Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Canada's moral obligation

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2Their problem -- Canada's challenge, really -- is they have fallen between the cracks in the complicated federal compensation system for soldiers who left part of their bodies and minds on the field of battle.

About 1,400 veterans, mainly from the Afghan war, are permanently or totally disabled from physical or psychological injuries.

Most of them are receiving adequate long-term benefits and support, but more than 400 say they are not receiving an impairment allowance or supplement. Others have inadequate pensions. All of them are struggling with minimal means, or fear they will be forced to live in poverty when their benefits are reduced at age 65.

There have been problems with veterans' benefits in the past, particularly for the men who survived the Battle of Hong Kong. It took decades before the government acknowledged their special needs, which was too late for some veterans who suffered without proper compensation or acknowledgment of their problems.

The question of whether veterans were being treated fairly, however, had largely disappeared until the federal government passed the Veterans Act in 2006, which fundamentally changed the way the men and women of the Armed Forces were compensated when injured.

Instead of the monthly stipends that were provided under the old Pension Act, they were awarded lump sums of up to $260,000, depending on the level of injury. The emphasis also shifted to rehabilitation and retraining so injured warriors could find meaningful work.

Veterans, however, said they were better off financially under the old system, and they felt short-changed and abandoned.

The timing of the new legislation was unfortunate because it occurred when Canadian soldiers, who were not consulted about the changes, were heavily engaged in Afghanistan and coming home with gruesome injuries.

The idea of giving a lump sum to someone with mental-health challenges was also problematic, since under the wrong circumstances it could easily leave such a person penniless.

The government responded with improvements and modifications that have satisfied many concerns, but an independent actuarial study has since found gaps and loopholes in the system.

Veterans with low pre-release salary, a family, older veterans, those with higher disability levels and even female veterans were found to be not as well compensated as they would have been under the old legislation.

Once again, the government has responded by convening a parliamentary committee to re-examine the legislation with the goal of closing the gaps, which may never be done to everyone's satisfaction.

A few veterans may have unrealistic expectations in demanding higher benefits than are reasonable, but there should be no doubt they are entitled to support that is superior to civilian programs, such as workers' compensation or other public insurance schemes.

Military work is inherently dangerous, even in peacetime. The level of risk may not be reflected in their salaries, but it must be a consideration when their young bodies are broken in battle.

A group of injured Afghan veterans has even launched a class-action suit to prove Ottawa has a special moral and social obligation to the military.

The government's lawyers denied such a responsibility, but Canada has traditionally treated its veterans as a special group, particularly after the two world wars. In fact, Canada was recognized as having the world's best settlement and pension policies for soldiers after the First World War.

The federal government has treated most Afghan veterans well, and it is working on improving the system further, but the pace of change needs to be accelerated for those men and women who are waiting for help.

Lest we forget.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 9, 2013 A16

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