Minister Fantino: Less Back Patting and More Action Please

Sean Bruyea

When Canadian communities experience the tragedy of a multiple homicide, it would be unthinkable to ignore the victims or refuse to hunt for the murderer. Nor do we inundate the front page of newspapers with stories about how the remaining 35 million Canadians remain alive.

When Winnipeg or Calgary suffers destructive floods, we don’t hold celebrations in the rest of Canada for unaffected communities.  As Canadians, we care what tragedy befalls fellow Canadians… unless you are the Minister or a senior bureaucrat at Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC).

With unprecedented suffering of our serving and retired military and their families regularly emerging over the past four years, Minister Fantino put his name to yet another newspaper letter monotonously claiming VAC is a finely tuned machine (Fantino: I want to improve veterans’ access to gainful employment once they leave Canadian Forces, The Hill Times, Sept. 8, p. 16).

What a surprise to learn that industrious, skilled, healthy and relatively young individuals (average age of releasing military: 40) are succeeding.  Fantino then declares that he will put more effort into helping these veterans who least require help to get a job.

What Fantino has literally run away from over his painful tenure are those who most need our assistance: families of the disabled, frightened ageing veterans losing their trusted frontline VAC workers or disabled veterans wanting extensive improvements to some very broken or non-existent VAC programs.

Fantino and his senior mandarins have ducked, duped and dawdled along a self-serving unilateral path. They consistently fail to implement recommendations from the Veterans Ombudsman. They slough off an unprecedented consensus of up to a dozen organizations which has called for wide-ranging and substantive changes to the lump sum program known as the ‘new veterans charter’ (NVC).

For 15 years, Government sponsored advisory groups, veterans’ organisations and even Parliament have made little headway in having VAC fix the system to help the most disabled veterans: 1,647 as of April 1, 2014. During the worst fighting of World War II in just 24 months, Canada created truly universal and comprehensive programs for all one million returning military.

Sadly, the inability of VAC to listen to anyone except sycophantic back patting has resulted in marginalizing many of these most disabled and their families while providing limited programs to only 13% of the 600,000 CF veterans. As the Ombudsman noted, “little is known about the potential needs” of the remaining 87% let alone their families.

In June 2014, the House committee on VAC concluded a limited study of the NVC.  Of all witnesses and organizations, I submitted the greatest number of recommendations to assist the most disabled veterans and their families, thirty in all. Conservative MP and former Air Force Colonel, Laurie Hawn, testified in Committee, “I basically agree with most of your recommendations.” Nevertheless, only one of my proposals made it to the Committee’s 14 often vague recommendations.

Whereas a fully functioning healthy veteran receives daycare subsidies during retraining, totally and permanently incapacitated veterans and their struggling families are given zero daycare assistance. Whereas, spouses of disabled serving military members are granted a helpful allowance, spouses of disabled veterans who must either quit or curtail their careers are granted zero assistance.

The NVC is heavily marketed as superior to the previous lifelong pension program. Government claims that lifelong pensions made veterans focus on disability while the lump sum program allows veterans to focus on opportunity. Puzzling since disabled veterans receiving the lifelong pensions could test the waters of employment without suffering any deductions.

Healthy veterans under the NVC have 50% of employment earnings deducted during retraining while education is fully funded (MP’s under their plan keep 100% of employment earnings). However the NVC deducts 100% of seriously disabled veterans’ earnings. Even CPP disability allows recipients to receive up to $5100 annually in 2013 without reporting or being penalized.

Countless studies in measures of well-being and longevity conclude that individuals benefit from pursuing lifelong learning and employment even if part-time, especially the disabled. Under the NVC, the most disabled veterans are denied education support while frozen at a fraction of their military salaries, modestly adjusted for inflation.

For example, military salaries increased approximately 80% since 1996, the last year of wage freezes. While inflation has increased 34% during this time, VAC’s income program has increased a mere 30%. Ottawa, or in VAC’s case, Charlottetown, has effectively incarcerated our most disabled veterans in a policy prison of stagnant lost potential where education, employment and future earnings increases are denied. For our most disabled, NVC veterans and their families must focus upon disability rather than ability, upon insecurity rather than opportunity.

When there is a car accident, only the foolish would send an ambulance to last week’s crash scene or chase those unaffected drivers passing by the collision.

We need to hear much less about those veterans who don’t need our help and focus upon fixing the system comprehensively for those disabled veterans and their families who desperately need our help. A barrage of propaganda will fail to make the disabled veterans’ lives better. Tragically, it will add to the sense of helplessness and shame which feeds into highly destructive self-harm behaviours. Less talk Minister Fantino and senior bureaucrats. Let’s please have more listening and action.

This piece was first published in the Hill Times on September 22, 2014 (subscription required).

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