Committees of the House
Mr. Speaker, I have the distinct honour to rise in the House, with regularity, on issues relating to the Canadian Forces and our veterans. This is an important part of the reason why I ran for Parliament.
The most formative part of my life to date, my 41 years, were the 12 years I spent in uniform for Canada. I joined the military at 18, after graduating from Bowmanville High School. I attended the Royal Military College of Canada and served with the RCAF. I then transitioned to the reserves when I went to law school.
I have previously said in the House that when I left my military family and hung up that uniform, that transition was a difficult time. The decisions that flow around this are extremely stressful. In most cases, our young men and women joined around the same age I did, at 18. I did not have to write another resume until I left law school. I never had to apply for other jobs.
However, the difference between us being 18 or in our 30s, or even later when we leave, is we now have family, children and we will often be in a province that is different from where we enrolled, so our life has changed radically. It has changed for the better because I think almost every person who leaves the military finds it to be a rewarding experience and something that he or she feels proud of for life.
The reason why the new veterans charter was created was to help our men and women with that transition.
I share the concern of my friend from Chilliwack—Fraser Canyon, that how in recent years the debate in this place has been lowered by using veterans and programs like the new veterans charter for political gain. In part, it is shameful because the entire House supported the new veterans charter, including my friend from Sackville—Eastern Shore, who is one of the few who has been here and worked on veterans issues all of those years. Several other members of the Liberal Party voted for it. It was a Liberal project. However, the parties came together because they saw the need to modernize the transition of our men and women out of uniform. The intention of the new veterans charter was to ensure there was access to skills training, education and faster health care so the transition to civilian life was smoother. That is why every sitting member of the House voted for it under the Martin Liberal government.
The new veterans charter has been implemented over the course of our government. The intention of that document was for it to be a living document to ensure it could be reviewed from time to time. Our government has already acted. We increased the permanent impairment allowance supplement for some of our most critically wounded soldiers from Afghanistan. Why? Because those who are most critically wounded have the most difficult time transitioning due to their injuries. They have a hard time finding permanent civilian employment after they leave the military. Our government has already moved swiftly to address that major issue.
I had the honour of sitting on the veterans affairs committee during my first year in Parliament. That committee was charged by the current Minister of Veterans Affairs with reviewing all aspects of the new veterans charter. I still meet World War II and Korean War veterans around the country who complain about the system that was in place before the new veterans charter and how records were lost, how they could not provide support for claims and how claims were rejected. We have been listening and the new veterans charter was an attempt by the previous government, and increasingly by our government, to improve that transition period.
We have also made good changes to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board, such as putting more veterans on the VRAB to review these sorts of claims.
I will use a few moments of time in the House to speak again about veterans’ issues. I urge some of my colleagues in here, who use it as a wedge, to learn about the issues a little more, because I have been profoundly disappointed by the low level of knowledge. People are quick to complain, but very slow to actually research.
I have one main quote from the report by the veterans affairs committee on the new veterans charter. Two parts of its report are critical for the House to consider, especially the New Democrats who have brought this concurrence debate to the floor today.
The all-party committee thankfully removed most of the politics from its operations. The members of the committee heard from over 50 witnesses: veterans, veterans’ advocates, people with experience in mental health and in veterans care. They put together a series of 14 recommendations, about which I will talk a little. What is important is that they unanimously agreed that the principles of the new veterans charter should be upheld, but that improvements to the charter were critical.
Members from all parties recognized that the new veterans charter provided a “solid foundation” for transition from military life to civilian life. There are aspects of the new veterans charter that need to be improved and updated, but the members of the committee unanimously agreed that the principles behind it in assisting that transition were sound. It is just that their execution needed to be done better.
I said earlier that the origins of the new veterans charter were in submissions by many veterans, including some veterans’ groups that are now providing input on how we improve it. However, a lot were asking for more upfront transition support for men and women of the forces, including for those with injuries. That is what the new veterans charter tried to do. It also tried to ensure that health care was part of the transition mix for people leaving uniform quickly, and it still what it does that.
I have heard a few members of the House ask about the $4.7 billion that has been discussed. I hope some of them are listening now. A good portion of those funds will go to benefits for soldiers injured in Afghanistan, having enhanced benefits through the changes we already made as a government with the permanent impairment allowance and permanent impairment allowance supplement. A good portion of it is for that. However, on a basic funding level, Veterans Affairs Canada has a budget that is about $800 million higher per year than it was when we formed government.
I hear it said that this government is cutting from veterans. However, it is actually one of the few areas, while we have been trying to get back to a balanced budget, a principle that is important to our government, that has been largely spared. What I like most as a veteran, having worked after leaving uniform on veterans’ issues passionately for many years, is our government is not stuck in the 1950s on how we care for our veterans.
Some people still talk about the Veterans Affairs offices in the House. They clearly do not understand how veterans are served. Those offices were opened around the country at a time when there was no national health care in the country. The only offices the Government of Canada had around the country were the post offices. There was no network of services and there was no health care. Offices were needed to administer to the entire generation that served and that needed care, and in some cases needed direct relationships with physicians who were private operators.
Let us fast-forward to today and to our veterans who are in some cases leaving in their twenties and who have never had a bank book. They want to access not just their banking information, but their veteran’s account on their smartphone or on their tablet. I have said in the House a few times that we have to provide services that support our veterans in their nineties and in their twenties. To do that, we cannot sit still. We have to provide a range of services.
What has changed from the 1950s to today is a network of almost 700 offices across Canada called “Service Canada” that were not there before. We now also have health care administered through the provinces, and care for veterans can be accomplished through transfers and relationships with the provinces, including some of the facilities that the federal government used to own but transferred to the provinces.
We all now know from the debates in the House that provinces administer the health care systems in their province or territory, so the federal government now has a partnering relationship. There is still some exceptional work going on at Camp Hill, Sunnybrook, some of the veterans hospitals, but they are part of the provincial health regimes and they work with Veterans Affairs for care for our veterans. That is what has changed.
It is critical to remind Canadians that Veterans Affairs offices, the brick and mortar offices, did not deliver any services. They were administrative centres. Now that same level of administrative support can be offered at the network of 700 Service Canada offices, which did not exist post World War II but do now.
My area of Durham and the region at large, with 500,000 people, never had a Veterans Affairs office. People would have to travel to Toronto. Now with Service Canada, that same level of administrative support can be obtained at five Service Canada offices in and around the edges of the Durham region. That is smart governance, and anyone who says it is not is playing games.
Some of the offices that were closed had less than 10 people in them a day. In most cases, there is a Service Canada office that can offer the same level of support in the same building or down the street. As a veteran, it disappoints me that we actually took the advice of one veteran who had been highly critical of this. He said that the person in the Sydney Service Canada office would not have experience with veterans. We listened to him last October. I went to the minister personally. We ensured that when the Veterans Affairs office closed in Sydney, an experienced veteran case worker was transferred to the Service Canada office. With a caseload of about 10 to 12 people a day, one is appropriate to provide the same level of administrative support and guidance.
At the same time, over 15,000 veterans have signed up for the My VAC account, to manage their own Veterans Affairs accounts online. Most of them are the younger cohorts who I have talked about, in their twenties and thirties. Serving veterans is not about standing still. It is about doing things better and ensuring we can serve more people. We are committed to that.
I am proud of the uniting feature of the Conservative Party and this government. I am proud to serve in Parliament alongside members who have served in the army, the navy, the air force. We ensure this is a priority. There are 30,000 more survivors now taking part in the veterans independence program under our changes than before we took office. I think all MPs know veterans in their constituencies who benefit from the VIP, an appropriately named program, to help them stay in their homes.
With changes, not only have we allowed more people to qualify for that, we have made it easier. Therefore, instead of the administrative burden that families were telling us about of constantly having to submit receipts, mainly the children of veterans, there is now a case where they can be approved for such service and it can be done in advance. I have heard directly from people who say how much easier that is.
We have supported great programs that have popped up in recent years, like the work Wounded Warriors has done with service dogs, like the work the group of physicians and scholars at the University of British Columbia have done with the veterans transition program and the Veterans Transition Network, dealing with veterans with OSIs or PTSD. This has been funded by our government to try to take that great work UBC has done for about 20 years, since the Medak Pocket of Yugoslavia, and take it nationally.
We have increased and modernized the Last Post Fund, increasing both the amounts covered by the fund and extending it to modern veterans, not to ensure every veteran has a funeral paid for by his or her country, because I know most do not want that, I certainly do not, but all veterans want to know that indigent veterans and those who have fallen through the cracks will have those services provided. The Last Post Fund has done that for 100 years. Now will do it for the post-Korean War generation of veterans.
We have the veterans hiring act, where we are putting veterans as the top priority in hiring in the civil service. We know this will not apply to every veteran, because they still have to be eligible for that post within the federal government, but it sends a message when Canada’s Parliament has an act and puts veterans in top priority position. We are sending a message to employers across the country that hiring a veteran is not just the right thing to do; it is actually accretive to the bottom line. It would be hiring people with a track record of being able to work well on a team and take to training, and most people who join the military are inherently loyal; they want to affiliate with a uniform or a regiment. Therefore, in an age where companies are spending millions of dollars on retraining and recruiting in the fast turnover parts of our economy, hiring a loyal person can save money in the long term.
We created the veterans ombudsman position. I have the good fortune to speak to Mr. Parent regularly on these issues. He came from an amazing life as a search and rescue technician, one of our most dedicated and brave members of the Air Force who save Canadians. Now he is applying his passion to serving our veterans as the ombudsman. We take his reports very seriously as direct input that he is providing to the discussion on veterans care.
On top of our changes to the VIP, we have eliminated more than two million forms of red tape that were burdening our veterans, as a way of streamlining things. In some cases, our older veterans were having issues and falling behind on paperwork, or it was falling to their children to administer. We want to make it easier.
There are important commemorative things we have done. I still meet Korean War veterans who thank us for, a year ago, making it the Year of the Korean War Veteran to recognize the 60th anniversary of the conclusion of that war. That war has been described as the forgotten war because it came so close after World War II and was a UN-mandated mission. Our work on that and, frankly, the work of the Korean government recognizing our veterans as well, has been empowering for many of our veterans. I am sure next week members of the House will have the honour of providing 75th anniversary commemorative pins to veterans of World War II. These are important symbols that veterans like to have for Remembrance Week, to hand to their grandchildren, or as part of their family memory of service.
We also recognized Bomber Command with a bar for the decorations. It was posthumous as well, so families could complete the service medal set of their grandparent by adding the Bomber Command bar. That was important because Bomber Command actually had the highest casualty rates of World War II, and the young men who flew on those missions were courageous. After the war, because of the nature of those missions, Bomber Command was not talked about, and the men were not properly recognized. There was a lovely exhibit in London, England, that many of those veterans attended, and the Bomber Command bar is a way we can commemorate that as well.
As I said in my remarks before in the House, when I brought up the important role the Legion plays in the care of our veterans, on a political program, I was mocked for that position. The only thing that predates the post-World War II bricks and mortar offices, is the Legion. Its network of 1,300 veteran services officers since the 1930s has been helping our veterans directly, and its mandate comes from an act of Parliament in 1926.
There are 14 recommendations from the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs on modernizing and evolving the new veterans charter. We have already acted on four of those, the most important of which is to make sure veterans are stable medically before they are transitioned out of the Canadian Armed Forces and to make sure they are briefed on Veterans Affairs and their caseworker.
I think most MPs would find that is usually the gap where a problem to the service or benefits of a veteran happens, because they leave one institution, the Canadian Armed Forces, which some joined at age 18, and they transition to an entirely new department. We are now making it mandatory that they are stable and they have the Veterans Affairs training.
The other parts of the recommendations we are reviewing and will act upon, because we are passionately committed to our veterans.