Before Parliament rose for its summer recess, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs issued a report on the New Veterans Charter called Moving Forward. A few weeks earlier, the Standing Committee on National Defence delivered its report on Caring for Canada’s Ill and Injured Military Personnel while the Veterans Affairs subcommittee of the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence concluded its hearings with a report, The Transition to Civilian Life of Veterans. Guy Parent, the Veterans Ombudsman, spoke with Vanguard about some of the recommendations.

Guy Parent, Veterans Ombudsman
You began calling for a comprehensive review of the New Veterans Charter (NVC) over two years ago and urging for a better “vision” for veterans. Do these reports address most of your concerns?

In some way, shape or form they do. They have taken into consideration our reports and most of the testimony they have heard supporting them. In fact, a lot of people were very blunt and had little more to say other than, “we support the ombudsman’s recommendations.”

However, there are still a lot of people who don’t understand the NVC and it is hard to comment on it unless you do. Even now, after all of this work, many still think veterans only get a lump sum payment. Changes were made fairly quickly to the Charter because of the requirements at the time, but as a result the government overlooked a number of things that should have been put into the Act, like the Bill of Rights for veterans, like the earnings loss benefit that now finishes at age 65. The intent was to do something for veterans and I commend parliamentarians of the day, but the Charter was then supposed to be a living document and instead it has been on life support for five years.

You did express concerns about two House of Commons Veterans Affairs Committee recommendations on the earnings loss benefit and the long-term disability program.

We provide pretty open recommendations and sometimes if you leave too much room, your intention gets misinterpreted. On the ELB, they made it a lot more complicated then we had recommended. We just said raise it from 75 percent to 85-90 percent of net income. They have recommended a complex process with a $70,000 ceiling, some taxable, some not. We have engaged with the department and the minister’s office to offer assistance to formulate a response in line with our recommendations.

The committee urged Veterans Affairs to “establish a more rigorous case manager training program.” How much of this is a resource challenge for the department, or are there other factors?

It is more a communications problem. The case managers who deal with veterans have to know what changes are being made, what is expected of them, and very often by the time details of a new policy reach the frontline, VAC is already trying to change something else in the department and they never get caught up. We have had experiences where procedures were changed and the people in the field didn’t know about it.

We look for three pillars: adequacy – are the programs adequate to meet the needs of veterans and their families – sufficiency of resources – both in money and people, and we know there is some difficulty in personnel resources – and accessibility of programs. If those are at their maximum, then it is fair. That is what we are working on. When you ask about resources, yes, it would be easier for those people to do their job if their communication internally was better.

Your report called for the Veterans Bill of Rights to be included in the NVC, and the House committee has endorsed that. What would such a Bill mean?

It’s a document signed by the Prime Minister that has no legal standing but it is a covenant. Our recommendation is that there should be a stated obligation somewhere by the government that they owe a debt to veterans and they will look after them. It exists right now in the Pension Act and the Veterans Allowance Act but it’s not in the Charter. This is a recommendation that doesn’t cost anything but is such a powerful message to the people of Canada.

Is the transition from active service and the role of the veteran’s family sufficiently recognized in these reports?

The transition is where it should start. Veterans transition with their families, they don’t transition alone. There is no provision or remuneration for a spouse who is looking after an injured member and sacrificing their own income, their career; whereas if someone was to come in and look after the veteran, then the person would be paid. And if a spouse does take care of someone with PTSD, there is absolutely no training. Those are important things.

Also, the demographics have changed. We have young veterans of Afghanistan injured who are in their 20s, and their family is still their parents. But within the current context, parents of a veteran are not considered family. Instead of the spouse, it’s the parents taking care of the injured veteran and yet there is no compensation for that whatsoever. And, again, there is no provision for training. Likewise with benefits, if a young soldier gets killed at 19 just after joining the Forces, his parents don’t receive anything other than the insurance that is paid to his beneficiary.

That is why it is important for Gary Walbourne, the Canadian Armed Forces and National Defence Ombudsman, and I to work together to make sure that the family transitions with the veteran.

Your predecessor, Col (Ret’d) Pat Stogran has said that Afghanistan “will define the Canadian Forces for the next generation” and “how we treat the veterans will define the country.” Given that we are still seeing veterans coming forward from previous campaigns, do you feel the same?

A lot of people talk about a surge but I’m not sure we will have one, at least not any different then after other conflicts, because National Defence has done some great work in preparing for psychological injuries, much better then they did for Bosnia. Now there are councillors in the field; they have pre-deployment sessions. The culture has changed a bit. However, if there is a surge, what will be important is VAC’s ability to deal with it.

What concerns me is people hiding their injuries so they don’t lose their job or career progression channels. Universality of services doesn’t allow you to stay in the forces unless you are deployable.

You are beginning your fifth year as the Veterans Ombudsman. Are there final tasks you would like to accomplish?

One of the complexities is the fact that there is so much legislation geared toward veterans that has not been harmonized. So looking forward to my last year, that is what I would like to see, some sort of merger of the legislation, to take the best of the Pension Act and bring it into the NVC so that eventually there is a charter for veterans. I think that would simplify things quite a bit from what we have now. And I’d like to see a delivery process based on audit rather than adjudication that puts trust in veterans and their families.