Veterans still angry over pensions, budget cuts
Canadian Veterans Advocacy president Michael Blais speaks at a rally protesting the cuts to Veterans Affairs on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2011.
Angela Mulholland, CTVNews.ca
Published Thursday, November 10, 2011 11:34AM EST
Canada may have ended its combat mission in Afghanistan, but for many veterans, another war is still underway at home: the war to win the guarantee of a secure future.
Many veterans who were injured in the Afghan conflict, fighting for a war they believed in, returned home to discover that the disability payments they'll receive are nothing like what vets of other conflicts have enjoyed.
Even those who have returned unscathed are angry that their military retirement pensions are now being taxed, clawed back and terminated when they reach age 65.
And then there are those who are concerned that planned cuts to the budget at Veterans Affairs Canada are only going to worsen the problem.
Many blame the New Veterans Charter for starting the trouble. The Charter came into effect in 2006 and created a pension system that some vets have called "a national disgrace."
Before the Charter, soldiers who had been disabled in service were entitled to a monthly disability pension for the rest of their lives. The Charter scrapped that in favour of a one-time disability award.
Many vets complain the award gives them a raw deal. Michael Blais, president of the Canadian Veterans Advocacy group, points out that the most an injured vet can receive is around $285,000 -- nowhere near the $4,000 a month for life they might have received under the old system.
It's not even as much as a civilian construction worker might receive from a court settlement for an industrial accident; such awards average $330,000 or more.
Canada's soldiers deserve just as much if not more, says Blais.
"These are the heroes of this nation, these are our valiant. They're the ones who stood on the line of freedom abroad," Blais told CTVNews.ca by phone from his home in Niagara Falls, Ont.
"The lump sum equates to such a low number. And the number reflects the nation's respect. And clearly, the government does not respect the level of sacrifice that these kids are providing on behalf of their country."
Last November, Blais led a demonstration on Parliament Hill to protest the lump sum payment. Since then, the government has introduced fixes to the system through Bill C-55. That bill guarantees injured veterans a minimum pre-tax income, and a $1,000-a-month supplement to the permanent impairment allowance, among other changes.
But many vets say it's still not enough and that veterans who fought in other conflicts -- or even those injured in Afghanistan before 2006 -- get more. Blais says there should be one standard for all veterans.
"We believe that those who served in Afghanistan for the last five years that they bleed the same, that when they receive amputations as those who served in the Second World War and Korea that they should receive the same dignified lifetime award for pain and suffering, and care from our government," he says.
NDP veterans affairs critic Peter Stoffer says the enhancements to the Veterans Charter are a good first step, but says many gaps still remain. He says Bill C-55 dealt with only a handful of issues, not the dozens that have been raised in Veterans Affairs consultation meetings.
"We supported Bill C-55 because we wanted the veterans charter opened. This was meant to be the first crack at opening it. They took such a tiny step; we wanted them to take a giant leap," he says.
Stoffer says the charter should be seen as a "living document," that can be constantly improved as issues arise. But it took five years of badgering the government to get them to agree to the changes that finally came into effect this fall, he says.
In comments supplied to CTVNews.ca, Codie Taylor, the director of communications at the office of the Minister of Veterans Affairs, says the Enhanced New Veterans Charter Act provides a number of improvements, including an extra infusion of $189 million over the next five years and an income guarantee for the most seriously injured veterans.
"We made significant enhancements to the New Veterans Charter, we doubled the amount of Operational Stress Injury clinics, and we created the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman, all of which are improving the quality of life of Canadian Veterans," Taylor said.
"Our Government promised that the New Veterans Charter would evolve with the needs of the men and women it serves. With our latest enhancements, we're delivering on that promise."
Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney says the government plans to pump in $2 billion to improve the benefits of injured war veterans. But critics say it could take more than 50 years to spend that money -- and much of that new money could be eroded in upcoming cuts to Veterans Affairs.
The department has already announced it plans to cut its budget by $226 million starting next year. It says the cuts are necessary because older vets are dying and no longer making use of the programs.
But Blais says this is the wrong moment. VAC is expected to cut 500 jobs at its headquarters in Charlottetown -- at a time when many vets are telling him they're already having a hard time getting service from the department.
"The workers at Veterans Affairs Canada are already overburdened. This is why Bill C-55 was implemented," he says.
On top of those cuts, the federal government is also requiring that every department slash its budget between five and 10 per cent, which could gouge out another $300 million of the VAC budget.
Taylor insists the ministry is committed to the health of veterans and that budget cuts will not affect veterans services or benefit programs.
"We want to be very clear in saying that all current benefits for Veterans will be maintained," Taylor said.
Officials have also said that in future years, as more soldiers are medically discharged and need to make use of Veterans Affairs programs, the Treasury Board can increase funding to the department.
The NDP's Stoffer is not convinced.
"We're very concerned about this," he says." Even though the department argues that our older vets are dying off -- which is true -- the modern day vets require just as much if not more attention in terms of their service and benefits."
Blais points out that "operational stress injuries," such as post-traumatic stress disorder, often takes years of therapy to overcome, and many vets are reticent to come forward until years after they leave combat. He worries that when these soldiers look for help in a few years, VAC services won't be there for them.
The Royal Canadian Legions has spoken out to say that it thinks veterans programs should be exempted from the planned cost-cutting.
"Getting our financial house in order should not be done on the backs of our wounded warriors and their families" Legion Dominion President Pat Varga has said.
"If there is one department that should be getting more money, it's VAC," he says, adding: "If you're not prepared to invest in your veterans, then who are you prepared to invest in?"