Support our troops: Canadian veterans shouldn't have to fight for benefits and services

Members of the Winnipeg Rifles stand at attention at a Remembrance Day service in Winnipeg. (The Canadian Press)
Members of the Winnipeg Rifles stand at attention at a Remembrance Day service in Winnipeg. (The Canadian Press)

The removal of Julian Fantino as Minister of Veterans Affairs in early 2015 by Prime Minister Harper is one of countless indications that Canadians hold strong views about how our veterans should be treated.

Another is the widespread public opposition to the federal Justice Department spending to date almost $700,000 in legal fees to fight a class action by injured veterans in B.C. seeking lifelong disability payments rather than lump sum settlements. The lump sum approach was an all-party decision under the Martin government that has proven to have disastrous impacts on Canadian soldiers returning from the battlefield. The lifelong monthly payments model should be restored immediately as an option. The crux of the legal case is whether there is a binding social contract on governments for the care of veterans and their families.

Those who serve in our armed forces, who are wounded while in combat or in training for such missions, should be given assistance to return to military roles. If this proves impossible, they ought to be accommodated reasonably in joining the civilian workforce. If that proves infeasible, then their lifelong care is our collective responsibility.

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Some highly-publicized incidents involving Romeo Dallaire, a Canadian and international hero during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, with ongoing post-traumatic stress disorder drove home for current generations an understanding of the often delayed effects of trauma.

In the First World War, 425,000 men and women served overseas from a population of then only eight million. It took 33 ships to carry our first recruits to Europe. Once in France, their courage and determination in terrible battle conditions won much respect. Quite a number suffered the rest of their lives from injuries, including from poison gas.

The more-than-a-decade-long war in Afghanistan has compelled Canadians to better appreciate the challenges as well as the human/financial costs of warfare. The Afghan war included 158 Canadian lives, an estimated $14-18 billion in overall costs and the return of veterans whose lives have been changed by the horrors experienced.

The 2014 report of the Auditor General on mental health services for veterans concluded that eligibility decisions are not made quickly enough and that the department’s outreach in providing mental health information remains inadequate. From 2006-2014, almost a quarter of the applications for disability were rejected, but almost two-thirds of those decisions were overturned on appeal; sometimes after years of difficult waiting for benefits.

The Auditor General pointed out that the number of veterans reporting mental health issues is up from less than 2% in 2002 to almost 12% in 2014. This is expected to increase as those posted to Afghanistan return to civilian life.

Guy Parent, the veterans’ ombudsman, in his report for 2013-2014, estimates that there are today 700,000 veterans and more than 100,000 serving now in our armed forces and RCMP. Under the Veterans’ Bill of Rights, enacted by the Harper government, he notes that this group has the right, among others, to be “treated with respect, dignity, fairness and courtesy” and to receive “benefits and services as set out in our published service standards and to know (their) appeal rights.”

In the 2006 federal election, Mr. Harper and the Conservatives campaigned for veterans' rights, saying their proposed bill of rights would remedy what they saw as the "shameful way" veterans were treated by earlier governments.

Issues arising for veterans as our troops disengage from Afghanistan include concerns about disability benefits, independence programs, the new veterans’ charter, healthcare benefits, matters external to the charter, care for veterans’ families, and case management.

A 2012 study looked at re-integration on return home and with one’s regiment following deployment for combat. Dr. Stephanie Belanger, after interviewing 90 service members at three bases, noted that “almost everyone in the military, young or old, irrespective of their reasons for joining, agrees upon the fact that being in the military is the best job they can have.”

Belanger notes that injuries can deprive soldiers of both the gratification of serving a cause and the stability of pay. “Injured veterans find themselves struggling to make as much as they used to, and on top of this, long to return to the battlefield to serve their country … when being asked, ‘if you had the choice, would you return (to) Afghanistan’, they almost all say, ‘yes in a heartbeat.’”

In his first month in office, Erin O’Toole, the new Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, is being watched with hope as initial actions, such as creating a Surgeon General for the department, and statements indicate he is already performing better than Minister Fantino. He will need more than words to address dozens of other issues clamoring to be re-examined. Canadians’ enormous respect for our veterans requires no less.

David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.

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