Veterans Need Hope for the Future

Ottawa - January 30, 2014

This text was authored by Guy Parent, Veterans Ombudsman and originally published in the Hill Times on Monday, January 27, 2014.

Not a day goes by without a media report on the plight of injured Veterans and their families. It seems that no matter what the Government of Canada does or proposes to do to ease the situation, the litany of the perceived unmet needs of Veterans continues unabated.  On top of that, the recent spate of military suicides highlights that for some of our transitioning servicemen and women, as far as they can see, there is little hope for their future.  

To mitigate the oftentimes negative psychological effects and financial restraints of transitioning from the supportive and secure military community to the unknowns of civilian life, Veterans need to clearly see that there are viable opportunities for their future.  They need hope, but hope is not enough without forward motion towards a goal. You cannot just “hope” yourself into a better life. There needs to be a viable path forward, built on a strong partnership between the individuals transitioning and the supporting system, with the objective of helping Veterans to achieve their transition goals and turn their aspirations into reality. 

In my opinion, one of the reasons that the system is not generating the necessary forward movement and “hope” for our Veterans and their families is due to a mismatch between “legislator’s expectations” and the reality of implementation, particularly in relation to the New Veterans Charter. 

When the Charter came into force in 2006, it represented the most sweeping change to Veterans’ services and benefits in the past 60 years. It was supported by parliamentarians and Veterans’ organizations alike, and represented a major re-think of how Canada should support its Veterans. The Charter was a new approach that fundamentally altered benefits delivery from the Pension Act concept of just providing money and treatment, to one of ensuring that Veterans are provided the medical, social and vocational rehabilitation support needed to successfully transition to civilian life. Heralded as a feat of modernization at its time of enactment; almost eight years later, the New Veterans Charter is derided by many and championed by few. 

To a degree, this is understandable given the speed at which the New Veterans Charter was brought into force, and the rigidity by which it was and continues to be implemented. Although both parliamentarians and public servants acted in good faith, how the legislation was translated into action was and is not always true to the legislators’ intent. In some cases, the policies and procedures created to implement New Veterans Charter programs actually hinder, and sometimes even stop the intended effect from happening.

By creating a system that is unnecessarily complex for Veterans to navigate, and one that offers limited access for many in need, some Veterans have lost trust. This makes it difficult for those transitioning to see clearly that going from military to civilian life can be a positive experience. We have to re-build that trust and restore hope to Veterans. Above all, it will take increased transparency, simpler processes and better alignment to the original goals of the legislation.

I have been Veterans Ombudsman for a little over three years and I have witnessed a lot of blame passed around at the expense of forward movement on solutions to the problems faced by our Veterans and their families. Now it seems that the ante is being geared up and Veterans’ issues are being used increasingly as a political football. 

How Veterans and their families are supported is not a matter for political agendas or election platforms, it goes much beyond that. It is a matter of owning up to the commitment that we, the citizens of Canada, will ensure that our sons and daughters who are injured or sacrifice their lives to uphold our country’s values will be looked after and shown that their sacrifices were not in vain and that their care will always be a national priority that is an integral part of Canada’s national security and economic prosperity agenda. 

As forward motion is necessary to create hope, I was very pleased last fall when the Honourable Julian Fantino, Minister of Veterans Affairs, agreed to my recommendation for a comprehensive review of the New Veterans Charter, with special focus placed on the most seriously disabled, support for families and the delivery of programs by Veterans Affairs Canada. However, I am concerned by recent reports that there are some who would like to take the House of Commons Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs across the country before deciding on what needs to be done to improve the New Veterans Charter. 

I am not opposed to Committee Members instituting a regular bi-yearly cross–Canada consultation with Veterans and their families, Veterans’ organizations and other stakeholders in relation to future reviews of the New Veterans Charter.  It is important to identify deficiencies early so that recommendations can be implemented in a timely manner.  However, I do have a problem with the idea in relation to the current review of the Charter. 

Since 2006, more than 200 recommendations for improvements to the New Veterans Charter have been proposed through various consultations with Veterans and their families, Veterans’ organizations, expert advisory groups, parliamentary committees, the Auditor General, a Governor-in-Council-mandated independent assessor and audits and evaluations by Veterans Affairs Canada. It is clear from the considerable number of reviews and recommendations that improvements are required to the Charter in order to ensure that proper care, support and compensation are provided to our Veterans and their families.

I suggest to anyone espousing the need for a country-wide consultation in relation to the current review that they read my office’s report published in April 2013, entitled Improving the New Veterans Charter: the Parliamentary Review.  It is a synopsis of all of the reports and recommendations put forward since the enactment of the New Veterans Charter in 2006. Its intent is to serve as a reference point for the parliamentary review of the Charter. Please use it. 

The bottom line is that the analysis and review of New Veterans Charter deficiencies has been done and validated. The path to improving the Charter is clear. It is time for action. 

As I said in front of both the House of Commons and Senate Committees on Veterans Affairs, this issue has been studied and reviewed into the ground. What is needed now is the implementation of solutions based on the preponderance of evidence presented since 2006.   

I believe that my report on improving the New Veterans Charter, and the actuarial analysis that supports it, is the baseline for how this living Charter should be reviewed by the Committee. The report’s analysis of benefits and programs pinpoints exactly where the current suite of New Veterans Charter benefits are failing some Veterans today, and will continue to fail more tomorrow unless changes are made quickly. These are: 

  • First, financial instability and decreased standard of living; 

  • Second, vocational rehabilitation and assistance that is overly rigid in its focus on existing education, skills and experience, which constrains education upgrade and employment options; and 

  • Third, difficult family environment situations due to insufficient family support. 

There has already been some forward movement on the second item – vocational rehabilitation and assistance. Last fall, Minister Fantino announced a change to Veterans Affairs Canada’s Rehabilitation program.  It offers the more than 1,300 Veterans taking part in vocational rehabilitation and assistance greater flexibility to access the funding envelope for the program, while reducing red tape. This has created increased hope for transitioning Veterans. 

As a minimum, if the following five issues are addressed concerning the important issue of financial instability and decreased standard of living, we will see meaningful change for Veterans and their families and forward movement that will translate directly into increased hope: 

  • First, the insufficiency of the economic financial support provided after the age of 65 to totally and permanently incapacitated Veterans; 

  • Second, the drop in income for Veterans who are transitioning from a military to a civilian career because the Earnings Loss Benefit only pays 75 percent of pre-release salary;

  • Third, access to the Permanent Impairment Allowance and the Permanent Impairment Allowance Supplement continues to be a problem for many severely impaired Veterans; 

  • Fourth, the unfair practice of providing a reduced Earnings Loss Benefit to part-time reservists who suffer an injury or illness related to service; and 

  • Fifth, financial shortcomings need to be addressed in the non-economic benefit designed to compensate for pain and suffering – the disability award.  This benefit is supposed to keep pace with civilian court awards for pain and suffering, but it has not. 

The realization that one’s professional military career and way of life is over because of injury or illness can be devastating and can put significant stress on the individual and his or her family as they contemplate an uncertain future. We need to give our transitioning Canadian Armed Forces members and their families, and Veterans and their families, concrete reasons to believe in a better tomorrow. They deserve no less. 

Each passing day that these problems are not remedied means another day that families face the stresses of transitioning from military to civilian life without adequate support. It also means another day that an injured Veteran suffers in silence without the economic compensation and rehabilitation support they require, and another day that one more injured Veteran faces financial hardship as they turn 65. 

By addressing these financial shortcomings and the others identified in my report, the Government of Canada will make a significant difference for injured or ill Veterans and their families. It will also send a strong message that it is steadfast in its resolve to uphold the founding principle of the New Veterans Charter: a “living” Charter that will be continually improved to meet the unmet and evolving needs of Veterans and their families. 

Some may think that the current parliamentary review of the New Veterans Charter will solve all of its problems once and for all – or at least for a very long time. File closed for several years with no need for further reviews in the short or medium term. Such thinking is completely against the spirit of the Charter and the intent of the parliamentarians who unanimously supported it and voted it into being in 2006. They understood the ever-changing needs of modern day Veterans and they were prepared to step up to the plate and initiate the modernization of Canada’s approach to Veterans’ issues.    

At the launch of the New Veterans Charter on April 6, 2006 Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated:

“In future, when our servicemen and women leave our military family, they can rest assured the Government will help them and their families’ transition to civilian life. Our troops’ commitment and service to Canada entitles them to the very best treatment possible. This Charter is but a first step towards according Canadian veterans the respect and support they deserve.”  

In the spirit of the Prime Minister’s declaration, I am a strong supporter of a regular two-year review of the New Veterans Charter, so that it continues to adapt to the evolving needs of serving men and women and Veterans and their families and lives up to the Government’s affirmation that it is a “living” charter. For anyone who does not agree with me, I refer you back to the Prime Minister’s words and the multitude of similar statements and declarations that were made by parliamentarians from across political lines and Veterans’ organizations at the time of the Charter’s enactment, and repeatedly since then. 

Our Veterans have served us well. It is time that we address their real needs and give them hope for the future. For that hope to be meaningful there must be forward motion on the part of Government decision makers. Veterans deserve no less from the country that they have served so well. 


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