Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak on third reading of Bill C-55, An Act to amend the Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-establishment and Compensation Act and the Pension Act.
According to the Minister of Veterans Affairs, Bill C-55 is only the first step to addressing the concerns of veterans. However, we agree that it is a good first step and we congratulate the initiative.
The proposed legislation is a small step forward. We have supported the bill because our veterans need urgent help now and because the minister assures us that further changes will come. We hope this represents a significant change in thinking, in acting, that will address other gaps.
I would like to acknowledge our critic on veterans affairs, the member for Etobicoke North. In the short time that she has been in the House, she has earned admiration from all sides for her diligent and very capable work. She is passionate about the issue of veterans. She has travelled extensively and met with veterans. One only needs to chat with her to understand how seriously, deeply and personally she connects with our veterans.
Just before Christmas she was in Nova Scotia speaking in the town hall on veterans' issues with the member for Halifax West. I had a chance to have her meet with some of my constituents. I remember sitting at a Starbucks, chatting with Bruce Grainger, who many people in the House would know. I am sure the members for Sackville—Eastern Shore and Halifax West would know Bruce. Bruce is a veteran who served our country with distinction. Now his concern is for other veterans. He has put forward some ideas for the minister that perhaps we need to bring more veterans into Veterans Affairs and on the review and appeal boards. We need to respect that kind of passion from Canada's veterans.
What we owe our men and women who have put the uniform on is to honour our sacred trust and to be there for them when they come home. That means working to improve their pay and benefits so they feel secure knowing their families will be looked after. That means working to improve care for wounded warriors, especially those with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. What we owe them is to provide the care they need until the end of their lives, for example, ensuring long-term care so no veteran should have to suffer dementia and PTSD in a facility not equipped to meeting his or her needs.
Sadly, instead of trying to repay our obligation, we have let them down on many issues. For example, too many veterans go untreated for PTSD, too many veterans have nowhere safe to sleep at night, too many veterans suffer traumatic brain injury. It was shameful when a 92-year old veteran in Edmonton said, “There's a long road to go to make this right and you must not give up speaking to us because we never did”, speaking of himself and his colleagues.
The minister tabled Bill C-55 on November 17, 2010. The proposed legislation brought together several of the fall announcements and would make changes to the new veterans charter, as called for by several veterans organizations, including the Royal Canadian Legion, and would introduce changes to the administration of the lump sum disability award. Specifically, Bill C-55 would amend parts 1 to 3 of the new veterans charter as well as part IV of the Pension Act.
There are important changes in the proposed legislation: at least $58,000 per year for seriously wounded or ill veterans, those too injured to return to the workforce; a minimum of $40,000 per year no matter what the salary when serving in the CF for those receiving the monthly earnings loss benefit; an additional monthly payment of $1,000 for life to help our most seriously wounded veterans who are no longer able to work; and improved access to the permanent impairment allowance and the exceptional incapacity allowance, which will include 3,500 more veterans.
On behalf of veterans, I must ask why the government waited four years to propose any change to the new veterans charter, which has been hailed as a living document, a work in progress that would be continually adapted to meet the changing needs of veterans.
I must also ask why Veterans Affairs Canada did not live up to its 2006 commitment to review lump-sum awards for a disability pension within two years.
While the minister promised new improvements to the lump sum payment, the government merely divided up the payment differently, for example, as a partial lump sum and partial annual payments over any number of years the recipient chooses, or as a single lump sum payment.
Despite this, parties came together to ensure the passage of Bill C-55 and its extra support for veterans because our veterans need urgent help now and because veterans organizations across the country, including the Gulf War Veterans Association of Canada, the Canadian Association of Veterans in United Nations Peacekeeping and the Canadian Peacekeeping Veterans Association have asked us to do so.
I come from an area with a rich military history. We recently lost retired Brigadier-General Ned Amy, who had served with such distinction. We have had many giants in Nova Scotia in military history. One of the great giants was a diminutive man who barely cracked five feet tall but made such a difference.
I think of sitting at the Battle of the Atlantic dinner with Murray Knowles, Earle Wagner and some of the great heroes who have served our country, many of whom went across the cold North Atlantic in the corvettes, the last one of which is HMCS Sackville, which is nearing the end of its useful life in the water and has to come ashore. One way the government could support what veterans want in recognition of what they have done for us is put money into the proposal to bring HMCS Sackville ashore in Halifax.
Dominion president Pat Varga spoke of this bill, saying:
This bill, as a first step, makes great strides in improving the New Veterans Charter and encompasses many of the recommendations made by the New Veterans Charter Advisory Group and the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs. The Legion considers that further improvements are needed to the Charter on which we look forward to continue the ongoing dialogue with [the] Minister...
Many things have been brought forward by the legion. In the future, the Royal Canadian Legion would still like the department to address the amount of the lump sum payment, the $276,000. In Canada, disabled workers receive, on average, $329,000, Australian service members received about $325,000. British service members receive many times that figure. The legion feels those injured, while serving their country, should expect to receive at least the same amount awarded to civilian workers whose lives have been drastically changed by circumstances beyond their control.
This is a bill that parliamentarians from all parties are happy to come together and speak in favour of.
I want to talk about where we are in Canada today.
It is no secret that Parliament is facing a volatile time. There are serious issues being discussed in the chamber that go to the heart of our traditions and customs. There is a hardening of opinion on all sides and the stakes are high, indeed. It is a tense time and yet a delicate time and I do not think anybody knows for sure where this will end up.
It is happening in Parliament where the people of Canada have a voice. In Canada, we use words and not swords and we determine who governs our nation by using ballots and not bullets. However, privilege did not come by default. It was not inevitable. It is the dividend of the blood and sacrifice of those who left their homes and families, went to lands many never heard of before and put their lives on the line. Some never came home, and it happens to this day.
As we pass Bill C-55 and parliamentarians consider their responsibilities, let us remember the men and women who have given up the opportunities they had so we could do this in a free country. It is appropriate in this tumultuous time in Canadian democracy to remember that the veterans have brought us all and Parliament together. Once again, it is the men and women who have fought for Canada who have showed us how democracy should work. We can do much more to honour that sacrifice. I hope today is just the start.