This past week was a difficult and emotional one for disabled veterans and their families. The outgoing Veterans Ombudsman, Pat Stogran, held what will hopefully be the first of many press conferences highlighting the shortfalls with which the Canadian bureaucracy treats (and mistreats) its men and women disabled in military service.
The ombudsman will have his hands full this next three months when he promises to show Canadians how "badly" veterans and their families are being cared for by government.
As David O'Brien pointed out in his column Colonel should reload -- with facts (Aug. 21), the Ombudsman will have to reload with some facts if he has any hope of both educating Canadians and making headway against an insensitive and "deceptive" bureaucracy, as Stogran it.
The first fact? What is a "veteran"?
In Canada, a veteran is anyone who served in uniform in Canada's military. Of the remaining 170,000 Second World War veterans, about 1,700 are passing away each month. This is the fact the minister and the bureaucracy want Canadians to hear -- it justifies their planned cuts to Veterans Affairs Canada, mandated to care for veterans and their families.
There also are more than 680,000 veteran and current members of the Canadian Forces who never served in the Second World War, almost 10 per cent of whom are disabled. Veterans Affairs is also mandated to care for families. With more than 7,500 new CF members last year and almost 5,300 others becoming veterans, when their families are taken into account, these numbers balance out the loss of our Second World War veterans. At current rates, in approximately six years time, the number of veterans and families will be growing at least 15,000 but maybe as high 20,000 annually.
In the light of this fact, Veterans Affairs should be hiring instead of firing employees.
What about programs for these modern veterans? After April 2006, veterans have been compensated for their military injuries with a one-time lump sum of up to $276,089. It sounds impressive until the facts rudely intrude. Only 31 out of 19,500 injured soldiers have received the full amount and the average paid out since 2006 has been just over $38,000, not enough to buy a minivan adapted for wheelchair accessibility.
Prior to 2006, military injuries were compensated with a life-long monthly payment of up to $2,400 plus amounts for spouses and children. The lump sum does not include amounts for families. Furthermore, the monthly pension is increased annually to keep pace with public service salaries.
Yes, it is true that the lump sum is accompanied by other programs which the government claims are "guided by modern principles of disability management." That the government over the past four years has received and ignored every one of more than 300 recommendations from two of their own advisory groups, one chaired by a professor in rehabilitation, speaks clearly to the government saying one thing about its programs and the reality of how the medical, veteran and family world sees the same programs.
In the new programs, there is a special allowance for "severely disabled" veterans. There are 623 who meet this bureaucratic definition. Yet the program is so inaccessible that only one member receives the allowance.
The truth, however, is that all but two small parts of these programs are merely "duplication" or "repackaging" of already existing programs provided by the Canadian Forces or Veterans Affairs itself. The big difference is the deservedly condemned replacement of the life-long monthly payments for pain and suffering with a one-time lump sum.
And who is administering all these duplicate programs? Frontline Veterans Affairs employees are inundated, keeping track of so much unnecessary paperwork. Every "case manager" and "client service agent" has about 1,000 clients each for whom they must provide care.
Why the smokescreen by bureaucrats? As every good crime show has said, "follow the money." Canada has twice as many veterans as Australia and yet we provide services for only one half as many clients as Australia's Department of Veterans Affairs, whose $12 billion budget is four times as great as Canada's.
For the bureaucracy, there is a lot at stake in denying benefits to our veterans. The fact to be learned from all of this is that what bureaucrats say may not always be true. In the Canadian world of caring for our injured soldiers, veterans and their families, availability of programs rarely translates into dignified accessibility.
Although last week was an emotional week for veterans, the truth is that each day is an emotional day for disabled veterans. In war or peacetime, missing limbs, crushed vertebrae, damaged organs, broken spirits and overburdened minds are the same tragic legacies for Canadians who suffered them in the service of their nation. That Canada fights so hard not to properly care for the needs of veterans and their families only humiliates proud military veterans all the more.
As a country which holds the democratic value of equality so dear, let us stop trying to find reasons to avoid treating all of our disabled veterans and their families with the same dignity. And let our veterans define dignity, not the bureaucracy.
Sean Bruyea is a retired Canadian Forces intelligence officer, freelance journalist and longtime advocate for the rights of disabled veterans and their families. Bruyea is not a recipient of the new veterans' programs.