A new report from the auditor general of Canada released Tuesday reveals the federal government is struggling to ensure disabled veterans, injured Mounties and vulnerable Canadians are receiving the benefits they need.
Karen Hogan delivered four reports Tuesday auditing the federal government's efforts to: provide disability benefits to veterans; deliver income and other benefits to vulnerable populations; use gender-based analysis to improve people's lives and help diverse prison populations.
"These audits point to longstanding problems and barriers across a broad range of government activity," Hogan told reporters Tuesday. "These barriers are unacceptable whether faced by Indigenous and Black offenders, or by low income individuals and veterans accessing benefits."
The report concluded that while Veterans Affairs Canada had taken steps to try and improve the application process for disability benefits, its management of the file was ineffective and the department was unable to reduce wait times for veterans.
"Implementation of initiatives was slow," the report said. "Data to measure improvements was lacking. Both the funding and almost half of the employees on the team responsible for processing applications were temporary.
"As a result, veterans waited too long to receive benefits to support their physical and mental health and their families' overall well-being."
Watch: Auditor General says government is struggling to deliver benefits to vulnerable populations:
Close to 40-week wait
The report found that veterans were waiting almost 40 weeks for a decision on their first application for disability benefits, when the department's average processing time for most other applications was just 16 weeks.
The report said the department had not met its standard for delivering the benefits for seven years.
The report also found that francophones, women and injured RCMP officers had to wait longer than other Canadians did for their benefits.
From April 2020 to September 2021 injured RCMP officers had to wait 38 per cent longer than Canadian Armed Forces members for benefits, Women had to wait 24 per cent longer than men and francophones had to wait 21 per cent longer than anglophones.
"I'm left with the conclusion that the government failed to meet a promise that it made to our veterans: that it would take care of them if they were injured in service," Hogan said Tuesday.
"This has a real consequence on the well-being of our veterans and their families."
To address the issues in the department the auditor general recommended Veterans Affairs revamp the way it organizes its data so the department can make better decisions. The report also advised the department to better plan resources so it can process applications in a timely manner.
The department said it accepted the criticism and recommendations but also blamed delays on a 40 per cent increase in the number of applications across the board and 75 per cent increase in first-time applications.
"By the end of March 2022, the department expects to have cut the number of applications waiting longer than our service standard in half," the department said in its response.
Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay said that the backlog at Veterans Affairs was 23,000 two years ago and has since been cut to 10,600 by hiring more than 1,000 employees and investing billions of dollars.
Watch: Veterans Affairs minister reacts to auditor general's report:
"The report is a snapshot of a point in time and we've made some real tangible progress since the audit period ended," MacAulay said.
MacAulay said he's still not satisfied with his department's performance and will work to improve its results.
"No, everything is not all right," MacAulay said. "It's so important that we keep on this track. Is it enough? No, but we have to make sure that we continue on this track and put this backlog where it should be."
NDP MP Rachel Blaney said the report demonstrates that veterans are being let down by the Liberal government.
"Veterans are rightfully frustrated because the government has known about the issue since 2014," she said. "But the government hasn't fixed the issue and they continue to fail Canadian veterans. Fixing these issues must be a top priority for this minister."
Vulnerable populations and federal benefits
The auditor general also looked at how the federal government delivers benefits to hard-to-reach people and vulnerable populations, such as Indigenous people, the homeless, newcomers to Canada, including refugees, people with disabilities, seniors and youth.
The report found that government departments did not do enough to follow up on delivery of certain benefits to these groups, including the Canada child benefit, the Canada workers benefit, the guaranteed income supplement and the Canada learning bond.
"The Canada Revenue Agency and Employment and Social Development Canada did not know whether most of their targeted outreach activities had helped to increase the benefit take‑up rates for hard‑to‑reach populations," Hogan said in a statement.
"As a result, they are failing to improve the lives of some individuals and families who may need these benefits the most."
To fix the problem, the auditor general said the Canada Revenue Agency and Employment and Social Development Canada need to: better measure the take-up of benefits to understand the problem; reach out to vulnerable populations more effectively and work more efficiently with other government departments.
Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Karina Gould welcomed the report and its recommendations and said she is looking for ways to improve the delivery of services for people who do not appear in administrative databases, don't file taxes and are not reflected in the census.
"It becomes difficult to remind them to apply for a benefit by mail or by telephone because we may not know who they are," Gould said.
Correctional Service Canada
Hogan's look at Correctional Service Canada, CSC, found that the department had not adjusted its programs to respond to the growing diversity of the offender population.
That approach, the report said, has contributed to an ongoing failure to remove systemic barriers that have "persistently disadvantaged certain groups of offenders in custody."
"We raised similar issues in our audits in 2015, 2016 and 2017, yet Correctional Service Canada has done little to change the policies, practices, tools and approaches that produce these differing outcomes," Hogan said.
The report found that because systemic barriers have not been removed, visible minorities, women and Indigenous offenders did not get access to programs that would help them successfully reintegrate into society once they are released from prison.
The report found, for example, that Black offenders were placed at high security levels upon admission to the system at twice the rate of other prisoners. This is significant, the report said, because an "offender's initial security placements affect their potentials for parole and the lengths of sentences that they serve in custody."
The audit also found that CSC had failed to build a workforce that "reflects the diversity of its offender populations."
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said his department is using the findings to accelerate changes at the Correctional Service of Canada.
"What we're not comfortable with is the fact that systemic racism and racism still exist within our society, including in our institutions," he said. "That is something that is soberly articulated, not only in the AG's report, but it's something that has been acknowledged by our colleagues, our government and the leaders of these institutions."
The fourth report found that the federal government has not done enough to improve gender equality outcomes for diverse groups of people.
"We concluded that since our 2015 audit, limited progress had been made to identify and address barriers to implementing gender‑based analysis plus," the report said. "Challenges to implementation persisted, including some that were identified in our 2009 audit."
The report said the Privy Council Office, the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, and Women and Gender Equality Canada need to do a better job of working together to ensure the gender-based analysis of the provision of government services and programs delivers results.