There’s no accountability at Veterans Affairs Canada

The article below was first published in Ottawa’s Hill Times on February 27, 2012

By Allan Cutler and Ian Bron

Three weeks ago, John Larlee, chair of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board, responded to an op-ed written by Sean Bruyea. Bruyea’s comprehensive evidence and testimony effectively called Larlee to account for the failure of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board (VRAB) to provide dignified and adequate recourse for veterans as guaranteed by Canadian law.

What struck us as most curious about Larlee’s letter was its near complete lack of a substantive rebuttal to Bruyea’s original article. And since then, a scandal has arisen inside the VRAB which challenges Larlee’s missive.

To begin with, Larlee ignores the fact that in the last five years, the board has voluntarily and reluctantly granted permission for only two files to be returned to the Minister of Veterans Affairs for reconsideration. In the three years of Larlee’s tenure as chair, the board has not granted a single compassionate award allowed for in the legislation, another glaring shortfall in Larlee’s accounting of VRAB.

Hearing the story of VRAB member Harold Leduc, who was awarded $4,000 by the Canadian Human Rights Commission because of ill treatment by his colleagues, it makes perfect sense. Leduc describes an atmosphere where anyone granting a veteran a benefit is derided as Santa Claus.

But on the VRAB website and in testimony to Parliament, Larlee and the board applaud themselves that should the disabled veteran be unhappy with how the board handles matters, they can go to federal court for a judicial review. Apparently for the board, the 150 cases to Federal Court over 17 years is a testament to how happy veterans are with the board. Larlee and the board conveniently forget that it costs at least $25,000 for a disabled veteran to go to court. The majority of Canadians, including veterans, cannot afford ‘justice’ when up against a machine that has unlimited spending power and resources.

The reality is that most veterans and their families give up. Of the 40,000 decisions made by the department annually only 15 per cent even show up in front of the board at the request of veterans. Apparently, this low rate is another badge of honour for the entire process—for which Larlee soundly patted his own back in his recent testimony to the Senate subcommittee on Nov. 2, 2011.

Equally troubling is the Byzantine and discriminatory nature of the board’s processes. It must be constantly kept in mind that all those who appear are military members suffering a disability. Their appearance at the board is an act of desperation undertaken only when the government of Canada has failed them. The board has a 162 calendar-day turnaround for reviews (that’s more than five months), a number for which Larlee is also apparently proud. Most importantly, those board members presume to judge military injuries and the accompanying doctors’ reports when all but five board members have never served a day in the Canadian Forces—and none are medical doctors.

What nearly all military members, veterans, and their families who appear in front of the board will tell you is that they feel as if they are personally being judged and dismissed. They have no right to openly contest misconceptions and apparent preconceptions of board members who lack the above experiences or qualifications.

We feel that as a quasi-judicial tribunal, the board has taken a far too legal interpretation of its responsibilities. These hearings are not reported to us as friendly, problem solving get-togethers. They are described as intimidating and dehumanizing. And while quasi-judicial tribunals make legally-binding decisions, they should show flexibility to meet the needs of the veteran and seek a resolution. For instance, the board could adjourn the meeting to encourage the client to seek a witness report or that one medical report which will result in a favourable decision.

This does not appear to be happening. Instead, the VRAB is using the words “quasi” and “judicial” when it suits the Crown to deny funds but not when it benefits the veteran. For instance, the board does not publish cases nor correlates patterns. As such, previous decisions are not accessible and cannot be used to help expedite the favourable results of future cases as is done by courts.

Interestingly, the Auditor General—as far back as 1998—made two extremely important findings. First, that the board is a far more expensive and less efficient than the departmental review process. Second, the AG determined “There is a need for the Department and the Veterans Review and Appeal Board to regularly analyse the reasons for overturned pension decisions.”

The first finding suggests that files should be sent back to the department wherever possible and not to be heard by the board. The board has done this only twice. The second finding has been casually dismissed by Larlee to the Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs by saying that the board sends only individual decisions back to Veterans Affairs: “We would anticipate that [the decisions] would be utilized by the department.”

Coincidentally, the auditor general also acts as the guardian for definitions relating to accountability in government. For the AG, accountability is “about the requirement to answer for what you have accomplished (or not) that is of significance and of value.” Clearly, John Larlee has not been held accountable for the poor performance of the board.

The AG also tells us that accountability is “a relationship based on the obligation to demonstrate and take responsibility for performance in light of agreed upon expectations.” Ultimately, John Larlee, the 23 other members of the board and the 85 or so employees are accountable to military members and their families. They have clearly been found wanting.

The big question for the minister of Veterans Affairs, Cabinet and the Prime Minister: who exactly is responsible for making sure Larlee and the board are held accountable for failing to meet the expectations, needs and legal rights of our sons, daughters, fathers and mothers who have sacrificed so much so that we may live in peace and security?

Alan Cutler is president and founder of Canadians for Accountability. Ian Bron is a veteran and managing director of Canadians for Accountability.

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