Commission to consider military death benefit issue
A Canadian flag flies under the Peace Tower Wednesday March 3, 2010. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)
Published Monday, June 7, 2010 6:41AM EDT
OTTAWA - The Canadian Human Rights Commission is examining whether Ottawa discriminates against families of single soldiers killed overseas by excluding them from a quarter-million dollar death benefit.
The Canadian Press has learned the agency plans to convene a tribunal hearing some time in the next few months. It will weigh the complaint of an Ontario couple whose son Cpl. Matthew Dinning died in a roadside bomb attack in Kandahar four years ago.
"Married and single soldiers have fought side-by-side in Afghanistan, they wore the same uniform, they died for the same country, the caskets were draped in the same flag, they should be treated the same as far as death benefits go," Lincoln Dinning said in an interview from his Wingham, Ont. home.
"It's a moral and ethical issue. And it's about treating all fallen soldiers the same."
Whenever a married Canadian soldier is killed in action, the surviving spouse and children are eligible for a one-time, $250,000 lump-sum payment meant to help them with the costs of transitioning to civilian life. The cash is on top of whatever life insurance a soldier may carry.
But single soldiers are excluded from the benefit, which was introduced when the Conservative government implemented the new Veterans Charter in 2006. The charter fundamentally reorganized the way former soldiers, sailors and aircrew are treated after they retire and the benefits their families receive.
"This is not about money because $250,000, (nor) $250 million is going to bring any of the soldiers back," Dinning said. "It's about treating all fallen soldiers the same, with dignity and respect, regardless of their marital status."
Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn would not comment on the specifics of the human rights case, but said the payment was implemented after careful consideration.
Under the old system, the federal government paid only a supplementary death benefit, calculated at two times the member's annual earnings. The cash went to the spouse, or another designated beneficiary of the soldier. If there was no beneficiary, the money would go into the estate.
The $250,000 payment under the new charter was described as an improvement by federal officials, but in order to implement it in 2005-06 they had to narrow the existing definition of eligible survivor, according to documents obtained by The Canadian Press under access to information legislation.
"The new definition 'surviving family' will be added and defined as 'surviving eligible spouse and dependant children,"' said an analysis of the new charter, dated Aug. 9, 2004.
University of Ottawa law professor Errol Mendes wonders whether that violates the Canadian Human Rights Act.
Other documents, dated after the charter's implementation, showed veterans groups were concerned about the exclusion of single soldiers from the payment, but Veterans Affairs placated them by saying it was prepared to "explore any gaps or omissions" and to "make changes to the (New Veterans Charter) to the extent possible."
Blackburn said he'll consider revisions to the charter in consultation with veterans, but cautioned there's only so far he can go.
"Every time we have suggestions we also have to look at what is the cost related to those suggestions," Blackburn said. "My heart is in my hand. I try to help them, but at the same time we have to look @ the cost."
An Aug. 30, 2006 briefing note said supporters of veterans had identified the death benefit as "a gap," but the report noted that families of dead soldiers could access other benefits through National Defence.
Mendes said it'll be hard for the federal government to cry poor when the cost of compensating the families of single soldiers is small in comparison to the overall cost of the Afghan war.
Dinning filed a complaint to the human rights watchdog almost a year after his son was killed in Afghanistan in April 2006. He described the policy as discriminatory, asked for an apology to the families of single soldiers, asked that the benefit be changed and that payments be retroactive to the start of the Afghan war.
Three years ago, Dinning battled with the government over the Defence Department's funeral stipend for fallen soldiers, which had not been raised in a decade.
A human rights investigation concluded his complaint over the death benefit had substance and should be heard before a full tribunal.
A spokeswoman for the Canadian Human Rights Commission would not comment on the case, but said the agency would lay out its position when the tribunal holds its hearing sometime in the near future.
Veterans Affairs has argued in the past that it doesn't have an obligation to pay benefits under every possible circumstance, nor should it be forced to tailor laws to suit individual cases.
Less than half of the soldiers killed in Afghanistan have been single.