Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise to speak to Bill C-55, An Act to amend the Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-establishment and Compensation Act and the Pension Act, introduced by the government to help veterans.
The Bloc Québécois supports this bill, as we have said repeatedly here today. I heard our Liberal colleague say that it is a step forward and will help improve things for our veterans. We are talking about people who sacrifice their lives or who live the rest of their lives with injuries suffered during a combat mission.
The Bloc Québécois has always been very concerned about the well-being of veterans. We parliamentarians can sometimes have serious disagreements about the validity of a mission, as was demonstrated by the debate we had on the mission in Afghanistan. But when it comes to supporting veterans, the Bloc Québécois is always there, and we firmly believe that veterans should not have to pay the political price of this debate. They have sacrificed much of their safety, their well-being and their health. Therefore, when it comes to veterans who are injured or have a disability, we cannot be tight-fisted or frugal; rather, we must be generous in compensating these individuals. We must express our gratitude and recognition by providing them with all the help and support they need, and whatever their families and children need.
The bill contains measures that we hope will help veterans considerably. We are disappointed, however, as I have repeatedly told the Minister of Veterans Affairs, that the Conservative government decided not to include a lifetime monthly pension, as many veterans in Quebec called for in petitions presented here in the House. That measure, which veterans were entitled to under the old veterans charter, should have been restored.
The minister said many times that there were not necessarily any changes and that the primary goal was to reintegrate veterans into the workforce. But that was always the goal; that is nothing new. We strongly believe that having a lump sum payment instead of a lifetime monthly pension, as we had before, is a considerable loss for our veterans.
Bill C-55 proposes legislative amendments to the Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-establishment and Compensation Act. As I already said, this bill would amend the eligibility criteria for the long term disability plan and would provide an extra $1,000 per month to veterans who are receiving these disability benefits and who are unable to return to the workforce. This affects many people who, after participating in a military mission in a theatre of war, return nearly 100% disabled and unable to actively return to work.
This bill also offers veterans the choice between a single lump sum payment and the same amount spread out over a set period of time. A combination of these two options is also available.
Here is an example of the losses experienced by veterans. From our discussions with people working with veterans, we know that, in general, based on the cases handled, veterans are more likely to be 20% or 25% disabled than 100% disabled.
According to the previous veterans' charter, compensation was provided to a veteran at a rate of 20%, so he could receive $600, $700 or $800 per month for the rest of his life. When a young person received compensation for an accident in the theatre of war, he generally received compensation at a rate of 20% or 25%. If we are talking about $280,000, that means the person would receive approximately $50,000 from then on, at the age of 22 or 23. Before, that person could receive $600 to $800 a month for life, for physical or mental loss. As we mentioned earlier, post-traumatic stress disorder affects many military personnel.
The Bloc Québécois has the utmost respect for military personnel who carry out highly dangerous missions and risk their lives to express the will of the people. This profound respect justly implies that, since their lives are in danger, we have the responsibility not to expose them to further risk. Once their mission is complete, we have the collective responsibility to offer them all the necessary support when they return home.
Of course, this support must be given to veterans, but it must also be given to their spouses, families, loved ones and children. There is still a lot of work to do on that front.
And in terms of post-traumatic stress disorder, we heard many testimonies to the effect that the spouse of the person afflicted had not necessarily been informed about possible behaviours, or their reactions, or the potential help available to them.
I would ask the minister, who is present here, to listen to what I am about to say. A number of witnesses told us in committee that when they needed a psychologist or psychiatrist to get help for post-traumatic stress disorder and they contacted Veterans Affairs, it was often difficult to access those services. We heard it over and over again in committee: people told us that they did not feel that it was an easy task. There are members here from all parties who sit on the committee and can attest to that.
We have an idea of the dynamic of all those wanting psychological therapy, and often they are men. I worked in a CLSC network and men often have more difficulty than women recognizing their psychological weaknesses. It is difficult enough to ask for help, but when a person asks officials at Veterans Affairs and the request for help is not necessarily well received and it is difficult to receive compensation for the services the person needs, then there is a problem. I invite the minister to take a closer look at this as well. It is important.
The Bloc Québécois will always support any measure to help veterans. The Bloc Québécois has always defended the principle that we must not abandon our veterans when they return from difficult missions or when they end a career spent defending their fellow citizens.
For example, in budget 2009, the Conservatives announced various measures, as hon. members will recall. Budget 2009 maintains the $30 million annual investment included in budget 2007, for the period from 2007 to 2012. Budget 2009 also maintains the $302 million investment over five years announced in budget 2008. That amount will go to Veterans Affairs Canada in order to increase support for war veterans.
However, out of the $3.4 billion estimates, budget 2009 announced that $24 million would be saved by streamlining internal and administrative resources without affecting services.
We wondered about that and we met with certain stakeholders, because those savings worried us. I do not know how it is being carried out on the ground. The cuts are determined by executives or administrators and, often, they target the lower levels. It is important to be vigilant about service delivery. I do not want to go too far on this issue, but I am concerned about the cuts.
The Bloc Québécois will support maintaining past investments to help veterans. However, given the scope of the mission in Afghanistan and the number of Canadians wounded in this theatre of operations, the federal government could have increased its investment.
Bill C-55 is certainly a start and a step in the right direction. It is important to recognize that, although some of the measures improve the assistance provided to veterans with disabilities, there is still work to do. The Bloc Québécois is of the opinion that the government could have done more, namely by returning to a lifetime monthly pension, which is not included in the bill.
Despite all the debate and the demonstrations that took place on November 11 in Quebec, people called for the return of the lifetime monthly pension. The minister seems to want to avoid the issue by saying that, despite everything, veterans receive a lump sum payment and a pension. However, when veterans return to the labour market, they no longer receive that pension. The only amount they receive for a disability resulting from an injury sustained in the theatre of operations is 20 to 25%. Most of these people return to the labour market and are able to return to society.
Bill C-55 is part of a legislative process that dates back to at least 2005. At that time, the new veterans charter was supposed to be a major reform designed to completely overhaul the veterans compensation system.
It was the Liberals who put forward the new veterans charter. In some cases, the compensation provisions for wounded veterans were covered by the Pension Act, the terms of which dated back to World War I. With the new veterans from the campaign in Afghanistan, it became urgent to review the process to adapt to the new reality and to provide help to those who needed it.
In committee, some people told us they had received, among other invoices, an $8 invoice for the cost of the sheet the soldier had been wrapped in. Fortunately, things have changed. That would have been rather traumatic.
The new veterans charter differentiates between financial benefits intended to compensate for the loss of revenue a veteran experiences when he or she can no longer work because of an injury sustained while serving in the Canadian Forces and the sums paid to compensate for pain and suffering associated with an injury sustained while on duty. That is why the veteran will lose the financial benefits but will continue to receive his or her disability benefits. Under the old system, the pension amount would diminish if the veteran's condition improved, which encouraged people to focus more on the deficiencies rather than on rehabilitation.
I would like to make my point by asking a question. What is the current situation of our veterans? This bill is supposedly going to help them. As we saw in committee, it is becoming increasingly clear that veterans need help.
During our many meetings, we learned that the suicide rate among veterans is higher than in the general population. Statistics show that one out of six people returning from a military theatre of operations will be afflicted with post-traumatic stress. These people, who are often very young, need psychological and social support, which is not always available in isolated, rural regions. Veterans returning home far from large urban centres had a hard time receiving the services they needed. Veterans have often said that in order to support them, people need to understand their reality. In isolated, rural regions, it might be difficult to find experts to help someone who is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.
According to the Survey on Transition to Civilian Life: Report on Regular Force Veterans, dated January 4, 2011, clients of Veterans Affairs Canada reported complex states of health. The great majority, more than 90%, reported at least one physical health condition diagnosed by a health professional—that is a very high percentage—and about half reported at least one mental health condition. Two-thirds had four to six physical and mental health conditions, and a fifth had even larger numbers of comorbid conditions, that is, the presence of two or more conditions in the same individual.
Overall, 6% of veterans reported having thoughts of suicide in the previous 12 months. Of those covered by the new veterans charter, 57% had trouble reintegrating into society.
Therefore, a great deal of work remains to be done to provide services to those who return from military missions with psychological trauma. They return to Canada and must return to society. Fifty-seven per cent is more than half; almost 6 in 10 have serious problems with reintegration.
The state of health, the degree of disability and the determinants of health of regular force veterans released from military service between 1998 and 2007 were worse than those of the general Canadian public.
I have some more statistics. Seventy-three per cent of veterans are very satisfied with their financial situation. Once they leave the forces, the satisfaction rate falls to 50% for veterans covered by the new veterans charter. Thus, 57% are dissatisfied with their financial situation once they leave the forces. Veterans covered by the new charter have their average income reduced much more sharply. Their income may be reduced by up to 64%. The income of veterans on a disability pension may drop by 56%.
There is still a lot of work to be done. This bill introduces new measures. The minimum compensation for earnings loss for a veteran in rehabilitation has been increased to $40,000, and this will affect 2,300 veterans over the next five years. Access to the permanent impairment allowance and the exceptional incapacity allowance has been improved. This means that 3,500 more veterans will be eligible. There is an additional $1,000 per month being offered to veterans who receive the permanent impairment allowance and who cannot return to work. Five hundred veterans will benefit from this measure over the next five years.
That is a step in the right direction. However, there is the issue of the lump sum payment, which the veterans have requested. Replacing this amount and reinstating the lifetime monthly payment are major advances.
The minister is here, and I would like him to listen to this. We are talking about accessibility to services and services tailored to families, services that are close by, especially in rural areas such as my riding of Berthier—Maskinongé and other regions of Quebec.