A Tale of Two Committees

This piece was first published, in edited form, in the Hill Times on July 3, 2014.

When Dickens wrote the opening to A Tale of Two Cities, set over two hundred years ago, he described an age of contrasts – wisdom and foolishness, belief and skepticism, hope and despair. He also wryly observed that this could be said of any era. It certainly seemed true to whistleblowing advocates attending two sets of recent Parliamentary committee hearings.

The committees in question were the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates (or OGGO, as it’s commonly known) and the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities (or TRAN). In both cases, the committees had serious, deeply embedded problems to tackle: whistleblower protection on one hand, and aviation safety on the other.

For its part, OGGO set its sights on reviewing the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act in early February. This is the law which is supposed to protect federal government whistleblowers, but which has been spectacularly ineffective at doing so for 10 years. Without going into details – David Hutton and Allan Cutler have dealt with the issues thoroughly in previous editions of the Hill Times – it would be no exaggeration to say that the law intended to protect whistleblowers is little known and even less trusted by the rank-and-file public service.

The second committee, TRAN, has been studying aviation safety. The main concern here is that Transport Canada’s oversight has been steadily eroded, and not just in aviation: the same problems were evident in rail transportation before the 2013 Lac-Mégantic rail disaster that killed 47 people.
The Canadian Federal Pilots Association (CFPA) led the charge, making a powerful presentation about the increasing dangers in the system and noting that its members believe that a major crash is inevitable due to Transport Canada mismanagement.

The CFPA is not alone in its concern: The Auditor General and Transportation Safety Board have also criticized Transport Canada’s management and oversight of transportation safety. Too much trust has been put into the hands of industry, the TSB argues: “Numerous recent investigations have found companies that have not managed their safety risks effectively, either because they were not required to have an SMS or because their SMS was not implemented effectively.” SMS refers to safety management systems, which – as implemented by Transport Canada – put safety almost entirely in the hands of the operators (airlines and railways) with little or no direct inspection by government.

It’s worth noting that similar deregulation occurred in food safety prior to the 2008 Maple Leaf listeriosis outbreak that killed 22 Canadians and the 2012 XL Foods e-coli outbreak in Alberta that resulted in the largest food recall in Canadian history.

Whistleblowing advocates like us were there because – like many in the industry – we understand that whistleblower protection is the backbone of any SMS. After all, who knows better than insiders – pilots and mechanics – if corners are being cut on aviation safety? Sadly, government officials and airlines still routinely attack whistleblowers and cover up the problems.

Not that you would know this from Transport Canada’s testimony. Both committees had this in common: senior public servants (and some industry officials) were happy to recite talking points designed to present themselves in the best possible light, confuse MPs, obscure truths, and minimize or disparage critics and whistleblowers.

In OGGO, Integrity Commissioner Joe Friday spoke of the challenges they faced and made excuses for poor performance. His list of suggested amendments to the law were almost all minor, and none could address the crucial problem: his office’s abysmal performance. He was supported by Treasury Board officials, who could not hide the fact that they have no idea how well government departments were doing with their own internal whistleblowing systems.

Claims made by Transport Canada senior officials in TRAN were the standard ones: that Canada has one of the safest systems in the world, and that action is being taken where there were concerns. These are precisely the claims that were being made before the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster, a time when inspections had decreased and Transport Canada inspectors were held in contempt by railway companies (to the point that they ignored instructions to comply with the regulations). Questions by MPs about whistleblower protections were deflected with a dismissive answer: “We have a system for that,” said Assistant Deputy Minister Laureen Kinney, implying – against all evidence to the contrary – that the system worked. Other questions about inspection rates were met with confusing answers, obscuring the fact that the number of Transport Canada inspections of operators has fallen dramatically and continues to fall.

But the committees differ dramatically in how they responded to these tactics. Where we expected the usual pro forma exercise, OGGO called whistleblowers to testify and in experts on whistleblowing law from four other countries. Best practices were considered. And the interest was not only on the opposition side: government MPs were also engaged, even occasionally outraged when they got non-answers.

TRAN has not been as diligent, with too many evasions accepted and Transport Canada’s record unquestioned. Opposition MPs seemed to sense that something more needed to be done, but feel helpless as a minority on the committee, and we had less success in engaging government MPs.
The TRAN committee’s passivity is perplexing. It‘s certainly contrary to the interests of the government. If MPs are being misled by public servants, they should be outraged. For if the worst does happen, they will be responsible. Even the cost savings that seem to be driving the Transport Canada approach being used are ephemeral. The bill to the government (meaning you, the taxpayer) for the Lac-Mégantic disaster was over $135 million for the court settlement alone. How many rail inspections could that have paid for?

It’s not too late, however. TRAN is now writing its report, and we hope that the committee has seen that the emperor has no clothes. Some MPs confided that they believe that Transport Canada is a sick organization. This is supported by the evidence, with one study and an upcoming book on the Lac-Mégantic disaster arguing that senior managers are preoccupied with ‘turf’ and reputation, rather than the safety of the public.

So why the difference between the two committees? Perhaps Transport Canada senior bureaucrats have convinced their minister, Marc Garneau, that all is well and that everything changed after Lac- Mégantic, while the failure from Integrity Commissioner’s office is too much to miss. Maybe TRAN is just lost in the pile of issues that every government must deal with. Perhaps the OGGO committee was just a chance gathering of motivated MPs who didn’t like being given the run-around.

Whatever the case, it seems to us that all parties – including government MPs – need to be more skeptical and challenge public servant’s testimony in the way OGGO did. This government also needs to take a hard look at Transport Canada. Accepting the recommendations of the CFPA would be a good step. Building solid whistleblower protections would be another. After all, it would be far better to stand in Parliament and say, “We are aware of the problems and have already taken steps…” than to have to rise and solemnly apologize – or worse, mourn the dead after a major aviation accident.

Can O’Regan avoid putting his foot in veterans’ mouths?

Hill Times file photo

This piece was first published in the Hill Times on September 18, 2017.

If the first public comments of newly appointed Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan are anything to go by, veterans and the governing Liberals should be worried. The Trudeau government will have to understand veterans far better. They also should be eager to do more than they promised if they wish to reverse seven decades of ghettoizing veterans and their families into arbitrary castes and classes.

O’Regan, in his first advertised action, visited the Veterans Affairs (VAC) bureaucracy in Charlottetown, P.E.I., the only federal department with its head office located outside Ottawa: “I decided to make it a top priority that I get out here and meet people as quickly as I can.”

For those who have battled VAC over the years, and sometimes decades, it is the senior bureaucracy in Charlottetown that has been the principal source of an often dismissive and antagonistic relationship with veterans and their families. It is not unlike Ottawa’s paternalistic and hostile treatment of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. That the minister thought his “top” (and first) priority was the senior bureaucracy and not veterans, sounds a foreboding trumpet call.

During his first visit to Charlottetown, the minister was briefed on the “top priority” of “caseload” ratios, as the bureaucracy likes to refer to the number of veterans managed by each case manager. “I’ve got a lot to learn,” O’Regan told CBC, “I understand that that is a big issue, the issue of caseloads [sic].”

Frustratingly, “caseloads” have been the “top priority” for VAC and its ministers for at least five years. My colleagues and I have been writing and speaking on this issue since at least 2004.

In an effort to reduce these caseload ratios, veterans have told me that local VAC officials delay months in responding, meeting, and providing minimal follow-up services. Some then “ditch” the veterans so that other “cases” can be likewise quickly processed.

Any earnest minister and sincere government must tackle VAC’s bureaucratic culture. It denies there is a problem, discredits those advocating for change, dismisses suffering, obfuscates, studies, delays further, misleads media and veterans into believing action is being taken, and finally manipulates stakeholders into accepting wholly inadequate Band-Aid measures. The culture at Veteran Affairs’ head office is far removed from Ottawa’s oversight, secluded from national media attention, and living in a dimension alien to the reality of Canada’s veterans and their families.

Meanwhile, a host of unaddressed and often grave problems remain.

VAC, the department mandated to care and treat veterans and their families, has only begun to monitor veteran suicides, but only after the government was shamed by a series of media investigations. Meanwhile, veteran pioneers, Louise Richard and Luc Levesque, pleaded for the government to study the matter, more than 20 years ago.

In the 1990s, Richard also called upon the government to monitor and help homeless veterans followed by Don Leonardo of VeteransCanada(.ca) beginning in 2001. It wasn’t until media embarrassment in 2014 that VAC hastily awarded a sole-source contract for more than $1-million with questionable, defined goals and follow-up quality controls. The contract apparently provides some impromptu assistance to select homeless veterans. Certainly, the Auditor General should have a look at this. Meanwhile, we still don’t have an accurate and comprehensive picture of homeless Canadian veterans, contributing causes, and substantive long-term solutions.

None of these issues was identified in Liberal election promises. Also not included was an overhaul of the way veterans have their disability claims adjudicated, reviewed, and appealed. I stood beside Louise Richard in the late 1990s, and later Perry Gray joined by C.J. Wallace of Veteranvoice.info, calling for comprehensive changes to this demeaning and humiliating process that makes veterans feel more like criminals than honoured Canadians who sacrificed for all of us.

When veterans are inevitably denied or granted insufficient recognition for their injury, they must turn to a review and appeal process, frequently guided by lawyers employed by the very department with which veterans are fighting for benefits. Pre-1995, these lawyers worked in a completely separate and independent agency preparing veterans’ claims. That model must be reconsidered.

Meanwhile, VAC lawyers argue cases, often with very little preparation and huge “caseloads,” to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board, a body that makes pretences to being judicial, only when it saves money. The board is a notoriously mismanaged and compassionately compromised. This group of politically appointed individuals have their hands and hearts tied by an entrenched bureaucracy that ensures more generous aspects of legislation are quietly kept from veterans’ pleading wounds.

These systemic injustices represent a fraction of the tragic to-do list that never made the Liberal promise cut. For those that have, bureaucratic delay and malice have eaten away at their generosity. For instance, increasing veterans’ disability income from 75 per cent to 90 per cent of military salary saw many veterans receive 20 per cent raises. The lowest paid veterans, who make up the largest single demographic, received less than five per cent. Meanwhile, inflationary increases have fallen dramatically behind reality. A veteran released today with the same disabilities at the same rank and pay level is earning 30 per cent more than a veteran released 20 years ago.

Veterans Affairs’ hard-hearted stop-gap measures continue to belittle Liberal promises of “one veteran, one standard.” Benefits are awarded based upon arbitrary dates or heartless criteria, all in order to save money. The Liberal promise to expand upon allowances for the most disabled to respect lost career prospects, denies the same benefit and its supplement to those veterans released prior to April 1, 2006 even though no such benefit exists for earlier released veterans.

Families who care for the most disabled also will receive an increase in a caregiver allowance but this too is denied spouses of veterans released pre-April 1, 2006. Furthermore, $1,000 monthly is grossly inadequate and will force many families to juggle care of the veteran and a career, likely forfeiting eligibility for the benefit. In effect, those spouses who work the hardest, even though their careers are often hobbled in caring for a seriously disabled veteran, will be punished the most, or at least benefit the least.

Principal among the promises is the return to lifelong pensions. This will be a huge budget item affecting more than 60,000 veterans costing billions, hence the dilly-dallying to fulfill the promise.

The pension promise dawdling has allowed both the Liberals and the bureaucrats to slide through other half-promises. Education for non-injured veterans has been restricted to, once again, those veterans released after April 1, 2006, and denied to the most disabled veterans. Liberals promised to remove the time limit for survivors of deceased veterans to access education and retraining. For spouses still caring for the most disabled veterans, the two-year limitation nonsensically and callously remains.

The bureaucracy controls political agendas, diminishes recognition for service and sacrifice while demeaning veterans and their families through soul-destroying frustration and exclusion.

To address these and many other problems requires authentic and encompassing change. This change necessitates ministers confront the senior bureaucratic culture head-on. O’Regan commented in the same CBC interview, “We’ve got a lot of good people who are doing good work on behalf of veterans.”

If senior bureaucrats are doing “good work,” then by default, culpability lies with veterans in not understanding what “good work” is being done on their behalf. Patronizing veterans is the salient problem, not the solution. Sadly, O’Regan appears ready to reinforce, not resolve the VAC cultural mess.

Sean Bruyea, vice-president of Canadians for Accountability, has a graduate degree in public ethics, is a retired Air Force intelligence officer, and frequent commentator on government, military, and veterans’ issues.

Less pretty words, more substantial action needed for military families

General Jonathan Vance

Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

This piece was first published in the Hill Times on May 31, 2017.

They have been called our “best kept secret.” Will the current government’s defence policy review and decades of tight-fisted budgets continue to relegate the centres that serve our nation’s military and veteran families to social and fiscal obscurity?

It has been more than 30 years since the current 32 Military Family Resource Centres (MFRCs) began to take shape. The initiative was born in opposition to the failure of Canada’s military bureaucracy to acknowledge the importance of military families, long labelled dependants.

Spouses who showed bravery that even the military had to begrudgingly admire, fought in the courts and political arena to have a say in how the military affects the lives of military families.
Arguably, spouses still have little voice on military matters affecting the lives of their families. MFRCs were not created, and arguably still do not operate, to address their needs. Although mandated to be “managed independently of the chain of command,” reality still hinders MFRCs’ arm’s length aspirations. As Dr. Deborah Harrison, Canada’s leading expert on the impact of military life and culture on families, points out in her 2016 book, Growing up in Armyville, MFRCs are still an “arm of the CAF [Canadian Armed Forces] and, as such, their overriding goal is the operational readiness and retention of CAF members.”

True, each MFRC operates as a charity, governed by a board that must include at least 51 per cent civilian spouses of military members. However, military members often sit on or observe board meetings. Their mere presence can intimidate civilian board members or potentially influence the hiring and firing of MFRC staff. Facilities such as daycare centres, space for youth and family education, job search and training, recreation, and peer support are located on and provided by military bases. Base commanders often contribute around 10 per cent of the operating budget for their respective MFRCs, a much-needed amount that can be removed at whim.

The majority of MFRCs’ budget is provided through the Military Family Services (MFS), headquartered in Ottawa. MFS controls allocation of funding which has not increased since 2012. In an email response, MFS refused to provide a breakdown as to how the nearly $28-million is assigned.

Last year, Ottawa reportedly stopped funding MFRCs’ operation of their own websites, perhaps the major conduit to provide information to families in need. Instead, Ottawa has centralized all MFRC websites under a larger umbrella for military members including fitness, healthcare, financial assistance, mental health, retail operations, insurance, sports, ski clubs, curling, golf, etc. The result: military families are reconsigned by modern technology to their historical position of insignificance. At least two MFRCs—Halifax and Victoria (Esquimalt)—maintain dedicated, informative, and accessible websites, emulating MFRC’s “by families, for families” founding philosophy.
Initiative, flexibility, and adaptability of civilian spouses and remarkable MFRC staff have allowed them to provide valuable services to military members and their families. A 2015 Veterans Affairs pilot program that funded seven MFRCs to assist medically releasing military members and their families will be expanded to all MFRCs, but only for those who leave the military after April 2018. Callous fiscal management continues to deny MFRC services to the vast majority of Canada’s 600,000 veterans and their families including severely disabled veterans and their families who need the most help.

In a telephone interview, Deborah Harrison explained that the military has “little interest in so-called ‘damaged goods,’” such as civilian spouses seeking divorce or civilian family members suffering spousal or child abuse. Most civilian spouses sacrifice career advancement, education upgrading, and the family and friend connections that most Canadians take for granted. After supporting the military member through years of unrecognized and unpaid support, once separated, spouses are denied access to MFRC services. Those suffering abuse, Harrison pointed out, fear stigma when they contemplate seeking MFRC services in the first place, as they accurately recognize the problem of “career costs to the serving member.”

Deborah Harrison’s 2002 book on violence against women in Canadian military communities, The First Casualty, led to an apparently short-lived CAF “Family Violence Action Plan” that included “substantial policy developments.” Tellingly, the 2004 CAF guide on how to operate MFRC’s did not mention the word “abuse” or the provision of services with respect to family violence. The supervisor and coordinator guidebook Take a Stand! for dealing with family violence in the military, instructs independent MFRC staff “contacted by the media … to refer enquiries to the appropriate local or national [CAF] public affairs officer.” Not one MFRC website has readily identifiable links to help victims of violence.

Quoted in a media release, Chief of Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance said, “the health and well-being of all Canadian Armed Forces members and their families is my highest priority.” To a Parliamentary committee he explained “everybody is treated the same in terms of if you become a casualty, if you are hurt, if you need any support. Certainly, the families are supported the same”.

This is disingenuous, but an honest mistake for any member of a culture, unlike any other, that imbibes rhetoric with life and death ramifications. Honour, duty, bravery, respect, integrity, commitment, and sacrifice have fed and energized the military soul for generations. For a military member, such heavy words mean something. However, meaning something and doing something substantially tangible are difficult to bridge for any organization but especially for the military.

“Every organization has an opportunistic orientation to its employees’ families”, Harrison explains. “What makes the military unique is its policies of unlimited liability and universality of service. These policies make the way in which the military organization fails its families much more tragic and poignant.”

The mission has been and still is the highest priority. Mission takes precedence over peers, self, and especially families. This is why MFRCs are managed by a relatively unimportant section buried in Ottawa’s massive defence bureaucracy. The section is managed by a colonel, outranked by every general, who heads up any other unit, thereby making greater claims on not just operational but fiscal priorities. MFRCs, at $28-million annually, account for less than 10 per cent of the CAF Morale and Welfare Services budget. Families are valued far less than one maritime helicopter that cost well over $100-million in 2003.

In the meantime, military families are foisted upon provincial and territorial healthcare and education systems that are woefully unprepared to deal with the unique demands military service places upon them. The U.S. and the U.K.—but not Canada—have allocated extra funding to compensate regional and local institutions for the greater needs of military family members.

Highest priority families must beg for money to operate MFRCs with dedicated but highly underpaid staff. A quick look at charitable returns on Canada Revenue Agency’s website highlights MFRCs’ desperation. Three quarters of MFRC staff at most if not all 32 centres, including full-time positions, earn less than $40,000, without benefits or pension. They serve the families of military members with the richest pension and health benefits in Canada. It is not surprising that MFRCs have employee retention problems.

None of this makes rational sense. Modern military spouses are less likely to tolerate the indignity of being treated like third-class passengers on the military voyage. Less family support for the military member is a leading reason why military members leave the Forces. As for the military lifeblood, recruitment, children of military members are 100 times more likely to serve than other Canadians. It is never a good idea to shoot holes in your own boat.

MFRCs have come together to ask for modest and stable increases in their precarious funding and to enshrine a commitment in the upcoming defence policy review scheduled for release June 7, 2017. They deserve and require far more than this.

The war in Afghanistan mobilized the support of Canadians for our military. At the same time, the military and politicians did all they could to keep the suffering of military families hidden from the same Canadians. Canada’s history is framed and buttressed by the heartbreaking struggles of military families. It is largely these heartbreaking struggles that keep the Canadian military operating.

Sean Bruyea, Vice-president of Canadians for Accountability, has a graduate degree in public ethics, is a retired Air Force intelligence officer and frequent commentator on government, military, and veterans’ issues.