Veterans bang heads against Parliamentary, bureaucratic wall

Veterans on Remembrance Day, 2013, from The Hill Times

Sean Bruyea

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. 

Share

Sylvie Therrien, 2014 Golden Whistle Award Winner

Last Monday, POGG Canada and Canadians for Accountability awarded the seventh annual Golden Whistle Award. This Award is presented annually to honour a whistleblower for integrity, courage, and resolve in the service of “Peace, Order and Good Government”. As usual, there were a number of worthy candidates, but unfortunately only one can be chosen. This year, the award went to Sylvie Therrien, a former employee who blew the whistle on a grossly unethical policy targeting employment insurance claimants.

When she started her job as a federal Employment Insurance fraud investigator, Ms. Therrien was surprised to find out that the main – perhaps only – measure of her performance was whether she had met her target for cutting off EI claimants on the basis of fraud: $35,000-$40,000 per month. If she had been able to meet those targets using  only those who had actually committed fraud, it’s likely we would never have heard of her. By her estimate, only a very small minority were actual fraud cases – as low as one in twenty.

Rather than assessing each case on the basis of its merits and assuming innocence until proven guilty, she and other fraud inspectors were told to comb through people lives to find any excuse to cut benefits. The flimsiest excuse was enough. Ms. Therrien recounted in her acceptance speech that her supervisor even shouted at her that she didn’t care if the claimant was “a f—ing First Nations, cut him off” because he wasn’t willing to move 400 km to get a job in Vancouver. The fact that the individual in question had a family and the treaty right to stay in his own community meant nothing.

But perhaps the supervisor felt justified: the year-end was approaching and, well, executive bonuses are tied to meeting targets in EI “savings”. She didn’t want to miss the chance of losing that bonus, after all. Ms. Therrien observed that such bonuses are about $50,000 each.

This exchange neatly illustrates why the quotas are unethical: they create an incentive to make decisions affecting others for personal gain. It also shows the hazards of performance pay in the public sector. Public servants have a duty not just to be efficient but to also serve Canadians fairly and justly. Performance pay introduces the possibility that efficiency and other criteria – for example, obedience – will become more important.

Ms. Therrien began to have panic attacks and difficulties sleeping. When she raised concerns at work, she was ordered to shut her mouth or face consequences. Her co-workers, rightly concerned about reprisals being turned in their direction, began to shun her. She went on sick leave when her health deteriorated under so much harassment.

Finally, unable to endure the cognitive dissonance any longer, she chose the path of moral courage: knowing internal avenues were blocked or dangerous, she leaked documents to the press. Her superiors traced the leak and her security clearance was revoked. In practical terms that meant that she was fired.

When questioned about the matter Ms. Therrien had brought to light, the government claimed that it wasn’t a quota, but rather a target. Furthermore, it argued that it was justified in firing her because she had ignored internal avenues of dissent and had released documents not intended for public disclosure. We have seen her evidence and heard her description of events and do not believe the government’s explanations to be credible. The severity of the reprisal is, in our experience, a strong indicator that she was right. (The government doth protest too much, to paraphrase Shakespeare.) There is also a nastiness in some of the steps she reported taken against her – attacking her publicly, banning her from the building like a criminal or terrorist, and targeting her friends – that also hints at the character of the individuals involved.

These actions are entirely consistent with what we have seen with many whistleblowers both inside and outside government – it’s as if there’s a playbook. Because of this, and because she stood up for the weakest in our society, we chose Ms. Therrien for the Golden Whistle Award.

The guest speaker at the ceremony honouring Ms. Therrien was Robert Fife, who spoke eloquently about the slow strangulation of accountability in the federal government. Once, he observed, there were enough journalists on Parliament Hill to dig to the bottom of the story. Once, government managers of programs could speak to those journalists and explain how things worked. Once, the Access to Information Act had some teeth, and citizens and journalists could get information (which we all own). Once, how taxpayer’s money was being spent was presented in a comprehensible format and the budget was consistent with what is actually spent.

Those days are gone, or quickly coming to an end. So, what are we left with to find out what’s really happening in Ottawa? Whistleblowers. The government knows this. Perhaps unable to imagine how to do things differently, or how public expectations have changed, they continue squeeze people like Ms. Therrien even harder.

And the next government might, too, as it settles into the comfortable, insulated, unaccountable regime built for them over the past 40 years. But if there’s one thing that Edward Snowden has shown, no matter how hard they squeeze, there will always be someone of conscience who will speak out, or leak. They’ll just get smarter about it.

It’s a shame they have to do so. There is little protection for them right now. The Integrity Commissioner hasn’t come to Ms. Therrien’s aid. So one hopes that the Canadian public demands that openness, accountability and whistleblower protection become a reality – with their votes and their voices.

Congratulations to Ms. Therrien for winning this year’s award. Thank you, as well, for having the courage to speak out. She still has a long, hard fight ahead of her, so if you support her, please consider visiting the petition for her reinstatement at Avaaz.org.

Share

Niagara Regional Police blow the whistle on themselves

A current case being pursued by Canadians for Accountability, involves unidentified remains found in the Niagara River in 1998 and the saga of a family of a teenager who went missing in 1995.  The major issue is that neither the Niagara Regional Police nor the Ontario Coroner’s office have done a DNA analysis on the remains in the past and their attempt to not do the testing now, even under the pressure from the family and Canadians for Accountability.

The interesting feature of this case is the extent to which the Coroner and the police will go to refuse to act.  This is where the Police and the Coroner, through their actions, become Whistleblowers, exposing problems with themselves.

The Coroner’s Office, in response to requests from the family has used three excuses not to do the DNA analysis.  The first excuse was that DNA testing was too expensive.  This excuse was eliminated when the family offered to pay for the test.  The second excuse was that, since the teenager drowned in Lake Ontario, there was no way that the body could wash into the Niagara River.  This second excuse was blown apart by the complete lack of evidence that the youth drowned in Lake Ontario or, indeed, drowned at all.  The third excuse and perhaps the most outrageous was that there was not enough material left in the bones to do the testing.  Most experts will tell you that the amount of material required for DNA analysis in miniscule and the best source is a long bone, something reportedly found by police in this case.  We find it impossible that no samples can be found.

The Niagara Police also play a role in this “self-whistleblowing”.  Two separate freedom of information requests made by Canadians for Accountability were refused on very flimsy grounds; technicalities for sure.  Why were they refused?

The bottom line here is that the Coroner and the Niagara Police, through their actions and reactions, opened up a can of worms with themselves at the bottom of the can.  It did not require a traditional lone individual coming forward.  The Police and the Coroner did it to themselves.

Share