Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to be able to be part of this debate on Bill C-27, an act to amend the Public Service Employment Act with the intention of enhancing hiring opportunities for certain serving and former members of the Canadian Forces. I am going to speak just a little bit about this bill, and then I would like to bring forward some points concerning former members of the Canadian Armed Forces and the kinds of things that the government really could be doing to assist our veterans.
First, helping veterans find jobs is very helpful to their recovery and well-being on release from the military. Placing injured veterans at the head of the hiring line and increasing the access of veterans of the Canadian Forces to jobs in the civil service and in government is a positive thing.
Is it a meaningful promise made by a government that has already cut 20,000 jobs in the federal sector and is on track to reach 30,000 and has put a freeze on hiring in the federal government? That is the question. Is this a meaningful bill, and is it the best way of accomplishing the purpose of assisting veterans who have left the military for medical reasons to transition into civilian life and find employment?
I have heard from many members of the armed forces who are in the process of transitioning to civilian life that it is a difficult process. People who have dedicated themselves to the Canadian Armed Forces and a career in the military have a sense of the family atmosphere in the military. It is their network. It is their family. It is the kind of work that they wanted to do in their career and it is what they are trained to do. When the unfortunate eventuality comes that someone needs to transition out for medical reasons, it is foreign territory in a way, for these men and women previously in uniform. Therefore, finding meaningful employment is a very important project.
Canada Company, for example, is a non-profit that was created by several people who were concerned that there was not enough support for people leaving the armed forces. It is a charitable, non-partisan organization and it serves to build a bridge between business and community leaders and the Canadian military. Its goal is to ensure that members who are transitioning from the Canadian Armed Forces themselves receive the widest possible support, care, and recognition. Its target is having employers recognize the strengths and leadership that are inherent in the members of the Canadian Armed Forces due to their dedication and training, the work that they have done in the Canadian Armed Forces and how well that can translate into meaningful positions for careers in the private sector.
I would like to congratulate Canada Company for the work it is doing, its directors are doing, and its members are doing right across the country.
One concern that we have about this bill is that it appears to not at all acknowledge that many injured Canadian Forces members wish to stay in the forces and the employment of the Canadian Armed Forces. They may well be eminently suited to undertake a number of kinds of work that are different from the work they had been doing. Perhaps they are jobs that do not require being deployed overseas. Perhaps they do not require the same physical capabilities that they had before their injury. Perhaps they do not require the kinds of complex work that they were doing before their injury, whether it is physical or mental.
Although there are other jobs in the Canadian Armed Forces that they could certainly do, because of the universality of service provisions in the Canadian Armed Forces, unless these members are fully capable of being deployed and doing the most difficult work possible, they are not eligible to stay in the Canadian Armed Forces. That would do far more to satisfy the concerns of these injured members or people with medical conditions than to force them to leave the Canadian Armed Forces and transition into meaningful civilian life. It is heart-wrenching when we hear of veterans who are on the street because they have not been successful with a challenge, and there are too many of them who are in that predicament. Soldiers wounded in Afghanistan are still coming forward about being discharged from the military against their will and before qualifying for their pension, despite repeated Conservative promises that service members injured in the line of duty can serve as long as they want in the Canadian Forces, should they have meaningful work to do in the Forces.
Bill C-27 would add to a previous bill, Bill C-11, which had provisions that related to internal postings in the public sector, providing priority over all others for external postings to these Canadian Forces members and former members of the Canadian Forces who had served at least three years in the Canadian Forces and were honourably released. A concern about this bill has been expressed by the Veterans Ombudsman, and that is that this bill seeks to create separate classes of veterans for priority hiring. The Veterans Ombudsman notes that all Canadian Armed Forces members should be treated the same way because there is an inherent service relationship for every Canadian Armed Forces member who is medically released because the individual can no longer serve in uniform. I will also point out that losing one's career as the result of a medical condition is unique to service in the military. There would be two classes of veterans for priority hiring. Members who were released for medical reasons not related to their service would have a lower priority for jobs compared to those who were released for medical reasons that were related to their service.
An unfortunate set of complications would be created by this bill because, since the reason for the medical release would become important to the former armed forces member, a lot of bureaucracy would be created. For example, which department would do the adjudication and determine if the medical release was related to service or not? What documentation would be used in the adjudication process? What benefit of the doubt would be given in terms of this presentation? How long would the process take? How much visibility would the member have in the process? Would there be an appeal process? If the decision were made that the medical release was not service-related, would it affect the decision-making for other benefit programs such as the disability award?
The concern here is that in creating two classes of Canadian Armed Forces members released for medical reasons, this bill would create quite a lot of bureaucracy. I have concerns that this might lead to a longer timeframe and a lot of extra work for the members to actually access these jobs. At this point, we do not know if there would be any jobs, but certainly at one point one would expect that this would be something positive in terms of accessing employment. Bureaucracy has been a continuing problem in Veterans Affairs and in the Canadian Armed Forces that frustrates the serving members who have been injured.
When I was at the Alberta-Northwest Territories Command Legion, I heard that the Legion was at times using its poppy fund to pay the rent for service members who were leaving the military who had been physically or mentally injured. The bureaucracy in being released from the armed forces was so onerous and time consuming that the very benefits they were entitled to upon their release were not available for months afterwards and they were having problems paying their rent. How can we let that happen? How can we force an armed forces member to have to grovel to get money from non-profits to pay their rent simply because of the bureaucracy in National Defence?
I am concerned that this would add another layer of bureaucracy.
Another concern that has been raised about this program is that the government's announcements are not fairly representing the kind of funding that is available, and I will quote from an article in the National Post by Barbara Kay, entitled, “Ottawa fails veterans with cynical displays of show over substance”. This is unfortunate in a country where it is our moral obligation to be as clear and positive in our support as possible, but what we have is a lot of spin.
According to Ms. Kay:
Recently the government proudly announced two new initiatives. The first pledges to give priority to veterans seeking civil service jobs...
The article goes on to express some of the concerns I have already mentioned in terms of the lack of available civil service jobs and the hiring freezes. However, she then points out that:
The other initiative increases funding for vocational rehabilitation programs to $75,800 per veteran. But the fine print belies this seeming generosity. The money is allocated at $2 million over five years, spread over 1,300 veterans.
Although it sounds like a lot of money, it actually only comes to $1,500 per veteran, and not $75,800. It is misleading and undermines the government's credibility when it does that kind of thing and puts out information that is simply not true or that is misleading.
I will also draw members' attention to a previous time when the government did this. It was supposedly a $2billion fund that was announced in 2011 as a claimed commitment to enhance the new veterans charter, but on closer inspection, it turned out that $2 billion was actually $40 million annually over 50 years. This is the only government I have ever heard of that would make a promise 50 years into the future and then talk about it today as if it is money in its budget.
It is unfortunate to have this kind of a lack of credibility and trust on the part of the current Conservative government. However, that is the situation we are in because of its repeated failures, its failure to deliver for ill and injured soldiers, its failure to deliver for veterans, and its failure to deliver for Canadians.
I want to talk a bit about ill and injured soldiers, because Canadians have really let down the men and women in uniform through their government's failure to address properly the kinds of support that are needed by ill and injured soldiers. There have been so many times during my term as a defence critic when I have become aware of yet another way in which the soldiers are being let down.
The health professional personnel needs for the Canadian Armed Forces were identified in 2003, as our country was entering the war in Afghanistan. In 2003, these postings were identified as a need, and until very recently, well over 10% and more like 15% of those positions were never filled.
That meant there were bases across the country that did not have access to a psychiatrist. In fact, as recently as a few months ago, one-half of our Canadian bases had no psychiatrist available on the base. This is in a situation in which there are literally hundreds of Canadian Armed Forces members who have served in Afghanistan, sometimes repeatedly, who have been injured and are possibly suffering from PTSD, but are not even able to see a psychiatrist at their base.
I have had a number of other concerns with support for our soldiers. These are the very soldiers who, in many cases, are transitioning out, and this bill is intended to support them. However, I would like to draw the attention of the House to the fact that these armed forces members and veterans are not receiving the kind of respect that we Canadians promised to accord them as long as 100 years ago, when Prime Minister Borden made the promise in the First World War that veterans and returning soldiers would receive the respect and care that they deserved for the sacrifices they have made.
This is a government that has actually gone to court and sent its lawyers to make representations in court that the contract does not exist. It is shameful in the first place that veterans and injured soldiers have to go to court to get their due. In the Manuge lawsuits, some $800 million that had been clawed back from veterans was reinstated by the courts. In the Equitas lawsuits, armed forces members and veterans are still fighting to get proper compensation for their injuries. The government's contention is that they have no more claim on the public purse than any other person in Canada, as though they were individuals on social assistance and have no more claim than that for their compensation.
In fact, the compensation under the new veterans charter is less than workers compensation would pay for the same injuries. That is a disrespect for the veterans, and it adds to the disrespect that has been shown by the minister when veterans have come to Ottawa to present their case and present their concerns about pensions.
In the case of armed forces members and veterans who were the most severely disabled, those pensions dropped almost in half, to below a living wage, when they turned 65. When the veterans came forward to talk about their concerns, the minister was very disrespectful. He kept them waiting for over an hour. When he finally showed up for a few minutes before their press conference, he was rude to the veterans and stomped off.
This has been symbolic to the veteran community of the disrespect and contempt in which they are held. I think that is a sad comment on the government, and it is sad for people right across the country.
There have been many other examples of that disrespect, such as closing veterans offices to save a few million dollars while spending $30 million to promote the War of 1812. The government's priorities are to burnish up its brand as a warrior government, but not to actually treat the real warriors with the kind of support and respect that they deserve.
In terms of the bill, we Liberals will be supporting it because it does advance the opportunity of some veterans to find work through priority hiring in the civil service, but it is thin gruel, I have to say, in terms of what it actually does to address the concerns of our armed forces members who have become ill or injured in the course of duty and service, and it does nothing to address the key concerns that veterans have been bringing forward and want resolved by the government.