By Sean Bruyea
Veterans and Canadians better stop holding their breath. Minister of Veterans Affairs Kent Hehr is way behind schedule and doesn’t have the oomph to fulfill his mandate letter. Ultimately, Prime Minister Trudeau and the Liberal government will be charged and condemned for this bungling of veterans’ issues.
When broken down, Minister Hehr’s mandate letter listed 23 or so priority promises. Of those, one year into the mandate, only two have been fully implemented and another partially.
Injured veterans are in the process of receiving income-loss payments increased from 75 to 90 per cent of military salary. Also, the annual cap at two per cent has been removed, allowing the annual income to keep pace with the consumer price index. As for the partially fulfilled promises: the first of nine Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) district offices has opened with a lengthy timetable for the remaining eight.
There is little excuse for delay for most other promises. It costs little to “end the time limit for surviving spouses to apply for vocational rehabilitation and assistance services.” Some cost more but are straightforward such as “increase the veteran survivor’s pension from 50 to 70 per cent.” Considering just more than 53,000 “survivors” currently collect pensions and approximately 3,000 sadly pass away each year, time is of the essence.
Expect bureaucratic muddling and manipulation on the rest.
Whenever a recommendation allows wiggle room, bureaucrats have addressed the bare minimum or a minor aspect of the recommendation. They then claimed the recommendation was addressed. VAC mandarins have long resisted guaranteed response and processing times. Hence, the Liberal promise to “deliver a higher standard of service and care” will likely result in some meaningless internal performance marker.
Like most of Canada’s federal departments, suffering little or no consequences for failure even when it causes real harm to Canadians is what many senior bureaucrats, especially those isolated in VAC’s Charlottetown head office, consider “public service.”
What about Justin Trudeau’s promise of returning to lifelong monthly tax-free payments for the pain and suffering of lifelong disabling injuries? VAC bureaucrats have already duped many in and outside advisory groups to reject the lifelong pension promise. Instead, bureaucratic handlers are feeding misleading information to the groups to accept one-time lump sums as compensation for a lifetime of anguish. Bureaucrats use such specious arguments as “the bureaucratic process takes too much time to change big things in a single mandate” or “there’s not enough money in the till.” In the case of veterans’ programs, both are grossly deceptive.
As for bureaucratic delays, the Liberal government galvanized a nation and multiple departments including the Canadian Forces to acquire and renovate accommodations, initiate screening, reinforce staffing in Middle Eastern embassies, process support payments, and provide health-care and education while arranging the transportation of 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canadian soil. Time taken: four months.
Military veterans understand the urgency of obligations. Fulfilling the rhetoric of government commitments is a daily duty for them. Veterans have been swimming in an ocean of disingenuous platitudes about the debt government and Canada owes them. What veterans can’t and shouldn’t have to understand and what fundamentally betrays their sacrifice for our nation is why bureaucratic process can delay or outright deny political direction and promise with impunity. Delaying and distorting Prime Minister Trudeau’s mandate promises is a moral forfeiture of the debt Canada tangibly owes our veterans.
Is there money in the till? It is as if each budget is a big surprise for bureaucrats discovering that there are 200,000 veterans and their survivors on the books. Unlike insurance companies and private pension plans, government is not required to put aside money now for veterans in the future. This is where reality and rhetoric clash. Veterans should not be made to suffer Ottawa’s inept fiscal planning. If there is a debt owed our veterans, and government fails to plan ahead, then government must incur fiscal debt to honour the moral debt to our veterans and their families.
Why has the diminishment of our Canadian Forces veterans been allowed to continue for 60 years under successive governments, all repeating the same insincere balderdash? Veterans Affairs has been a perpetual bridesmaid of ministries. Usually the most incompetent or inexperienced of cabinet members is appointed to this low priority portfolio.
Even with unprecedented attention upon veterans this past decade, the senior bureaucrats run the show. So-called widespread consultations are nothing more than a facade. Senior bureaucrats tenaciously cling to their version of stakeholders. Appointed to groups and invited to summits are individuals or organizations whose members have little or no stake in VAC programs and have little if any expertise in the field. Others will not meaningfully or publicly question the policy path that has been so damaging to veterans and their families this past decade under the lump-sum program known as the New Veterans Charter.
The New Veterans Charter is little more than an old-school income-loss and rehabilitation plan copying insurance models from the 1960s and ’70s. Ironically, lifelong compensation for pain and suffering is still a pillar of modern recognition and restitution of injury and loss. VAC bureaucrats are deceiving often naive or sycophantic veterans and pseudo-stakeholders.
Let’s look at a clear example of ministerial ineffectiveness and bureaucratic callous insouciance. Veterans and their families have been calling for a picture-identification cards for recognition and independent access to family benefits. If Minister Hehr in his unprecedented appointment as associate minster of National Defence cannot provide such a simple, inexpensive gesture of dignity, then there is little hope he or the Liberal camp will fully and substantively implement all the promises in this mandate or five more.
However, by following this path there may not be another mandate. Most Canadian voters were aware that veterans are getting the short end during the last election. Former prime minister Stephen Harper and the Conservatives paid the price for the antics and inaction of various ministers such as Julian Fantino. Prime Minister Trudeau and the Liberals may well pay the price for Minister Hehr’s lackadaisical approach to leadership.
This oped was first published in the Hill Times on October 31, 2016 (subscription only).