Liberals accused of breaking promise to uphold 'sacred obligation' to veterans
Josh Dehaas, CTVNews.ca
Published Wednesday, May 18, 2016 6:59PM EDT
The New Democrats and Conservatives are accusing the Liberals of breaking their election promise to uphold a ‘sacred obligation to veterans,’ after the justice department moved forward with a court case that would give the government the option of denying lifelong pensions to injured soldiers.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair accused the Liberals during daily question period in the House of Commons of “trying to stop (veterans) from getting the benefits they deserve,” despite “campaigning on a black-and-white promise to end the Conservative court case against veterans.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded that “veterans who have served this country extraordinarily well deserve more than people trying to play politics on their backs.”
“Veterans across this country know that in Budget 2016 we put forward historic measures that will fix the 10 years of neglect,” Trudeau added.
Former veterans affairs minister Erin O’Toole -- whose government came to an agreement with the plaintiffs of the lawsuit last June, putting it on hold until this month -- accused Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould Wednesday of “attacking veterans” and allowing a “truce” to “fall apart.”
“The prime minister promised to uphold the sacred obligation our country owes to our veterans,” O’Toole said, “yet his justice minister has turned her lawyers on veterans.”
Quebec Conservative MP Alupa Clarke also accused the Liberals of breaking promises. “The Minister of Veterans Affairs appears two-faced,” he said.
Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr responded by saying that he is committed to treating veterans “with care, compassion and respect.”
“Budget 2016 had delivered on a lot of those items, including financial security for many of our most disabled veterans,” the minister added.
Hehr’s department said he was not available for an interview, but issued a statement that said he “was given a mandate to re-establish lifelong pensions as an option for injured Veterans and remains committed to this.”
The court case in question was brought forward by six veterans of the Afghan war in 2012, who argued that new rules introduced in 2006 discriminated against them by offering small lump sum payments for their injuries, as opposed to the lifelong pensions that veterans of previous wars have received.
The case sparked a public outcry in 2014 when the Conservative government’s justice department argued that the government does not have a special obligation, or “social covenant” with veterans to provide pensions for injured soldiers.
After that outcry, the Conservatives introduced measures aimed at placating veterans, including pain and suffering awards, expanded access to permanent impairment allowances and a bill to codify the country’s sacred obligation.
The Liberal election platform also stated that the government has “a sacred obligation” to veterans and went a step further – and vowed to “re-establish lifelong pensions as an option for our injured veterans.”
Trudeau also said while campaigning that he would end court cases "that (the Conservative) government has taken on to deprive veterans of their benefits."
The promises proved especially popular with veterans groups during the campaign.
The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Don Sorochan, said last summer that the proposed changes meant they were willing to give the government some time to see if the situation improved. He also said the upcoming election campaign represented “a nice competitive bidding (process) to see who's going to do better.”
A judge put the case on hold last June.
Sorochan told CTV’s Power Play Wednesday that what the justice department has done now is ask the court to rule on whether the Conservatives were correct about there being no social contract with veterans.
“When that argument was made in the courts, there was a public outcry saying, ‘How can you say there’s nothing special warranted for people that put their life on the line for their country?’” Sorochan said.
He added that the argument was “repudiated by the Conservative government in its last days, was campaigned against by the Liberal government, and was certainly not accepted by any of the Liberals that I dealt with during the election campaign."
Sorochan said he believes “progress" was made on programs for benefits by both the Conservatives and the Liberals. He said that despite “some disappointment” that the Liberals had not honoured their pensions promise in their first budget, they may still be planning to do so.
However, he said the “gist of what the Liberals are arguing,” is that “the government happens to want to do good things for veterans now but it has no obligation to do them.
Sorochan later said he sees it as a “betrayal” that the Liberals – who some disabled veterans had campaigned for – appear to be asking the court to rule that there is “no social covenant.”
“This position … is making liars of us when we said to people the Liberal Party was putting forward a platform acceptable to veterans,” he said.
“If this government wants to retract from their position that there’s a social covenant,” he added, “they should stand up in court and do so.”
Plaintiff Brian McKenna, who served in Bosnia and Afghanistan, said Wednesday that he is “pretty ticked off,” but committed to seeing the case through.
“We’re not going away,” he added.
With files from The Canadian Press and a report from CTV's Parliamentary Correspondent Richard Madan