injured to return to the workforce, a minimum of $40,000 per year no matter what the salary was when serving in the Canadian Forces for those receiving the monthly earnings loss benefit. Again, that is an important change.
These changes are necessary but, again, it is the ability of veterans to access these changes. It is the ability of veterans to get the services they need in a prompt and efficient manner.
A larger disability award is needed in line with what is provided in Australia, which is also provided to disabled civilian veterans who also receive assistance. Again, these are things we could do. I mentioned burial costs, again things we could address.
In the House we always say how important veterans are, yet when it comes to action, we have waited four years for changes, which, again, particularly because of pressure from all opposition parties, now almost at the eleventh we get this.
The new veterans charter advisory group and the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs have indicated, insistently, the need for changes and for those changes to happen quickly. Again, it is disappointing that we have waited.
On the issue of homeless veterans, it is absolutely shocking in our country that we have veterans who are homeless, who are on the streets, who have come back to a lack of support. Again, it is a national disgrace that we have homeless veterans.
Only now are the media, members of Parliament and others actually looking at this, not only as a social issue but also as a moral issue. We have a responsibility to deal with those individuals. Again, I find it very sad that we have what I call homeless heroes on the street who have no ability to deal effectively with finding work, health benefits, et cetera. We have to deal with that.
It is encouraging that many national veterans' organizations are in support of this. It is encouraging to note we are moving forward with the legislation. Some people are talking about an election. I guess that will up to the government. It only governs by the will of Parliament and hopefully maintains the confidence of Parliament. If the government is really serious, hopefully we will be able to address these issues, both now and in the upcoming budget, which the Minister of Finance has announced will be presented on March 22.
It is important that we not only respond in this way, but also that we provide more people in the field, in terms of caseworkers who deal with our veterans. We are going to see a significant increase in the numbers of veterans coming home, because of Afghanistan, and that is going to have an impact.
The number of psychiatrists and psychologists in the Canadian Forces is actually low. In fact, the services are much lower and much less effective in eastern Canada because many of those bases are further away from some of the major cities versus those in western Canada. We need to address that problem.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is not something that is always discovered on a veteran's return home, or three months later or two years later; it can be up to five years later. Again, are we ready to respond to that?
From our studies at the defence committee, the answer is clearly no. We are not ready to respond to that. On that point, I plead to the government to put the resources in to ensure we can attract the professionals to help in that regard and to help the families of those individuals.
About 10 years we did a quality of life study at the defence committee. It really responded to many of the key issues on wages, housing conditions and benefits for people. It is time we started another review and respond in terms of updating the quality of life. We ask people to go overseas and put their lives on the line, while their families are here. Do the families have the right support while those people are away? Do those people have the right support when they come home?
The answer is we do not. We have fallen a long way since the end of the Second World War when we provided the best benefits to veterans coming home after that war.
I was part of a Parliament that addressed these issues and addressed them effectively for future generations. Although we talk a lot about our responsibility to veterans, I would hope that we really show it to them, not only financially but in the other ways that I have pointed out.
I trust we can move this legislation along very quickly. Although some people have reservations, the reality is not only do we have to act at least on those changes that have been made, but we have to keep pushing on the others as well. If we do not, it will be another four years before we see any action.
Our party has pledged to do that. We are party that brought in the charter. We are the party that said it was a living document. It is too bad that it sat on the shelf for four years. Ultimately we are all collectively responsible for ensuring our veterans have the best.