The hue and cry from veterans and their families has not dimmed but grown stronger since 2005 when Parliament passed the legislation we now know as the ‘New Veterans Charter’ or NVC. Will Parliament take up veterans’ torch and finally make bureaucracy work for veterans? As the unaddressed recommendations accumulate, will the NVC become increasingly unfit to provide adequate shelter for our veterans and their families in the coming years?
Last week, the House Committee on Veterans Affairs wrapped up hearings on the NVC. We must remember that elected Members of the House of Commons have never debated nor given serious independent and binding consideration of the dramatic changes that the NVC made to the relationship between Canada and those who were and are prepared to lay down their lives in her service.
In good faith, far too many accepted the shoddy construction of the NVC because government promised to keep the renovations going. Near stagnant ‘incrementalism,’ a dirty word in the first 50 years of veterans’ benefits in Canada, has become the sad new social contract between Canada and, our veterans and their families.
Veterans Affairs Canada made pretenses to the glory of Canada’s post World War II veterans’ benefits. The original aptly-named Veterans Charter provided a host of programs for all veterans, whether injured or not. The NVC is not a charter at all but a cynical repackaging of already existing programs with few limited additions.
It took four years before the Veterans Affairs Committee wrote its first report in 2010 with 18 recommendations. Four years later, we are at it yet again with witnesses fighting to implement many of the same recommendations such as boosting the income loss program to 100 per cent matching projected career earnings, not just a fraction of true inflation as is now the case.
Bureaucrats claim to have implemented 10 recommendations from the Parliamentary report, including “ VAC ensures that family members who take care of severely disabled Veterans are compensated appropriately.” VAC’s basis for this claim: the Forces have a “Canadian Armed Forces Attendant Care Benefit.” Perhaps being so far away in Charlottetown, VAC senior bureaucrats do not realize veterans are ineligible for CF benefits. Misleading justification is repeated in most of the 160 recommendations that VAC claims to have implemented.
Canadians go to war, fight, die, lose limbs, minds and families, all at Parliament’s orders, for our values, our nation. They sacrifice for all Canadians. The military does not do all of this for bureaucrats even though bureaucrats may think differently. Then, why is it that Parliament, through either inaction or inability, has failed to stand up to the bureaucracy?
There are greater problems with the NVC than just the empty and specious rhetoric coming from Charlottetown. I tabled 30 recommendations for this Parliamentary review in a report titled, “Severely Injured Veterans and Their Families: Improving Accessibility To Veterans Affairs Programs For A Better Transition.”
As both sides of the committee table observed during witness testimony, at Veterans Affairs Canada, availability of programs does not equate to accessibility. Why for instance should widows or spouses of incapacitated veterans be time-limited on any program?
In legislation which pre-dated the NVC, the Pension Act, all programs were payable effectively on date of application. The NVC income loss program is payable when “the minister determines that a rehabilitation plan or a vocational assistance plan should be developed.” Application for review of any decision must be made within 60 days of VAC’s decision. The Pension Act did not place time limits on review.
Such pettiness is endemic in the New Veterans Charter.
Government is quick to march out the hypothetical 24-year-old corporal from the veterans’ ombudsman report who is projected to receive $2-million from VAC over his lifetime. Ignoring that $340,000 must be repaid in taxes, when none of the Pension Act benefits are taxable, this corporal represents fewer than 77 individuals, or 0.1 per cent of Canadian Forces VAC clients.
The veterans’ ombudsman noted of all the recipients of the permanent incapacity allowance, only one receives the highest grade of $1,724.65 monthly. As for the highly controversial lump sum which now stands at $301,275.26, only 148, or 0.35 per cent of all lump sum recipients have been awarded this amount in eight years. Currently, only two per cent of the 42,000 lump sum recipients have any long term economic assistance.
Contrary to VAC’s claims, the NVC does not offer opportunity with security. Canada Pension Plan disability, once accused of being insensitive and lacking compassion now allows disabled recipients to earn up to $5,100 annually without reporting this to CPP. The VAC extended income loss program deducts 100 per cent of earnings. Troublingly, the most seriously ill veterans are also not supported to pursue education.
VAC derogatorily and deceptively claims veterans were focused on disability not ability under the pre-NVC system. However, the Pension Act guarantees, “no deduction shall be made from the pension of any member of the forces because the member undertook work or perfected themself in some form of industry.” The Pension Act offered much security for the veteran to explore opportunities. Sadly, the NVC incarcerates our most suffering veterans in a lifelong psychological and financial prison of frozen human potential.
Would it not be better to provide access to life-enriching education and opportunities to seek employment without penalty while these veterans in turn begin to pay more taxes, hence offsetting some of their disability costs? Does that not make better economic sense?
All veterans and their families especially the most seriously ill, fulfilled their obligation at government’s orders without delay, without complaint, without excuse. All they rightly expected was that government honour its end of the contract immediately, expeditiously and for as long as those veterans and their families live.
For our most seriously injured veterans and their families, miserly constructed and administered programs have soundly violated this quid pro quo. Government is clearly not holding up its end of the bargain.
This dire situation wherein even the most loyal and timid of veterans organizations speak out is a very loud alarm clock for our elected officials to stand up to the bureaucracy and stand up for our veterans once and for all.
This piece first appeared in the Hill Times on April 14, 2014. Mr. Bruyea testified to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs on April 9, 2014.