Improved veterans benefits passes Commons
The Canadian Press
Published Friday, March 11, 2011 6:01PM EST
OTTAWA - The Harper government hopes the bruising, emotional debate over the ill-treatment of war veterans will come to an end now that the House of Commons has passed an improved package of benefits for former soldiers.
Bill C-55 was given the green light on Friday, with all-party consent, and will now make its way to the Senate.
But critics remained skeptical that the "insurance company" mentality of Veterans Affairs Canada staff will simply fade away, despite the injection of $2 billion in new and improved benefits.
Since last fall, both the quality of assistance and the attitude of the bureaucracy towards those who served has been under the microscope. Former veterans ombudsman Pat Stogran accused the department of having a "penny-pinching" attitude and obstructing efforts to deliver programs that would help those in need.
At the same time, the department was rocked by a privacy scandal where the private information of a critic, who was a client of Veterans Affairs, was inserted into a cabinet minister's briefing notes as part of a political smear campaign.
NDP veterans critic Peter Stoffer says he sees no evidence that attitudes will change.
"These people sit in that tower in Charlottetown and they make decisions that frustrate the living hell out of these men and women," Stoffer said, referring to Veterans Affairs headquarters on Prince Edward Island.
He pointed to the increasing number of cases where veterans fighting the system have resorted to protests, including the one in Nova Scotia where the wife of a former army weapons inspector is staging a sit-in at Tory MP Greg Kerr's office.
Steve Dornan, 45, is battling non-Hodgkin lymphoma -- and the bureaucracy.
The cancer is the result from exposure to depleted uranium dust, according to his doctors, but it's an assessment the Veterans Review and Appeal Board has repeatedly dismissed. The board has made the ruling, even though the Federal Court of Canada has sided with Dornan.
Ex-soldiers "should not have to go public to get the help they need," Stoffer said as debate on the bill ended Friday.
Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn sided-stepped the question of attitude, but insisted that changes are happening and more veterans are becoming involved at the working level of the department.
He said it's something that will make the bureaucracy more sensitive to the frustrations of ex-soldiers.
"We are introducing so many changes that the veterans will see the difference," said Blackburn.
But Stoffer wasn't buying it. He pointed out the Conservatives decided at their 2006 convention to appoint more veterans to boards and tribunals, but it never happened.
One of the biggest complaints about the system relates to the New Veterans Charter, which in 2006 overhauled the system of benefits. It replaced life-time, guaranteed pensions with a sliding scale of lump sum payments for disabilities.
The $276,000 top-end payment is far less generous than what other allied nations give their wounded soldiers. Independent actuarial reports have stated that the lowest-paid and most critically injured soldiers were the ones shortchanged by the revised system.
Blackburn said the bill corrects many of the inequities.
"Their complaints, we have listened to them and have introduced those changes in Bill C-55," the minister said. "Now they will have financial support for themselves and their families in the future."
The legislation expands eligibility for monthly allowances and introduces an additional $1,000 monthly supplement to help the most seriously wounded, who are unable to return to work.
But the bill does not increase the size of the lump sum payouts. Instead, it allows soldiers to spread out the payments over time.
Blackburn pleaded with the Senate to pass the bill before the federal budget, when the Harper government faces the prospect of being defeated. A spring election would setback the reforms at least a year, Blackburn said.