Mr. Speaker, one of the most substantial efforts we can make on behalf of our veterans is to help them find a career when they are released, medically or voluntarily, from the Canadian Forces. This bill might do this, though even if it does, I am afraid it likely will not be enough.
This bill amends the Public Service Employment Act to increase access to hiring opportunities in the public service for certain serving and former members of the Canadian Armed Forces. Furthermore, and perhaps more notably, this legislation would establish a right of appointment and priority over all other persons for certain members of the Canadian Forces who were released for medical reasons that were attributable to service. If members of the Canadian Armed Forces were released due to service-related injuries or illness, their priority in the public service hiring would move from fourth to first. Access to internal postings of the public service and priority over all others for external postings would be extended to Canadian Armed Forces members and veterans who had served at least three years and were honourably released.
It is one thing to have priority for jobs in the public service, but it would remain contingent on possessing the skills that match any number of the public service jobs that exist. It would rely on there being positions available in the first place.
There is nothing in this bill that offers any form of skills translation or upgrading. Also, with the freeze on hiring, what jobs are Conservatives proposing these veterans fill? With 50,000 fewer jobs and a freeze on new hiring not many jobs are really available to recently or medically released veterans.
Officials from Veterans Affairs Canada noted that where issues arise, they involve certain groups of veterans: younger veterans, those with fewer years of service, those in the lower ranks, and those medically or involuntarily released.
The unemployment rate for veterans is more or less the same as the general Canadian unemployment rate, about 8%. That said, the unemployment rate for medically released veterans is much higher, at approximately 15%.
Beyond potential incapacity, there is the additional hurdle of seriously injured veterans who may be unlikely to find employment in line with their initial goals. Injury dashes a lot of those dreams. It is a long and often endless road from recovery to rehabilitation, and finally, to employment. This bill neither shortens this road nor hastens the completion of their efforts.
The government cannot look a wounded soldier in the eye and point to this bill as an example of what a good job they are doing if, when that man or woman is ready to re-enter the workplace, that person is then told that there is no vacancy, that a hiring freeze is in place, and that the time in the Canadian Armed Forces really did not prepare him or her for a career in the public service.
Realistically, this bill is anathema to Conservatives. They do not believe that the government has any role in veterans' affairs, career transition, or rehabilitation. First and foremost, Conservatives have cut hundreds of millions of dollars from Veterans Affairs Canada, $1 billion really, tying the hands of the department when it comes to delivering the benefits and supports veterans rely on.
Now add the egregious closure of nine regional Veterans Affairs offices, often in more remote places, like Brandon, Manitoba, and Sydney, Nova Scotia, and Cape Breton, making it more difficult for veterans to access these benefits and services in their communities. It is unconscionable that veterans, some of them seniors, might have to drive hours outside of their communities to receive face-to-face help.
Conservatives have claimed that veterans can still attend nearby Service Canada centres for services, but front-line staff at Service Canada are not trained to specifically help veterans, and caseworkers are currently burdened with a 40-to-1 caseload ratio.
The government would like Canadians to think they are doing a great job with veterans hiring. They spent millions of dollars advertising the career transition services in prime time playoff slots. I say millions, because among the only new spending in this year's Veterans Affairs estimates is $4 million for advertising, a new and exclusive line item. I say millions, because despite my requests to the minister, his political staff, and his departmental officials, I cannot get an answer as to how much money they are spending on their advertising, precisely.
Had the minister accepted the committee's invitation to testify on this bill, I might have asked him how many veterans currently have access to priority hiring, how many more will have access with the changes made, and how many positions are in fact available to these veterans.
I might also have asked him about concerns expressed by the Veterans Ombudsman, Guy Parent, who, early on, questioned the adjudication of a releasing Canadian Armed Forces member's file to determine if the medical release was service-related.
This will be important in determining whether the member has a statutory or a regulatory priority, or, in effect, whether the priority will be for internal or external postings. This is unclear in the legislation, and I fear it has become a little more complicated since the amendments proposed by the government at committee. Initially the legislation held that the priority for appointment over all others was given to:
... a person who was released from the Canadian Forces for medical reasons that are attributable to service, who belongs to a class determined by the Commission and who meets the requirements established by the Commission.
Upon amendment, the section I quoted changes the priority to be given to:
a person who was released from the Canadian Forces for medical reasons that the Minister of Veterans Affairs determines are attributable to service
We know who adjudicates the files now, but I cannot believe that leaving it to the discretion to the minister was the sort of clarity the ombudsman was looking for. We must remember that this is a government that continually insists that it will not release soldiers before they are ready, but has repeatedly and abruptly ended the careers of injured soldiers who have asked to be kept on.
Finally, I would have asked the minister why his legislation would impose a five-year limit for priority hiring. For starters, the government is not hiring right now. Anyone who applies once this legislation goes into effect is racing against the clock for the government to lift its hiring freeze.
More importantly, the government is putting a five-year time limit on rehabilitation and then on finding a job, which does not take into account potential relapses of injuries at a later date or a later manifestation of an injury that may not be present immediately upon release. I am reliably informed that many still have an avenue to benefits, but no opportunity for employment. It is important that they be eligible to be employed, notwithstanding that they have access to the other regulatory benefits and at a time surpassing the five-year limit.
We are always responsible for those who were so willing to make sacrifices on our behalf, yet somehow the government feels that it has a limited responsibility for these brave men and women's unlimited liability.
The minister would have us believe that veterans, if healthy, will just move on to a career in security or policing, but that is not true. There are veterans like Sergeant Bjarne Nielsen, who wants to be a financial planner, or Corporal Mark Fuchko, who wants to be a lawyer. They do not need a government that dangles weak and ineffective legislation before them in place of real, effective action.
We all just returned from Remembrance Day ceremonies in our ridings a few weeks back. Thousands of celebrations were held across the country, celebrations made perhaps more meaningful by the sacrifice of two brave members of the Canadian Armed Forces here in Canada at a time when they never would have expected to face threats or danger. We have all just returned from looking into the faces of generations of Canadians who served this country with honour, dignity, and professionalism.
To our veterans we owe a sacred obligation. When they and their families agreed to make sacrifices for the well-being of Canada and Canadians, we committed to their well-being and the well-being of their families, and in that commitment lies the necessity to take care of them no matter what.
I truly hope that this legislation will create positions for veterans. Even if it helps one veteran, we should and must support it. The Liberal Party will support it. However, members should not be mistaken: this is a weak, inefficient, and disappointing bill put forward by a minister and a government that have confirmed time after time that they would rather look good than do anything meaningful to help our servicemen and women and their families.