Liberals’ new ‘pension for life’ for veterans fails to live up to campaign promises

This piece was first published on the CBC website on January 2, 2018.

Canada’s military veterans who endure disabling injuries were hoping for a Christmas present: a fulfilment of the Liberal campaign promise to “re-establish lifelong pensions as an option for injured veterans.” Instead, the government merely resurrected ghosts of Christmases past with a hodgepodge of benefits that amount to recycled, remodeled and repackaged programs that already exist.

The proposed pension for life — which was promised as an alternative to the lump-sum payments introduced under the New Veterans Charter of 2006 — is a clear reduction of the lofty scheme that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau personally promised while he was campaigning.

Instead of the Liberal commitment of offering lifelong pensions for veterans applying for disability assistance after 2006, veterans will have to wait until April 2019 to choose between the existing lump sum and a new lifelong pension that, when all is said and done, will pay far less than one half of the pre-2006 pension.

Compensation for injuries

Some background first. When Canadian Forces members suffer disabling military injuries and are released from the Forces, Veterans Affairs Canada is legally obligated to provide both pain and suffering non-taxable compensation, as well as taxable compensation for lost income. This is no different than court awards or most provincial workplace insurance programs. Historically, veterans just happen to be the first group of Canadians compensated for lifelong injuries.

Canada has been paying lifelong pensions in some form to those suffering military injuries since the War of 1812.  For over 200 years, military injures have been honoured with not only lifelong pensions for the disabled soldier, but also with additional amounts for spouses and children, which around 60,000 injured veterans continue to receive as part of their pre-2006 pensions. The April 2019 lifelong pension, however, does not offer any amounts for family members.

It was the Liberals who introduced the legislation for the New Veterans Charter in 2005 that took away the lifelong pension for veterans. This was replaced with a one-time lump sum as part of a patchwork and rebranding of already existing programs.

Since that time, the lump sum has come under fierce criticism. Since it also pays nothing extra for family members, the lump sum equates to what was paid out in as little as seven years under the pre-2006 lifelong pension. Other programs under the New Veterans Charter have been notoriously difficult to access. Widespread calls under the Conservatives to change these programs were met with bureaucratic intransigence and bizarre political indifference.

The April 2019 programs play a similar shell game with the customary excessive rhetoric. Under a new “holistic package,” injured veterans will be given a choice between the current lump sum to compensate for pain and suffering, which pays up to a maximum of $360,000, or a tax-free monthly payment of up to $1150. (There is an additional monthly allowance of up to $1500 for the most severely disabled veterans, but the overwhelming majority of veterans under the April 2019 programs will not receive additional pain and suffering payments. New applicants who do will still receive less than before under the new April 2019 plan.)

This “pension for life” option fails to live up to the Trudeau promise on many levels. Like the lump sum, not only does the pension option not pay any additional amounts for family members, the average monthly payment is expected to be around $200. Compare that to the pre-2006 pension that pays up to $2733 monthly, with an average of $680, plus amounts for spouses and children.

Veterans will be seething with betrayal learning that other existing programs will be shuffled around and renamed under the April 2019 plan but remain substantially unchanged with one exception. A previous supplemental allowance for severe disability has been eliminated. It paid just over $1100 monthly, the same amount as the Liberals’ new “pension for life option.”

Admittedly, the minutiae of disability programs — especially those for veterans — tend to glaze over the most astute eyes. So, imagine how overwhelming these changes must be for already struggling disabled veterans, many of whom never completed high school. A great number of them had long been Conservative supporters, but disaffection with the New Veterans Charter led many to hope for great things under the Trudeau Liberals.

Lump sum option

It should also trouble us that the lump sum will still be an option for younger veterans. Retired General Walter Natynczyk, who is now the top bureaucrat at Veterans Affairs leading the charge on the April 2019 program, said in 2010 “Some younger veterans took their cash and bought Porsches, boats and souped-up trucks, and now they are broke. It’s always hard when you have people who are 21, 22 and 23 years old.”

Not only is it likely that veterans will be severely anxious due to the complexity of the new program and its nebulous criteria for benefits, but they might be rightfully distressed by the fact that government employees disabled in a flying accident, for example, and RCMP can continue to apply for the pre-2006 lifelong pension, but veterans, for whom the program was designed nearly a century ago, cannot.

A promise is sacred for veterans. Veterans promised to put on a uniform to lose their lives for us if need be. We must fulfil our promises to repay that debt in real dollars, not with political platitudes, campaign chicanery and bureaucratic betrayal.

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How Seamus O’Regan can do the right thing

This piece was first published in the Hill Times on September 4, 2017.

Removing Minister Kent Hehr from Veterans Affairs Canada was the right thing to do. The new minister, Seamus O’Regan, must do better.

Just six days prior, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau commemorated the calamitous losses Canadians suffered on the beaches of Dieppe 75 years ago. In the midst of a downpour, the prime minister folded his umbrella, noting that enduring rain is nothing compared to the bullets of war.

Such apparently unscripted compassion has been the hallmark of Trudeau’s repeated promises to make things right for Canada’s veterans. Sadly, nothing has meaningfully changed in the department mandated to care for them. Its persistent affliction: a profound cultural disconnection from veterans’ needs in the only federal department heaquartered outside of Ottawa—in Charlottetown, P.E.I.

The best Hehr could muster in his almost 22 months as minister was an unimaginative barrage of talking points written by an insensitive senior bureaucracy. When challenged by media or veterans, he was prone to outbursts of self-righteous parroting or to abruptly end town halls, hastily heading for the door.

One would expect that the tragic circumstances that led to Minister Hehr becoming a quadriplegic and his ensuing struggles would have engendered sympathy, compassion, and a sense of urgency to make real and substantive changes at Veterans Affairs.

Unfortunately, he frequently appeared insincere and indifferent to the suffering of veterans. He preferred to let former chief of defence staff Walter Natynczyk run the show as the department’s deputy minister.

Natynczyk, like the veterans ombudsman Guy Parent, spent their adult lives in uniform then glided into privileged positions to serve bureaucratic commandments. They could not and have not been able to understand the urgency of needed changes that would improve the lives of veterans. Likewise they have sidelined and/or berated those that voice their concerns, especially via the media. Like all military members, they come from a dysfunctional military culture that views exercising freedom of expression as a betrayal of Canada and the uniform.

Minister O’Regan likewise could bring assets or emotional baggage to the job. His struggles with alcoholism may offer personal insight into the single biggest health obstacle faced by both serving members and veterans: mental health.

If Minister O’Reagan and the Trudeau government truly wish “real change” as they promised, then cultural change at the department must be their focus. Contrary to endless bureaucratic protestations, unilaterally and heartlessly switching from lifelong pensions to one-time lump sums for disabled veterans was a callous, cost-saving scheme. The proof lies in the dithering on the Liberal campaign promise to return to lifelong pensions: it will cost too much to switch back.

Replacing Guy Parent and Walter Natynczyk are necessary if the new minister wishes honest, independent, and gutsy advice.

Comprehensively rethinking the multitudinous advisory groups and stakeholder committee meetings would also go a long way towards soliciting courageous, trustworthy, knowledge-based, and credible guidance that will help all veterans and their families. Creating new groups with open nomination processes requiring clear credentials, whether they be education, valid experience, and/or a proven right to represent disabled veterans appointees, would be a good start. Operating them in complete transparency is a must that would also fulfill Liberal promises of the same.

Profound and authentic change will only occur if Canadians understands the true costs of serving in uniform. Veterans deserve their reconciliation commission through a fully public judicial inquiry into the treatment of veterans and their families over the past five decades. They need to tell their story and Canadians need to listen.

It would be regrettable if O’Regan were appointed because of his journalism background and a mediagenic personality with the potential to spin the truth. Since multiple veteran scandals in 2010, the department has been on a seven-year spin-fest, currently employing more than three dozen individuals in their communications directorate, including two directors general and five directors. Veterans don’t deserve to be publicly browbeaten with the implication that since Veterans Affairs is so tremendous, any failure to receive help must be the veteran’s fault.

The Liberals through O’Regan can effect meaningful change. Let’s hope they don’t spend the next two years until the election manipulating silence in the veterans’ community while bullying, berating, or benching anyone who speaks out.

Canadians in uniform fought and died for this democracy. Let’s repay them the very least of what they are owed: their democratic voice and fulsome participation in an open and transparent path to healing; not ceremonial figureheads, propaganda, and endless excuses to avoid doing the right thing.

Sean Bruyea, vice-president of Canadians for Accountability, has a graduate degree in public ethics, is a retired Air Force intelligence officer, and frequent commentator on government, military, and veterans’ issues.

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A Tale of Two Committees

This piece was first published, in edited form, in the Hill Times on July 3, 2014.

When Dickens wrote the opening to A Tale of Two Cities, set over two hundred years ago, he described an age of contrasts – wisdom and foolishness, belief and skepticism, hope and despair. He also wryly observed that this could be said of any era. It certainly seemed true to whistleblowing advocates attending two sets of recent Parliamentary committee hearings.

The committees in question were the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates (or OGGO, as it’s commonly known) and the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities (or TRAN). In both cases, the committees had serious, deeply embedded problems to tackle: whistleblower protection on one hand, and aviation safety on the other.

For its part, OGGO set its sights on reviewing the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act in early February. This is the law which is supposed to protect federal government whistleblowers, but which has been spectacularly ineffective at doing so for 10 years. Without going into details – David Hutton and Allan Cutler have dealt with the issues thoroughly in previous editions of the Hill Times – it would be no exaggeration to say that the law intended to protect whistleblowers is little known and even less trusted by the rank-and-file public service.

The second committee, TRAN, has been studying aviation safety. The main concern here is that Transport Canada’s oversight has been steadily eroded, and not just in aviation: the same problems were evident in rail transportation before the 2013 Lac-Mégantic rail disaster that killed 47 people.
The Canadian Federal Pilots Association (CFPA) led the charge, making a powerful presentation about the increasing dangers in the system and noting that its members believe that a major crash is inevitable due to Transport Canada mismanagement.

The CFPA is not alone in its concern: The Auditor General and Transportation Safety Board have also criticized Transport Canada’s management and oversight of transportation safety. Too much trust has been put into the hands of industry, the TSB argues: “Numerous recent investigations have found companies that have not managed their safety risks effectively, either because they were not required to have an SMS or because their SMS was not implemented effectively.” SMS refers to safety management systems, which – as implemented by Transport Canada – put safety almost entirely in the hands of the operators (airlines and railways) with little or no direct inspection by government.

It’s worth noting that similar deregulation occurred in food safety prior to the 2008 Maple Leaf listeriosis outbreak that killed 22 Canadians and the 2012 XL Foods e-coli outbreak in Alberta that resulted in the largest food recall in Canadian history.

Whistleblowing advocates like us were there because – like many in the industry – we understand that whistleblower protection is the backbone of any SMS. After all, who knows better than insiders – pilots and mechanics – if corners are being cut on aviation safety? Sadly, government officials and airlines still routinely attack whistleblowers and cover up the problems.

Not that you would know this from Transport Canada’s testimony. Both committees had this in common: senior public servants (and some industry officials) were happy to recite talking points designed to present themselves in the best possible light, confuse MPs, obscure truths, and minimize or disparage critics and whistleblowers.

In OGGO, Integrity Commissioner Joe Friday spoke of the challenges they faced and made excuses for poor performance. His list of suggested amendments to the law were almost all minor, and none could address the crucial problem: his office’s abysmal performance. He was supported by Treasury Board officials, who could not hide the fact that they have no idea how well government departments were doing with their own internal whistleblowing systems.

Claims made by Transport Canada senior officials in TRAN were the standard ones: that Canada has one of the safest systems in the world, and that action is being taken where there were concerns. These are precisely the claims that were being made before the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster, a time when inspections had decreased and Transport Canada inspectors were held in contempt by railway companies (to the point that they ignored instructions to comply with the regulations). Questions by MPs about whistleblower protections were deflected with a dismissive answer: “We have a system for that,” said Assistant Deputy Minister Laureen Kinney, implying – against all evidence to the contrary – that the system worked. Other questions about inspection rates were met with confusing answers, obscuring the fact that the number of Transport Canada inspections of operators has fallen dramatically and continues to fall.

But the committees differ dramatically in how they responded to these tactics. Where we expected the usual pro forma exercise, OGGO called whistleblowers to testify and in experts on whistleblowing law from four other countries. Best practices were considered. And the interest was not only on the opposition side: government MPs were also engaged, even occasionally outraged when they got non-answers.

TRAN has not been as diligent, with too many evasions accepted and Transport Canada’s record unquestioned. Opposition MPs seemed to sense that something more needed to be done, but feel helpless as a minority on the committee, and we had less success in engaging government MPs.
The TRAN committee’s passivity is perplexing. It‘s certainly contrary to the interests of the government. If MPs are being misled by public servants, they should be outraged. For if the worst does happen, they will be responsible. Even the cost savings that seem to be driving the Transport Canada approach being used are ephemeral. The bill to the government (meaning you, the taxpayer) for the Lac-Mégantic disaster was over $135 million for the court settlement alone. How many rail inspections could that have paid for?

It’s not too late, however. TRAN is now writing its report, and we hope that the committee has seen that the emperor has no clothes. Some MPs confided that they believe that Transport Canada is a sick organization. This is supported by the evidence, with one study and an upcoming book on the Lac-Mégantic disaster arguing that senior managers are preoccupied with ‘turf’ and reputation, rather than the safety of the public.

So why the difference between the two committees? Perhaps Transport Canada senior bureaucrats have convinced their minister, Marc Garneau, that all is well and that everything changed after Lac- Mégantic, while the failure from Integrity Commissioner’s office is too much to miss. Maybe TRAN is just lost in the pile of issues that every government must deal with. Perhaps the OGGO committee was just a chance gathering of motivated MPs who didn’t like being given the run-around.

Whatever the case, it seems to us that all parties – including government MPs – need to be more skeptical and challenge public servant’s testimony in the way OGGO did. This government also needs to take a hard look at Transport Canada. Accepting the recommendations of the CFPA would be a good step. Building solid whistleblower protections would be another. After all, it would be far better to stand in Parliament and say, “We are aware of the problems and have already taken steps…” than to have to rise and solemnly apologize – or worse, mourn the dead after a major aviation accident.

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