Business of Supply

Mr. Speaker, it is always a distinct honour for me to rise in this House of Commons, but today I rise with a profound mixture of sadness and disappointment.

As a member of Parliament who has served, I am sad whenever I see veterans who feel their government or indeed their member of Parliament from any side of this place is not here for their best interest. I know I speak for myself and some veterans who are on this side, but I also speak to my friends on the other side, including my friend from Winnipeg Centre who hosted an event for veterans with me last year.

I am disappointed, though, because Ottawa has become a place where we cannot actually have a serious debate about an important public policy area like this. There is someone on that side proving that point right now.

I am also disappointed with the low level of knowledge amongst people in this place and people who gather and speak to us outside this place on how our veterans have been served, historically through to today.

I am also disappointed that just this week, on a panel, when I suggested the Legion plays an important role in the care of our veterans, I was mocked for that position.

I am going to use my time and the privilege I have as a member of Parliament to try to raise the level of debate for one moment and to provide some education. I hope my friends on all sides listen intently.

I joined the Canadian Forces at 18, and when I was released after 12 years of service, I said to my commanding officer, Colonel Al Blair at 423 Squadron in Shearwater, that I would be a committed civilian, supporting our CF and our veterans. I rarely speak about that work, but it has been a critical part of my adult life and a critical reason why I ran for Parliament.

I am actually an average soldier, or airman. I joined because I love this country. My area of Canada, Durham, has had profoundly successful and important soldiers, sailors, and airmen. Our community also lost Trooper Darryl Caswell during the war in Afghanistan. I know his family. I know the people who attended that funeral. Like many, I stood on the Highway of Heroes with my community to show support.

My area has also been represented by parliamentarians. Rev. John Weir Foote, a Victoria Cross winner from Dieppe, served Durham in the provincial parliament. Our only padre to receive the VC when he leapt out of the boats to care for his men and was imprisoned for the rest of the war, he was our local MPP. Another VC winner from Dieppe, Cec Merritt from British Columbia, actually served in this place.

We have had some profoundly important veterans in this place. I would invite the members to look at the statue of Baker out in the hallway. He was a sitting member of Parliament who died in World War I.

A sitting member of Parliament from Uxbridge, in my riding, the MP for Ontario North, served at Vimy during World War I and died, not at Vimy but at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. He was brought back from the war because of a nervous breakdown. That is what it was called in World War I. He had PTSD. He leapt from a window in Montreal before having to face the families of Uxbridge who lost sons under his command. We are now addressing these real needs.

Just yesterday my friend, the member for Kingston and the Islands spoke about the hon. John Matheson, another MP and one of my personal heroes who served our country with distinction.

We have almost 600,000 veterans in Canada and 80,000-plus members of the Canadian Forces, regular force and reserve, who will be veterans in the future. Of them, 130,000 have a file with Veterans Affairs, and 7,500 have an assigned case manager. A case manager is assigned when there is assessment that the veteran needs additional support based on an assessment of income, health, living arrangements, family support, activity, and addictions.

Veterans Affairs receives 730,000 calls per year. Fifteen thousand veterans have registered for online My VAC accounts, primarily newer Afghanistan veterans. Home visits are not tracked; that is unfortunate. It is something we should work on tracking, because veterans with injuries can be visited at home. There are 68 VAC offices, consisting of stand-alone VACs, 24 integrated personnel support centres, and 17 OSI clinics. Soon services are going to be offered at 600-plus Service Canada offices.

To address the Legion point—my friends opposite did not think it plays an important role—I say that the Legion is the most important supporter of our veterans. It was founded in 1925. In 1926 an act of Parliament was passed in this place. Section 4 of the act empowers it with the purpose to care for the welfare of our veterans. There are 1,461 branches across Canada and 1,400 veteran service officers. John Greenfield, the veteran service officer for branch 178 in Bowmanville, has personally handled 450 cases. He attends their home, or they visit him. He helps them, face-to-face, and gets benefits for those veterans.

In 2012, 12,000 veterans were helped by these visits from veteran service officers, who only have expenses paid and training through the poppy fund. The Legion has also helped with the veterans transition network, out of the University of British Columbia, and in recent years, the Veterans Affairs ministry has empowered the Legion to run the visitation program, where thousands of veterans of Korea and the Cold War have been visited by veteran service officers to assess their health and well-being. The Legion remains the most important direct, face-to-face contact for our veterans. I thank the Legion deeply for that.

The question before us here in the House and in conversations I have had in recent days, including with some veterans who came to the Hill, is the concern about the closure of some offices. We have to talk about assessing the needs of our veterans now and in the future. As my colleague from Etobicoke Centre said, there are our veterans who are in their 20s, from Afghanistan, and our veterans who are in their 80s or 90s.

My area of Ontario, the Durham region, has never had a stand-alone Veterans Affairs office. Have the veterans not been cared for? Yes, they have. There are a range of ways they have been cared for and will continue to be cared for. The important issue we have before us as parliamentarians, as Canadians, is to ask whether it is better to stay put and watch offices have five, six, ten, or twelve visits per day, or is it better to open up two, three, four, or five offices across the country to address mental health? Veterans Affairs offices are administrative points of contact. We have heard that term. They do not deliver benefits for our veterans. They help them access them. I would suggest the top people who help them access benefits are the veteran service officers across the country. They can also access these services through a range of other means. What our government is doing with Service Canada offices is now allowing that direct access point where face-to-face contact could be required to help with forms or other things.

In October, when some of these veterans came to Ottawa, I met with them. I attended the media event. One of them said to us that their issue relates specifically to whether Veterans Affairs training or experienced case officers would be available in Service Canada. We listened. The eight closures will have Veterans Affairs case workers in them as of next week, full stop, permanent. With a caseload of less than ten visits a day, one is appropriate. In most cases, the Service Canada office is in the same building or nearby. In my region of Durham, this will now give four offices in the area for that personal contact if one of our Legion veteran service officers cannot help them. Veterans did not have this before these changes.

I know this is an important debate. I know my friend from Sackville—Eastern Shore is passionate about these issues. I met him as an officer at Shearwater, and I truly believe he has veterans at heart. However, we also have the responsibility to ensure our system addresses the needs now and in the future. We have to make sure we meet the needs of all veterans. We have to meet the growing mental health challenges that our veterans face. These changes are part of our plan to serve our veterans better.

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