Just One More Reason for a Commission of Inquiry into Veterans’ Issues

The article below was first published in Ottawa’s Hill Times on January 23, 2012

For Canada’s injured military, veterans and their families, there are few government agencies so singularly reviled as the Veterans Review and Appeal Board. The federal quasi-judicial body which hears reviews and appeals from injured soldiers and veterans applying for disability benefits has stolidly played a leading role in cultivating such scorn.

For almost a century, Canada’s injured soldiers have been awarded benefits for disability and living assistance. From their inception, awards and benefits have not always been justly granted to those who have sacrificed in our nation’s name.  This is where the VRAB or the “Board” comes in. Serving members, veterans, RCMP and their survivors (collectively called “applicants”) seek recourse through VRAB when the Department of Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) has failed these applicants in need.

The board has existed in various incarnations over the past century with its latest version morphing in 1995. In all of its incarnations, it has attracted much vitriol from the military, veteran and family community. In fact, Canada’s most prominent veterans’ organization, the Royal Canadian Legion, grew rapidly and came together largely as a result of leading the public outcry widely condemning VRAB’s predecessor in the 1920s. At that time, the Board was comprised of highly-paid political appointees who had never served in the military, setting up endless red tape for injured veterans and widows to negotiate. The legion’s more pro-active and public advocacy has largely disappeared. However, recently emerging veterans’ organizations are more willing to take on the sacred cows of Ottawa, such as VRAB.

“The problem with the Board is that its patronage at its worst” explains Mike Blais, president of Canadian Veterans’ Advocacy, “…people are appointed to that board not for their ability to educate or understand the issues that Canada’s sons and daughters are encountering overseas or the repercussions of war and peace. They’re placed there because they are political, they’re friends of the government at the time.” Like the legion of the past, in 2010 and 2011, Canadian Veterans Advocacy held the first national public demonstrations by veterans in almost a century.

Of the 24 members of the Board, only two have any medical experience, both as nurses and only five have served in the Canadian Forces, one as a musician in the reserves. The remaining members are predominantly lawyers with the remaining being career political appointees, politicians, political staffers or bureaucrats. For their appointment, they are paid from 104,300 to 122,600, about the same as a Lieutenant-Colonel commanding a 200-person fighter squadron, a battalion of infantry or a Commander of a modern helicopter frigate with more than 200 sailors and aircrew.

Perhaps the predominance of lawyers in VRAB is most telling. Like most federal agencies, VRAB and Veterans Affairs Canada have become increasingly complex, creating what Gilles Paquet, Ottawa expert on governance, terms the “arrogant logic” of bizarre internal processes in the federal government. The result is a bureaucracy which baffles and intimidates many injured military members and their families to give up.

Such complex red tape “demoralizes” the veteran, says long-standing NDP Veterans Affairs critic Peter Stoffer who enjoys passionate loyalty from the veteran community for his dedication to veterans’ issues. Such a system, Stoffer says, “does what the Department wants you to do. If they say no long enough, you might go away.”

By the time an applicant ends up in front of the Board, he or she has already been turned down by Veterans Affairs Canada at least one or more times. The board offers two advertised avenues of recourse: a review hearing held in person and, should the review hearing be unfavourable to the applicant, an appeal hearing, which is essentially a paper trial with the applicant having no right to appear in person, making the “hearing” somewhat absurd.

Last year, the board rendered 3,497 review decisions, 1,745, or 50 per cent, of those turned down the applicants’ request. The stats on appeal hearings are even bleaker: out of 970 decisions, 647, or 67 per cent, were turned down. “If you have to end up at VRAB, that means a whole group of people before them don’t trust you, or don’t believe you, or don’t believe the medical evidence. If an individual has peer reviewed medical evidence, that’s all they should have to have in order to receive a benefit from the government of Canada,” says Stoffer.

Disturbingly, that is not what is happening. Take the case of Steven Dornan, a CF veteran who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2002. CF medical doctors attributed his cancer to depleted uranium dust Dornan encountered during his tour as a weapons inspector in Bosnia in the 1990s.

Canada’s top court directed VRAB to recognize this fact. The board has instead repeatedly denied Dornan’s application. It wasn’t until sheer desperation and despair drove his wife, Roseanne, to stage a sit-in at the office of former Parliamentary Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Greg Kerr, that the board relented and sent Dornan’s file back to the minister last year for “reconsideration.” Dornan has since been granted a disability award for his condition.

What is so troubling about the Dornan case is that legislation governing both the board and the Department of Veterans Affairs Canada clearly state that “reconsideration” by the minister is an avenue open to applicants. However, VRAB has repeatedly failed to advertise this option or provide clear criteria as to how an applicant might exercise the option in sending a file back to the minister. The reality is that the board feels they have “control” over the file and that the “minister loses jurisdiction and cannot regain it unless the board so directs” as written by the previous chair Victor Marchand in correspondence to a veteran attempting to seek a reconsideration.

“That’s just stupid and undemocratic. What right do they think they have that they can own a veteran’s life and refuse to send it to the Minister? Does the Board work for the Minister or the Minister for the Board? The Board certainly doesn’t work for the veteran,” says Perry Gray, chief editor of VeteranVoice.info, a veteran community with more than 100,000 subscribers. “People in VRAB do not even know what they can and can’t do. They just make it up as they go along. It really is quite ridiculous.”

The stats tell an even more troubling story of a board thumbing their nose. Setting aside a special court order for all hearing-loss claims to be returned to the minister, in the past five years, the board has permitted just two files to be sent back to the minister for reconsideration. Such smug proprietary over the lives of veterans easily rankles the innate sense of justice of most veterans.

“This is wrong. Once VRAB has finished with a file, the veteran should have right to have that file returned back to minister. The veteran should always have a right to reconsideration by the Minister,” emphasizes Don Leonardo, president and founder of VeteransofCanada.ca, an internet-based social networking community for veterans.

The laws that created the house of VRAB installed a number of doors, with review, appeal and reconsideration by the minister being doors one through three. Door No. 4 is an even less advertised option, called a “compassionate” award under the VRAB Act.  The board may grant a “compassionate award” when doors No. 1 and No. 2 are exhausted (the board pretends that door No. 3, reconsideration by the minister, effectively does not exist). In the past 10 years, there have been a total of six applications for compassionate awards, granting just one “compassionate” award.

“It makes the blood boil,” laments Perry Gray.

Don Leonardo says “I would hate to be the chair when he tells the judge he is standing in the way of door numbers three and four.”

The chair, John Larlee, receives between $168,500 to $198,200 for managing what has become a nightmare for far too many disabled Canadian Forces members, veterans, RCMP and their families. Mr. Larlee is not a veteran, but a career lawyer.

“I don’t think we need a VRAB. They cost the taxpayer $11-million a year and that $11-million can be going into veterans’ benefits and RCMP benefits and their families,” says Stoffer.

Prime Minister Harper at one time thought with equal rationality and compassion. The Conservative election platform of 2005-2006 promised to “fix” VRAB and remake it into something which better served veterans and families.

VRAB has begun a round of information sessions. Veteran groups are hopeful change will come about. Such hope is naively misplaced. An email from VRAB’s communication section confirms that these sessions are not “consultations” but merely the board is “interested in finding ways to share information about its program and values opportunities to hear from Veterans organizations.”

Such ‘feel-good’ sessions with stakeholders are a plague in Ottawa these days, from VAC and VRAB, to the Public Service Integrity Commissioner’s Office, and Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Canada. Departments and Agencies condescendingly share information with the public whom public servants assume could never understand the complexity of the bureaucratic rationale. Senior officials politely listen and then provide more red-tape justification as to why the status quo is unchangeable.

The next time Canada feels overwhelming compassion to send our military into a war-torn or disaster-ridden nation, can we imagine Forces members politely listening and ignoring the order to enter harm’s way? Perhaps not, but the military and the public will eventually realize just how “compassionate” federal agencies like VRAB are towards those same military when disability forces them to sadly depend upon Canada’s compassion.

Sean Bruyea is a columnist, former intelligence officer and graduate student of a master’s in public ethics at St. Paul University in Ottawa

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