Can O’Regan avoid putting his foot in veterans’ mouths?

Hill Times file photo

This piece was first published in the Hill Times on September 18, 2017.

If the first public comments of newly appointed Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan are anything to go by, veterans and the governing Liberals should be worried. The Trudeau government will have to understand veterans far better. They also should be eager to do more than they promised if they wish to reverse seven decades of ghettoizing veterans and their families into arbitrary castes and classes.

O’Regan, in his first advertised action, visited the Veterans Affairs (VAC) bureaucracy in Charlottetown, P.E.I., the only federal department with its head office located outside Ottawa: “I decided to make it a top priority that I get out here and meet people as quickly as I can.”

For those who have battled VAC over the years, and sometimes decades, it is the senior bureaucracy in Charlottetown that has been the principal source of an often dismissive and antagonistic relationship with veterans and their families. It is not unlike Ottawa’s paternalistic and hostile treatment of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. That the minister thought his “top” (and first) priority was the senior bureaucracy and not veterans, sounds a foreboding trumpet call.

During his first visit to Charlottetown, the minister was briefed on the “top priority” of “caseload” ratios, as the bureaucracy likes to refer to the number of veterans managed by each case manager. “I’ve got a lot to learn,” O’Regan told CBC, “I understand that that is a big issue, the issue of caseloads [sic].”

Frustratingly, “caseloads” have been the “top priority” for VAC and its ministers for at least five years. My colleagues and I have been writing and speaking on this issue since at least 2004.

In an effort to reduce these caseload ratios, veterans have told me that local VAC officials delay months in responding, meeting, and providing minimal follow-up services. Some then “ditch” the veterans so that other “cases” can be likewise quickly processed.

Any earnest minister and sincere government must tackle VAC’s bureaucratic culture. It denies there is a problem, discredits those advocating for change, dismisses suffering, obfuscates, studies, delays further, misleads media and veterans into believing action is being taken, and finally manipulates stakeholders into accepting wholly inadequate Band-Aid measures. The culture at Veteran Affairs’ head office is far removed from Ottawa’s oversight, secluded from national media attention, and living in a dimension alien to the reality of Canada’s veterans and their families.

Meanwhile, a host of unaddressed and often grave problems remain.

VAC, the department mandated to care and treat veterans and their families, has only begun to monitor veteran suicides, but only after the government was shamed by a series of media investigations. Meanwhile, veteran pioneers, Louise Richard and Luc Levesque, pleaded for the government to study the matter, more than 20 years ago.

In the 1990s, Richard also called upon the government to monitor and help homeless veterans followed by Don Leonardo of VeteransCanada(.ca) beginning in 2001. It wasn’t until media embarrassment in 2014 that VAC hastily awarded a sole-source contract for more than $1-million with questionable, defined goals and follow-up quality controls. The contract apparently provides some impromptu assistance to select homeless veterans. Certainly, the Auditor General should have a look at this. Meanwhile, we still don’t have an accurate and comprehensive picture of homeless Canadian veterans, contributing causes, and substantive long-term solutions.

None of these issues was identified in Liberal election promises. Also not included was an overhaul of the way veterans have their disability claims adjudicated, reviewed, and appealed. I stood beside Louise Richard in the late 1990s, and later Perry Gray joined by C.J. Wallace of Veteranvoice.info, calling for comprehensive changes to this demeaning and humiliating process that makes veterans feel more like criminals than honoured Canadians who sacrificed for all of us.

When veterans are inevitably denied or granted insufficient recognition for their injury, they must turn to a review and appeal process, frequently guided by lawyers employed by the very department with which veterans are fighting for benefits. Pre-1995, these lawyers worked in a completely separate and independent agency preparing veterans’ claims. That model must be reconsidered.

Meanwhile, VAC lawyers argue cases, often with very little preparation and huge “caseloads,” to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board, a body that makes pretences to being judicial, only when it saves money. The board is a notoriously mismanaged and compassionately compromised. This group of politically appointed individuals have their hands and hearts tied by an entrenched bureaucracy that ensures more generous aspects of legislation are quietly kept from veterans’ pleading wounds.

These systemic injustices represent a fraction of the tragic to-do list that never made the Liberal promise cut. For those that have, bureaucratic delay and malice have eaten away at their generosity. For instance, increasing veterans’ disability income from 75 per cent to 90 per cent of military salary saw many veterans receive 20 per cent raises. The lowest paid veterans, who make up the largest single demographic, received less than five per cent. Meanwhile, inflationary increases have fallen dramatically behind reality. A veteran released today with the same disabilities at the same rank and pay level is earning 30 per cent more than a veteran released 20 years ago.

Veterans Affairs’ hard-hearted stop-gap measures continue to belittle Liberal promises of “one veteran, one standard.” Benefits are awarded based upon arbitrary dates or heartless criteria, all in order to save money. The Liberal promise to expand upon allowances for the most disabled to respect lost career prospects, denies the same benefit and its supplement to those veterans released prior to April 1, 2006 even though no such benefit exists for earlier released veterans.

Families who care for the most disabled also will receive an increase in a caregiver allowance but this too is denied spouses of veterans released pre-April 1, 2006. Furthermore, $1,000 monthly is grossly inadequate and will force many families to juggle care of the veteran and a career, likely forfeiting eligibility for the benefit. In effect, those spouses who work the hardest, even though their careers are often hobbled in caring for a seriously disabled veteran, will be punished the most, or at least benefit the least.

Principal among the promises is the return to lifelong pensions. This will be a huge budget item affecting more than 60,000 veterans costing billions, hence the dilly-dallying to fulfill the promise.

The pension promise dawdling has allowed both the Liberals and the bureaucrats to slide through other half-promises. Education for non-injured veterans has been restricted to, once again, those veterans released after April 1, 2006, and denied to the most disabled veterans. Liberals promised to remove the time limit for survivors of deceased veterans to access education and retraining. For spouses still caring for the most disabled veterans, the two-year limitation nonsensically and callously remains.

The bureaucracy controls political agendas, diminishes recognition for service and sacrifice while demeaning veterans and their families through soul-destroying frustration and exclusion.

To address these and many other problems requires authentic and encompassing change. This change necessitates ministers confront the senior bureaucratic culture head-on. O’Regan commented in the same CBC interview, “We’ve got a lot of good people who are doing good work on behalf of veterans.”

If senior bureaucrats are doing “good work,” then by default, culpability lies with veterans in not understanding what “good work” is being done on their behalf. Patronizing veterans is the salient problem, not the solution. Sadly, O’Regan appears ready to reinforce, not resolve the VAC cultural mess.

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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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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