Veterans Hiring Act

Mr. Speaker, to be honest with the House, I was not at first going to rise to debate Bill C-11 because I spoke at second reading on this bill. However, I stayed after question period to hear how much discussion of veterans hiring and the veterans hiring act there would be. Because so many members of the House chose to say quietly that they were going to support the bill, but then used it to talk about a range of other issues, I decided to speak yet again.

It is always an honour for me to speak in the House on issues related to the Canadian Forces and our veterans, and particularly to try to raise the level of debate, to try to bring some statistics and facts to bear on it, as well as to highlight some of the amazing work being done by non-governmental actors in both the rehabilitation and particularly the retraining and employment of our veterans. I did that at second reading, highlighting some exceptional Canadian leaders in that regard. I will do a bit more of that today.

Going back to Bill C-11, as I said in my previous speech in the House, this has an important impact on a small number of veterans, but perhaps more importantly, it is massively symbolic, as the Canadian government is one of the largest employers, if not the largest employer, in the country. Bill C-11 states that after three years of honourable service in the Canadian Forces, people who transition out of the forces and become veterans will have priority one hiring in the rest of the civil service for a five-year period. We have heard some members of this House state that they still have to qualify for the position; of course they do. Veterans who leave the Canadian Forces, when they hang up their uniform, have an amazing range of skills and experience.

In fact, last night after I appeared on a panel and tried desperately for the second time to explain how the estimates process in the House works to my friend from Guelph, a retired Canadian Forces captain from Chester, Nova Scotia, emailed me to say he shared my frustration with the lack of uptake with my friends. He told his story to me of how he served for several years in the Canadian Forces and then transitioned to 20-plus years as a foreign service officer for Canada. Certainly, it has been the experience, from the Great War right through to today, that we have seen a lot of citizen soldiers, and soldiers who become corporate leaders and productive business owners and entrepreneurs. It is up to the veterans to qualify for positions, but they will get priority one hiring, meaning that if there are several eligible candidates, veterans with service-related injuries would get the priority hiring.

It is important to see who could be impacted by this because it is not a couple of people, as some of my colleagues in this debate have suggested. There are about 4,000 men and women who release from the Canadian Forces each year. The majority of those are regular retirements or completions of service contracts. When I left after 12 years, I would have been among the several thousand people that year to transition out. However, there are over 1,200 members of all ranks who leave because of medical release. That could be everything from those who have had an injury right through to those whose medical category might have changed, like a pilot’s vision declining before getting his or her wings. Twelve hundred is a big number, and the vast majority of those would have post-secondary education, because now both non-commissioned members of the Canadian Forces and officers tend to have at least a college or a bachelor’s degree. In some of the specialized trades within the Canadian Forces, the members have some of the most cutting-edge training in technology, intelligence-gathering, communications, and signals. These are in-demand services also used by other departments within the government. Many of them would also be bilingual, having either joined the Canadian Forces with a bilingual background or received training over the course of their time in uniform, therefore making them even stronger candidates for some of the work with the federal government.

The bill puts a five year time frame on it because that is an appropriate time frame for the priority hiring. That five year period would allow that veteran to accept the training or vocational support as part of their retirement or departure from the Canadian Forces. They would be able to educate, potentially move back to their place of enrolment or place in Canada, and that period gives them that chance.

I am proud that our government has dramatically increased what a veteran can get in terms of retraining and education assistance. There are higher numbers of education assistance while they are in uniform in the Canadian Forces and there is more outside. In fact, the total envelope that an individual veteran could get, depending on their background, their time in, what courses they take is in the tens of thousands of dollars of that retraining and re-education assistance. This would be accomplished within those first five years and that would be the period of time that priority hiring would be held for that veteran.

Now I will talk a bit about some of the other items people have addressed in the debate today to show that overall our government is making tremendous strides, particularly on the transition of men and women from uniform in the Canadian Forces to civilian life as a veteran.

In fact, one of the things the Auditor General’s report from today highlights is that our government has invested heavily with Veterans Affairs and is working and meeting its objectives in rehabilitation and vocational assistance.

One of my friends in the House suggested that was focusing on a small in the Auditor General’s audit on veterans mental health. No, that was one of the two major categories at which the auditor looked. He looked at 4,600 veterans with a mental health condition of some sort. The department’s goal was to ensure that veterans could qualify for this rehabilitation and vocational assistance. The goal was 80% to qualify and be on the program within two weeks within the department. The Auditor General showed that 84% were getting on to that program within the two week goal.

In the case of rehabilitation and vocational assistance, this is directly germane to this debate because it is about transitioning and allowing veterans to get the education or training to become a priority hire of the federal government, or a great hire for the private sector. The Auditor General is saying that we are getting that pretty much right. As a veteran, I would love to see 100% within two weeks. We should always strive to do a little better, but in the House, we should also strive to actually look at a report that comes out like this.

It is important, because we asked the Auditor General to look at mental health. We wanted to see where we were doing well and where we had to improve, because we are investing heavily. The Auditor General suggested $500 million each year earmarked specifically for mental health support.

On the weekend, there was a new announcement about even more money, but it is also about performance and whether that money is making the intended impact. That is why our government asked the Auditor General to look at this area. That is important context.

Another thing about the Auditor General’s report that I take as a good indication is some of the statistics. The big one shows that we are finally addressing the issue of stigma, which haunts mental health, not just in the veterans community, but the mental health discussion across the country. Stigma affects the ability of somebody to come forward and ask for help.

I have spoken in the House before about the MP from my riding 100 years ago, Sam Sharpe, who served at Vimy as a sitting MP and took his own life on return from World War I at the Royal Victoria Hospital from shell shock. We have not been dealing well throughout our history with post traumatic stress, with mental illness as a result of service. We still have a way to go, but we are getting better.

What did the Auditor General say?

Ten years ago, there were only about 2% who would identify as a medically-released veteran with a mental health injury. Now, it is 12%. There has been a 10% increase. Some of that would be attributable to the fact that we were engaged in a combat mission in Afghanistan, certainly, but I think all members, and certainly any advocates in the mental health community, would also say that the reason we are seeing that higher number over such a short period of time is we are finally getting to the stigma issue and more Canadians are willing to come forward to seek treatment, some of which is innovative and can really help them get back to leading a fully productive life as not just a soldier but as a father or a mother. Getting rid of that stigma allows them to get the support quicker.

I read in the news the other day about a veteran who was concerned that he went undiagnosed from his tour in Bosnia years ago. That is likely because the Canadian Forces, and really society 20 years ago, was not doing well in this area. The first operational stress injury clinic for the Canadian Forces was not opened until 2002. There were two, perhaps a third almost opened under the previous government. We have opened an additional 12 to 14 in that time. On the weekend, we that a new one would open in Halifax and satellite offices in another seven communities, bringing the total up to 25, to spread that operational stress injury clinic network across the country. Therefore, when men and women leave the Canadian Forces, they have support regardless of where they live.

The Auditor General has shown that more Canadians are coming forward to get the help they need. That training and educational assistance, which I said numbers in tens of thousands of dollars, can help them retrain and be ready for an opportunity in the federal public service as a priority one hire under the veterans hiring act, BillC-11, or within the private sector.

I would like to showcase some of the leadership going on across the country when it comes to hiring our veterans.

Non-profit charitable groups like Canada Company has a hiring program with employers, engaging them, reaching out to veterans and trying to plug them into opportunities. Someone I served in the military with, Walter Moniz, works diligently on that program for Canada Company, and I would like to thank Blake Goldring for starting Canada Company and this program on hiring and transition for our veterans.

True Patriot Love, a charity that I had been involved in forming prior to my time in Parliament, hosted a conference called “From Battlefield to Boardroom”, It was focused at human resources leaders within companies so they could learn about the value of hiring a veteran and learn what the difference between a corporal and a colonel was. This is self-evident when one is in uniform, but it is not as evident to civilian employers or an HR department if they have no familiarity with military service and the experience that those Canadians would have. At that “From Battlefield to Boardroom” conference were veterans who secured jobs when employers realized what a tremendous opportunity they were for their company.

Finally, I have also spoken in the House on a few occasions about a really exceptional group called Treble Victor. That is a group of former military members, not just from the Canadian Forces but also from our allied forces. There are some British, French and South African veterans who are volunteers. They served some time in uniform and now want to help men and women leave and transition into meaningful post-CF employment. These people have busy careers and lives but volunteer their time to meet with employers and to mentor the men and women of the Canadian Forces transitioning

I have had the good fortune of working with Treble Victor for many years and want to applaud it on its efforts, again. Tim Patriquin is the current head of Treble Victor, and I want to thank them for their work.

I should also add that one of the carpenters’ unions and its members have also done a tremendous job in reaching out directly. I have met some of their leadership who are reaching out and giving opportunities within the skilled trades.

With all of these groups, such as non-governmental operators, charities and people volunteering their time, is it not important that the government shows that it is also putting the hiring of veterans as a priority? I think I said at second reading that whether Bill C-11 hires 10 people or 100 people, the symbolism of it is as important as the men and women who may benefit from it. It shows that the federal government, as one of the largest employers in the country with coast to coast reach, puts a priority on hiring our veterans, particularly those who exit as a result of an injury or a medical category change of some sort. The federal government has the obligation to show leadership on this front, and Bill C-11 is the embodiment of this.

I would like to return to a subject that I have spoken about several times in the House and that, sadly, has become so politicized we cannot even have an honest debate about it, which is the nine regional Veterans Affairs bricks and mortar offices that were closed. I asked the members for Guelph and Random—Burin—St. George’s if veterans in their ridings used a bricks and mortar office. I would invite Canadians to check Hansard. They will see the members did not answer that question.

In fact, while I was on a political panel with the defence critic from the Liberal Party, I suggested the Legion played an important role in helping veterans access their benefits and services. I was mocked for that position. I think she said something like I was outsourcing to the Legion. The Legion, which was created in 1925 and in 1926 became incorporated by a special act of Parliament in the House, was empowered from its start to help support our veterans.

There is actually no better network of people helping our veterans than Legion veterans service officers. They have done it for generations. That is the real answer to the question that my friend from Random—Burin—St. George’s did not want answer. In small communities like Stephenville and Marystown in her riding, there was never a bricks and mortar office. Were the veterans not helped or ignored for 50 years? No. In the vast majority of cases, they were helped by their veterans service officers, who have a direct link into Veterans Affairs Canada.

In the Auditor General’s report today, the Auditor General asked some of the veterans service officers their thoughts on some of the cumbersome administrative forms used in their help with veterans. The Auditor General asked the Legion about how we could maybe make some of these administrative forms and the delays from them shorter. Our Conservative government already moved on that to reduce the application from seven pages to three, or something like that. The Auditor General went back to veterans service officers from the Legion to once again ask if the changes had been beneficial. It is in his report.

This is the issue that we do not talk about in a rational way. Our government has the obligation to provide support and access to that support for veterans who are in their late 20s from Afghanistan to veterans in their 90s, some of whom are in Italy right now, visiting Ortona and the places that they helped to liberate. We have to do that, not by staying put with the way things were done in the 1950s. As a veteran, it is important for us to do what we are doing, opening 18 to 25 operational stress injury clinics across the country that actually deliver services. We are not doing things in a way that involves only eight or nine people walking into an office to fill in forms.

I hope the veterans hiring act is not just an opportunity to revisit why it is so important for the federal government to lead in this category and this issue. I hope it is a good opportunity for all members of the House to try to bring a much more informed and dedicated debate to the House when it comes to veterans.

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