Big gap between Liberal rhetoric and action on veterans issues

By Sean Bruyea

Veterans and Canadians better stop holding their breath. Minister of Veterans Affairs Kent Hehr is way behind schedule and doesn’t have the oomph to fulfill his mandate letter. Ultimately, Prime Minister Trudeau and the Liberal government will be charged and condemned for this bungling of veterans’ issues.

When broken down, Minister Hehr’s mandate letter listed 23 or so priority promises. Of those, one year into the mandate, only two have been fully implemented and another partially.

Injured veterans are in the process of receiving income-loss payments increased from 75 to 90 per cent of military salary. Also, the annual cap at two per cent has been removed, allowing the annual income to keep pace with the consumer price index. As for the partially fulfilled promises: the first of nine Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) district offices has opened with a lengthy timetable for the remaining eight.

There is little excuse for delay for most other promises. It costs little to “end the time limit for surviving spouses to apply for vocational rehabilitation and assistance services.” Some cost more but are straightforward such as “increase the veteran survivor’s pension from 50 to 70 per cent.” Considering just more than 53,000 “survivors” currently collect pensions and approximately 3,000 sadly pass away each year, time is of the essence.

Expect bureaucratic muddling and manipulation on the rest.

Whenever a recommendation allows wiggle room, bureaucrats have addressed the bare minimum or a minor aspect of the recommendation. They then claimed the recommendation was addressed. VAC mandarins have long resisted guaranteed response and processing times. Hence, the Liberal promise to “deliver a higher standard of service and care” will likely result in some meaningless internal performance marker.

Like most of Canada’s federal departments, suffering little or no consequences for failure even when it causes real harm to Canadians is what many senior bureaucrats, especially those isolated in VAC’s Charlottetown head office, consider “public service.”

What about Justin Trudeau’s promise of returning to lifelong monthly tax-free payments for the pain and suffering of lifelong disabling injuries? VAC bureaucrats have already duped many in and outside advisory groups to reject the lifelong pension promise. Instead, bureaucratic handlers are feeding misleading information to the groups to accept one-time lump sums as compensation for a lifetime of anguish. Bureaucrats use such specious arguments as “the bureaucratic process takes too much time to change big things in a single mandate” or “there’s not enough money in the till.” In the case of veterans’ programs, both are grossly deceptive.

As for bureaucratic delays, the Liberal government galvanized a nation and multiple departments including the Canadian Forces to acquire and renovate accommodations, initiate screening, reinforce staffing in Middle Eastern embassies, process support payments, and provide health-care and education while arranging the transportation of 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canadian soil. Time taken: four months.

Military veterans understand the urgency of obligations. Fulfilling the rhetoric of government commitments is a daily duty for them. Veterans have been swimming in an ocean of disingenuous platitudes about the debt government and Canada owes them. What veterans can’t and shouldn’t have to understand and what fundamentally betrays their sacrifice for our nation is why bureaucratic process can delay or outright deny political direction and promise with impunity. Delaying and distorting Prime Minister Trudeau’s mandate promises is a moral forfeiture of the debt Canada tangibly owes our veterans.

Is there money in the till? It is as if each budget is a big surprise for bureaucrats discovering that there are 200,000 veterans and their survivors on the books. Unlike insurance companies and private pension plans, government is not required to put aside money now for veterans in the future. This is where reality and rhetoric clash. Veterans should not be made to suffer Ottawa’s inept fiscal planning. If there is a debt owed our veterans, and government fails to plan ahead, then government must incur fiscal debt to honour the moral debt to our veterans and their families.

Why has the diminishment of our Canadian Forces veterans been allowed to continue for 60 years under successive governments, all repeating the same insincere balderdash? Veterans Affairs has been a perpetual bridesmaid of ministries. Usually the most incompetent or inexperienced of cabinet members is appointed to this low priority portfolio.

Even with unprecedented attention upon veterans this past decade, the senior bureaucrats run the show. So-called widespread consultations are nothing more than a facade. Senior bureaucrats tenaciously cling to their version of stakeholders. Appointed to groups and invited to summits are individuals or organizations whose members have little or no stake in VAC programs and have little if any expertise in the field. Others will not meaningfully or publicly question the policy path that has been so damaging to veterans and their families this past decade under the lump-sum program known as the New Veterans Charter.

The New Veterans Charter is little more than an old-school income-loss and rehabilitation plan copying insurance models from the 1960s and ’70s. Ironically, lifelong compensation for pain and suffering is still a pillar of modern recognition and restitution of injury and loss. VAC bureaucrats are deceiving often naive or sycophantic veterans and pseudo-stakeholders.

Let’s look at a clear example of ministerial ineffectiveness and bureaucratic callous insouciance. Veterans and their families have been calling for a picture-identification cards for recognition and independent access to family benefits. If Minister Hehr in his unprecedented appointment as associate minster of National Defence cannot provide such a simple, inexpensive gesture of dignity, then there is little hope he or the Liberal camp will fully and substantively implement all the promises in this mandate or five more.

However, by following this path there may not be another mandate. Most Canadian voters were aware that veterans are getting the short end during the last election. Former prime minister Stephen Harper and the Conservatives paid the price for the antics and inaction of various ministers such as Julian Fantino. Prime Minister Trudeau and the Liberals may well pay the price for Minister Hehr’s lackadaisical approach to leadership.

This oped was first published in the Hill Times on October 31, 2016 (subscription only).

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Birkenfeld believes there’s at least $1-billion in federal unpaid taxes in Canada

By Allan Cutler

For the past four years, I have been attempting to get Bradley Birkenfeld to come to Canada and assist the Canadian government by testifying and providing valuable documentation regarding the illegal off-shore industry. Birkenfeld believes that there is at least $1-billion in federal unpaid taxes in Canada.

Birkenfeld was an American banker working in Switzerland. As a whistleblower, he exposed the largest and longest running tax fraud by Americans using off-shore accounts. The unprecedented results were shocking and ultimately he received an award of $104-million from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) since more than $5-billion of unpaid taxes were recovered. In keeping with the fine traditions of the U.S.A., the Department of Justice (DOJ) prosecuted him (and only him) for the exact revelations that had resulted in this award. The absolutely false argument made by the DOJ was that he withheld a client name from them. In any event, he received a criminal record and a 31-month jail term for the historic and courageous actions.

The story does not end there. Birkenfeld has been instrumental in the massive fraud investigation against the Swiss Banks and the further release of names of tax evaders by Swiss authorities. To this day, Birkenfeld continues to fight this corruption and has helped a number of foreign governments to recover what is rightly owed them.

That brings us back to my first comment. I have been attempting to have Birkenfeld come and testify in Canada for four years. As a convicted criminal (due to his historic whistleblowing), Birkenfeld is unable to come to Canada without special permissions.

Birkenfeld provided some proof to Canada’s Department of Justice (Justice Canada) about eight years ago. This appears to have been conveniently lost. In fact, Justice Canada responded to an access to information request to state that this had never happened even though we had supplied the name of the federal public servant in Justice Canada that Birkenfeld contacted in Canada.

During this period of time, the Conservatives passed a law regarding rewarding whistleblowers who revealed tax evasion. Curiously, a provision of this law stated that if a person had a criminal record they were not eligible to receive this reward. At this time the Justice Canada was already aware of Birkenfeld, who coincidently has a criminal record for exposing massive offshore fraud. Both Birkenfeld and I believe that this provision was added to the law deliberately to discourage him from reporting fraud and tax evasion in Canada.

In the past four years, I have attempted to contact all the political parties. The Green Party, represented by Elizabeth May, has never even acknowledged my emails or my attempts to meet with her. The NDP, Liberals, and Conservatives have all been very reluctant to provide help. None of them seems to want those who have committed tax evasion to be named. None of them were willing to have Birkenfeld come and testify before a parliamentary committee. None of them were willing to help sponsor Birkenfeld so he could enter Canada.

Since the Liberals came to power, nothing has changed. In spite of continued attempts, no politician is willing to assist in getting Birkenfeld into Canada. No one wants to have Bradley Birkenfeld testify before a parliamentary committee and expose those who committed fraud. The question needs to be asked, “Why are politicians of all parties avoiding looking into massive off-shore tax evasion?”

Liberal ministers have spoken about the need to investigate this but there has been no action in spite of repeated attempts. As I stated, for more than four years, with two different political parties in power, I have been waiting to be contacted for action. My email address is allan@allancutlerconsulting.com if any politician is willing to help.

How can action speak louder than words when there are only words and NO action?

Allan Cutler is past president of Canadians for Accountability, a group formed to help whistleblowers, fight corruption, and advocate for truth, justice and transparency.

First published in the Hill Times on October 3, 2016.

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Why Canada needs to pry open the doors of the legion’s headquarters

Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Sean Bruyea

The national leadership of the Royal Canadian Legion faces a crisis in confidence with its membership along with Canada’s veterans. All Canadians should be concerned with this, given the legion’s responsibility for the poppy symbol and the millions donated as a result.

The legion once actively and assertively advocated for the rights of veterans and their families. The community work performed by many local branches is highly commendable. Provincial Commands, without consideration of personal reward or enrichment, have frequently launched innovations to assist veterans such as homeless-shelter programs.

In contrast, paid senior leadership at national headquarters, known as Dominion Command and located in a suburb of Ottawa, is at risk of being perceived as out of touch with not just veterans but legion membership. Much of the blame for plummeting membership can be placed directly on the leadership’s shoulders.

Why should veterans care about how the legion manages its affairs? After all, of the legion’s about 254,000 paid members on June 1, 62,000 are listed as “ordinary” members. This category includes those who served in Canada’s military but also retired and serving members of the RCMP, civilian police forces, armed forces of all 28 NATO nations, as well as the Canadian Coast Guard.

There are 700,000 serving and retired Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) personnel. The legion’s website states that almost 100,000 of its members are veterans. However, one insider I talked to estimates that fewer than 35,000 legion members have served in the CAF, or five per cent of the CAF veteran population. Rather than an organization for veterans, the legion exists more like a social club using veterans as props.

The legion national leadership has long attributed membership decline to the sad passing of war veterans. There is little truth to this. Of the 37,000 members who did not renew last year, only one in 18 was because of a veteran’s death. The legion’s national leadership has failed to curb the voluntary exit of so many, as well as attract enough veterans and other Canadians alike.

Notwithstanding the legion’s long decline in membership, the legion profoundly benefits from Canadians’ sympathy and support for all veterans. Canadians don’t wear the poppy to honour the legion, they wear it to honour men and women who offer to sacrifice for Canada. That is why all veterans, but also all Canadians, should care deeply about how the legion is managed.

As the legion website states, “On June 30, 1948, the Royal Canadian Legion was given the responsibility to safeguard the poppy as a sacred symbol of remembrance by the people of Canada through an act of Parliament in which the Legion was granted trademark copyright of the poppy symbol in Canada.” The website also notes, “Canadians are fiercely proud of our veterans.”

We are also fiercely proud of our poppy. It was Canadian John McCrae’s poem that spawned the adoption of the poppy symbol in many countries to represent the sacrifices of war.

The legion has what can only be described as a monopoly and legal stranglehold upon the use of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance. Such immense responsibility requires the highest standards of transparency, openness, and accountability.

Instead, Dominion Command leadership has at times practised a standard that more resembles evasion and obfuscation.

A barely noticed article in Le Journal de Montréal published just before Remembrance Day last year raised questions about the management of this sacred responsibility. The newspaper reported that of the nearly $16.5 million raised the year prior from poppy donations, Dominion Command could account for only $114,000 awarded directly to veterans from its own Poppy Fund while millions more lay dormant. The legion said Le Journal de Montreal report contained “incorrect or misleading information” and said that the $16.5 million was “distributed to veteran related services in communities across the country.”

This same leadership recently transferred $500,000 from Canadians’ poppy donations to the Invictus Games when the money may not go directly to Canadian veteran participants. Rather, poppy money would support the operation of the games, involving wounded soldiers from 16 countries. Would providing volunteers and hosting the cross-country torch relay not be sufficient?

For such weighty responsibility, national leadership has taken a rather tacky path to marketing the poppy symbol. One can purchase poppy drop earrings, poppy napkins to become stained with food, umbrellas, mittens, toques, and headbands, not to mention stuffed poppy puppies. This is far from responsible management of a sacred symbol that represents death in war, loss of limb, and the wounding of minds and souls.

In an attempt to restore some confidence, Manitoba Command has urged Dominion Command to be more transparent by disclosing salaries and travel expenses. Dominion Command refused to allow the discussion of Manitoba’s motion at the biennial national convention to be held June 11 to 15 in St. John’s, Nfld.

What will not be discussed openly can be deduced through legion financial statements and other non-confidential sources.

Not counting Legion Magazine, Dominion Command has 43 permanent employees. Most are clerical staff, such as those who manage supply, finance, and membership. Managing this small group are four directors and a dominion secretary, Brad White. In the public service, 43 employees would merit one director at most. In the military, this would be the equivalent of base or wing administration led by a single lieutenant-colonel.

In rejecting the motion to reveal salaries, Dominion Command circulated a five-page brief indicating “we pay LESS than the going rates in the marketplace.”

Steven Clark, director of administration for the Legion’s Dominion Command, told The National Post that it hasn’t been disclosing individuals’ salaries for privacy reasons. There is no legislative requirement to do it, he said, as the organization is not federally or publicly funded. Expenses are tightly controlled after concerns were raised by members in 2014, the Post reported him saying.

For my analysis, I used the equivalent of market rate or higher for non-directors to deduce, from the 2016 Dominion Command budget, a conservative salary range of the directors. To measure the market rate, I used websites that compare salaries like payscale.com and glassdoor.ca.

Salaries for the directors of supply and finance are likely $115,000 to $140,000 and $120,000 to $170,000 respectively depending upon whether market rate or above-market rate is applied to other jobs in these sections. Notably, all salaries are budgeted separately from employer-paid benefits such as pension contributions.

As for the director of administration, the deputy director of marketing, and the dominion secretary, these three salaries were less apparent due to a reorganization not reflected in the most recent budget. Nevertheless, out of a total salary budget of just over $2.8 million, these three positions account for $425,000to $555,000.
Considering other directors’ salaries, deputy directors could be earning $95,000to $120,000 while the director of administration, likely the highest-paid director, could receive from $140,000 to $180,000. This would leave $185,000 to $255,000 for the dominion secretary’s salary.

Dominion Command does publish one salary: the janitor/custodian at $26,800 annually, roughly $13.50 per hour. The market median for this job is $16 per hour or $32,000 annually.

The Service Bureau section is the most opaque. Six service officers and two assistants help veterans access disability benefits, a job similar to Veterans Affairs Canada’s client service agents and case managers. Case managers have medical, nursing, social work, and often post-graduate backgrounds. Do any of the service officers have such credentials? Are they bilingual? Do they have university degrees? Assuming the current director makes $110,000 to $130,000 to manage seven employees, service officers could earn up to $80,000. This is the maximum a VAC case manager makes and 80 per cent more than new client service agents earn.

Of all sections, the Service Bureau demands accountability and transparency: 90 per cent of its budget is paid for by Canadians’ poppy donations.

A director in the public service can earn $107,000 to $140,000. Commanders and lieutenant-colonels command ships, squadrons, and regiments earning $116,000 to $124,000. None of Dominion Command’s jobs has responsibilities to justify such stratospheric salaries. It is not clear what responsibility Dominion Command has for what occurs at the provincial or local branch levels. All are responsible for their own accounts, charitable status, tax filings, service officers, and poppy campaigns.

If Dominion Command approves below- or at-market rates for the majority of its employees, then directors and deputy directors are receiving excessively exorbitant compensation for limited responsibilities. If leadership authorizes more than market rates, then Dominion Command has misled legion membership about salaries. Similarly, paying more than the market demands shows irresponsibility and incompetence in managing trusted membership and poppy funds.

Part of the problem lies with an elected executive that meets biannually. Paid senior staff may see the executive as a nuisance. The current elected president, Tom Eagles, has spent 37 years in the Legion but never served in the military. He has worked as a groundskeeper and maintenance worker at the recreation centre for the village of Plaster Rock, N.B. The Legion website indicates Mr. Eagles is also past-president of Plaster Rock’s Minor Hockey League and sat on the board of a 30-bed local long-term care facility.

An admirable rise through legion ranks, but what skill set and experience does he bring to assume the sacred responsibility of protecting the poppy for all veterans and Canadians? Add to this the 75 per cent legion membership who never served in the military, and the appreciation for the poppy is bound to become diminished and distorted.

Dominion Command and Tom Eagles declined multiple requests to answer questions on these matters or to be interviewed.

The monumental responsibility of safeguarding the poppy should not remain with leadership that fails the most basic tests of transparency, accountability, and democracy—not to mention sound and fair management. Dominion Command’s doors must be open to a forensic audit so that all of Canada, including Parliament, and every veteran, can attest to the protection and preservation of the most hallowed symbol of sacrifice. The memories embodied in the poppy must remain sacred when the veteran is long gone.

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

This piece was first published on June 8, 2016, in the Hill Times.

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