Veterans trapped under government’s sweeping budget omnibus steamroller

Finance Minister Joe Oliver, pictured with his top officials Brian Ernewein and Jeremy Rudin May 6 at the House Finance Committee

Sean Bruyea

Government budget omnibus bills are abominations of democracy swallowing huge swaths of policy revisions in one gulp, often for the bad. Hidden in the depths of Bill C-31, the latest omnibus budget bill, is a veterans’ benefit time bomb set to explode on both politicians and our most disabled veterans.

On May 29, 2012, coincidental with the announcement to not appeal the class action lawsuit involving the Canadian Armed Forces long term disability insurance plan known as SISIP, the Government of Canada committed to cease the offsetting of pain and suffering monthly payments from the Veterans Affairs own long term disability plan known as the Earnings Loss Benefit or ELB.

ELB is a key pillar of the controversial legislation commonly known as the New Veterans Charter. The omnibus budget bill provides retroactivity in returning to veterans the Pension Act pain and suffering deductions of ELB from May 29 to September 30, 2012.

During the launch of the New Veterans Charter including the Earnings Loss Benefit program on April 6, 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised that “Our troops’ commitment and service to Canada entitles them to the very best treatment possible. This Charter is but a first step towards according Canadian veterans the respect and support they deserve.

If government has decided that the policy of offsetting monthly Pension Act payments from ELB is not what our “troops deserved” on May 29, 2012 did our troops deserve the unfair deductions on May 28, 2012? For that matter did our troops deserve the unfair deductions any day back to April 6, 2006 when the Earnings Loss Benefit was created?

ELB is clearly an income loss program. The Pension Act is indisputably a program for pain and suffering. Our courts have long stipulated that income loss is to be maintained completely separate from general damages otherwise known as pain and suffering payments. No other provincial civilian workplace compensation program in Canada deducts pain and suffering payments from income loss programs. Why are our disabled military veterans and their families subjected to an unjustifiable lesser standard from April 6, 2006 to May 28, 2012?

Even if we ignore the strong legal precedent of not deducting pain and suffering payments from income loss programs, this arbitrary retroactive date of May 29, 2012 comes across as petty. The indefensible retroactive date creates additional classes of veterans yet again. Those in the SISIP class action lawsuit had the problem rectified back to the date SISIP began offsetting Pension Act payments in 1976. Why are disabled veterans in receipt of ELB not accorded the same dignity back to 2006? Both the reality and appearance of justice being done are plainly not reflected in Bill C-31.

Omnibus budget bills are insidious not just because of their scope and size. Although changes to budget bills are not necessarily matters of confidence, they can provoke votes of non-confidence. Because of this, Bill C-31 will likely remain unchanged. For the most disabled veterans under the flagship Conservative veterans’ benefit program, the New Veterans Charter, they will be forced to enter the paralytic morass of years of unnecessary and bitter legal battles to seek the retroactivity that is rightfully theirs.

This inevitable legal battle will sap the health, family stability and dignity of military veterans and their families.

We say we honour our injured veterans as a nation and a government but Parliament’s actions often speak otherwise. Parliament in the case of veterans has been far too hesitant to make substantive positive changes because of cost or insensitive obstinacy. Parliamentarians fail to remember these disabled veterans never hesitated when Parliament ordered them into situations knowing full well many would die or be disabled for life.

Major Todd, the architect of the Pension Act philosophy of pain and suffering payments stated in 1919, “Those who give public service do not so for themselves alone but for the society in which they are a part. Therefore, each citizen should share equally in the suffering which war brings to this nation.”

We keep promising to repay the debt owed to our veterans but as a government and a nation we do not.

What is also troubling about Bill C-31, is the absence of further debts we are failing to pay to our disabled veterans. The Earnings Loss Benefit is not being increased to 100% of military release salary while providing lost potential career earnings. Yet civilian workplace compensation schemes recognize this lost potential. Boosting ELB to 100% has been emphatically pushed by the major veterans’ groups, the two VAC advisory groups tasked to study the matter as well as the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

There are also no provisions in Bill C-31 for providing childcare and spousal income assistance to the most disabled veterans even though serving military who are injured receive both. These most disabled are not supported for education upgrades or to pursue any employment opportunity to better themselves and improve their esteem. The monthly income supplement provided to veterans under the New Veterans Charter is denied those exceptionally incapacitated veterans under the Pension Act.

Inherent in these omnibus budget bills is a dismissal of the concerns of all Canadians. Ignoring the concerns of veterans and Canadians is a perilous road for democracy.

Undoubtedly Parliamentarians and the Public Service work hard for democracy. However, none can claim to have sacrificed what our military has sacrificed to preserve our democratic way of life. The omnibus budget bill does not meet Canada’s democratic standard. It allows a multitude of changes to Canada’s laws to enter the backdoor of government policy without full participatory and democratic due process.

Ramming through legislation without proper scrutiny is an insult to the dignity of all that the military has sacrificed in Canada’s name and at Parliament’s orders. The omnibus budget bill is a perversion of democracy. For this democracy, almost 120,000 Canadians have lost their lives and hundreds of thousands more have lived and continue to live with lifelong disabilities as a result of serving our nation.

Surely Parliament can do better. Surely Parliament can get its act together and act upon what veterans want and need, not what bureaucrats deceptively hide in omnibus bills.

This piece first appeared in the Hill Times on May 19, 2014.

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