Providing for Veterans to Secure the Nation

Ottawa – May 26, 2014

This text was authored by Guy Parent, Veterans Ombudsman, and originally published in The Hill Times on Monday, May 26, 2014.

Most of us recognize intuitively that there is a direct link between how a nation treats its Veterans and its ability to recruit and retain citizens for its military. It is not rocket science. If it is public knowledge that injured or ill Veterans’ needs are not being met, then why would anyone join the military or stay in it for any length of time? It is for this reason that we have to consider the provision of Veterans’ benefits as a matter of national security.

This should be a fundamental element of the defence of our nation, because a nation that cannot recruit or retain its citizens for military service will not necessarily be able to defend itself and remain independent. It is not as if this is a new concept. This was recognized as early as 1601 when the British government of Elizabeth I passed legislation to provide:

“…Relief and Maintenance to Soldiers and Mariners that have lost their Limbs and disabled their Bodies in the Defence  and Service of Her Majesty and the State…to the end therefore that they…may reap the Fruits of their good Deservings and others may be encouraged to perform like Endeavours…”[1]

Most of us understand the logic of this, but how well do we as a nation put that theory into practice?

There are those who will say we are doing a good job because unlike some nations we have created an entire federal government department devoted to supporting Veterans with a comprehensive suite of programs. But is meeting Veterans’ needs truly a government priority when substantive gaps in Veterans’ support programs are identified, yet not quickly corrected?

During the Afghanistan mission, there were many times when deficiencies in military equipment and training were identified and very quickly rectified because it was a defence priority for force protection and to accomplish the mission. Procurement processes for new helicopters, tanks, armoured vehicles and body armour were fast tracked to ensure that our troops were properly equipped and protected. Yet there are many identified gaps in Veterans’ support programs that have been known for years and still await corrective action.

Cost is often cited as a consideration. But let’s put spending on Veterans support programs in context. Veterans Affairs Canada’s budget represents approximately one percent of federal government expenditures and it has been that way for the past two decades. If nothing changes, expenditures will decline below one percent in the future. The Afghanistan mission was a national security priority for Canada and despite running a federal deficit, the funding was found to accomplish the mission. Why is not the same rationale applied to Veterans’ needs?

We know that there is a human cost to any mission, and everyone understood that Afghanistan was going to be a high intensity operation with casualties. One hundred and fifty-eight service personnel died and over 6,100 were injured or became ill as a direct result of their service.

So, when the federal government was allocating funding for the Afghanistan mission, did it consider fully the “life-cycle” cost of the mission, including the impact on Veterans’ care needs? Allocating the necessary funding to ensure proper rehabilitation and transition to civilian life of the mission’s potential casualties would have not only been a sound investment in Veterans, but one that will benefit Canada in the long run.

We knew from the outset that there was going to be a human cost for the mission because medical advancements in recent years have resulted in more lives being saved on the battlefield, so should we not have planned to provide additional resources in the future to meet the higher volume of complex needs? Should the care of Veterans post-mission not have been considered a national security priority from the earliest planning stage?

Almost every day we see stories in the media about how Veterans support programs and benefits are not meeting the needs of Veterans who served in Afghanistan and in other recent conflicts. Concerns are also being voiced often about the government’s current and future ability to address the volume and complexity of Veterans’ needs as a result of more than two decades of high intensity operations by the Canadian Armed Forces. I believe that the current high level of frustration within the Veterans’ community about benefits and services would be significantly reduced if proper assistance was provided to Veterans as a matter of national priority. Veterans have fought for their country; they should not have to fight for the support they need and deserve.

What can be done to make things better?

I believe it begins by supporting Veterans and dealing with their issues as an integral part of the national security continuum. Then, we need to actively demonstrate to current and future Canadian Armed Forces members and Veterans that we are committed to putting our words into action by bringing about substantive change for Veterans and their families. In my Report on the New Veterans Charter, I detailed what needs to be done: better income security after age 65, action on loss of income during transition, improved access to allowances for the most seriously disabled, increased flexibility of vocational rehabilitation assistance and better support to families. In addition, we need to imbed the moral obligation of the people and the Government of Canada to provide support for Veterans in all pertinent legislation, including the New Veterans Charter.

If, on short notice, we can put a new helicopter into service in a distant land with all of the complexity that such action entails, surely we are capable of fixing Veterans’ issues.

As a nation we can afford to do this; as a nation we cannot afford not to.

Guy Parent

 


1 Public Act, 43 Elizabeth I, c. 3, s. 8. Parliament of the United Kingdom.

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