OTTAWA – It was a very bad week for Canada’s veterans. So bad was it that my friend and colleague Peter Stoffer, the MP for Sackville Eastern Shore and New Democrat Veterans Affairs Critic, called it “one of the worst weeks for veterans and their families ever.”
The first blow for Veterans came early in the week with the release of a report by the independent Veterans Ombudsman. In his report titled “Improving the New Veterans Charter,” Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent found that instead of making life better for veterans that the new Veterans Charter is instead likely to push severely disabled veterans into poverty upon reaching age 65 since they will not qualify for full retirement benefits and other benefit programs automatically expire.
Under the new Veterans Charter, passed by the Harper government in 2011, veterans who reach retirement age will be forced to live on the same modest supports as other Canadians, but with the added burden of severe mental and physical health issues they have incurred in service of our country. To remedy some the problems with the new charter, Mr. Parent made 20 recommendations, but instead of accepting the findings the Harper government stated that it will conduct “further study” on the Charter before moving forward as if the Ombudsman, who was appointed by the same government, was somehow unqualified to suggest them in the first place.
As if the findings of the Veterans Ombudsman report, that the poorest and most vulnerable veterans are actually worse off with the new Veterans Charter, wasn’t a low enough point for the Harper Conservatives this week they upped the ante by appealing a court ruling that would have helped a number of veterans access benefits that they are due.
In their court victory, a group of ex-soldiers successfully argued that the federal government’s new system of compensating veterans actually violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The soldiers took particular issue with the Harper government’s decision to eliminate the lifetime disability pension for disabled soldiers and replace it with lump-sum payments. The soldiers argued, successfully, that the benefits that they are now entitled to receive are not equal to the changes in worker’s compensation claims or even those of civil claim settlements in other professions. The court agreed and found that Canada’s veterans are in fact treated more poorly than the average Canadian when it comes to compensation for injuries that occur on the job.
So how did the Harper government respond to this court decision? Naturally, they decided to appeal it which will ensure that the case and these vets remain tied up in court for years. The lawyer for the ex-soldiers probably summed it up best when he said; “The motivation here is money, saving money on the backs and blood of veterans that served Canada.” It’s hard to interpret it any other way really.
Finally, this past Thursday I joined local veterans and the Public Service Alliance of Canada to voice our opposition to a decision made by the Harper government to close the Thunder Bay Veterans’ Affairs office next year. The closure of this office, set for February 2014, will mean that Thunder Bay and area veterans will have to travel to either Winnipeg or North Bay to receive the same face to face service they receive in their own community today. The face to face services provided at this office, and eight others set to close across Canada, are absolutely vital to the veterans the who require them. For example, at the Thunder Bay office a vet can go and speak with a case worker who can assist them with completing applications for any number of government benefit programs. This type of service is essential, especially for wartime veterans, because some of the forms and applications are up to 30 pages long and many of the applicants suffer from severe disabilities such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which make fulfilling these tasks difficult or impossible on their own.
Without question this was one of, if not the, worst week that Canada’s veterans have faced outside of battle. Our wartime veterans were told when they signed up that, in exchange for their service and sacrifice, they would be looked after; “from the day they enlist until the day they die,” but each passing day we see that this is not the case. For our part, New Democrats will not let this shameful treatment go unchallenged. Canada’s veterans once fought for us, now it’s our turn to fight for them.
John Rafferty MP