24 March 2011
Honourable senators, it is with a good deal of pleasure, but not entirely, that I stand to speak to Bill C-55. It is a pleasure in that at least something is being done on this very important file, but a disappointment in that it has taken an awfully long time to get something done and because so much more needs to be done.
It is not simply me, as a senator, saying that.
There was a great deal of witness testimony and input from veterans and others, and veterans' representatives, witnesses whom we heard yesterday, who made those points over and over again. It is a step, it is a start, but it is not enough, and it is was too long in coming.
The question of delay emerges from that statement, that it was too long in coming. I want to make a point, for the record, that it is interesting that the minister would have commenced his contact with the committee on this issue with a letter that somehow blamed senators, and it said Liberal senators, for delaying this bill.
First, let me just point out that this bill was announced in September 2010 by the minister. It was presented to the House of Commons two months later, in November 2010. It did not reach committee in the House of Commons until March 7, 2011. It got to us on March 21. That was Monday. Today is Thursday, this year, the same week, and we are going to pass it — I think I can say that and I am certainly voting for it — this afternoon. Who exactly delayed this bill?
It is interesting and unfortunate that this government continues to use issues like this and groups like the veterans, who deserve far better, for political leverage to make points that are nothing but spin and, of course, are — I am not going to use the L-word — incorrect, misleading and unnecessary spin.
Government representatives have said that they wanted to see the bill passed without delay, today if possible, and would skip the in-depth study and closer second look. Since the government seems to be anticipating an election shortly, I can understand the urgency. Nonetheless, the way this bill had been managed in Parliament makes me think of a student who waits until the night before his project is due to start working on it and then has to work like crazy to produce a result that will get him a C+, if he is lucky.
Honourable senators, I cannot help but wonder whether the services we are offering our veterans are living up to the service they have provided us.
The fact of the matter is that this government is quick to buy the jets and has been slow to help the vets. This kind of initiative did not become a priority for the government until two things happened. One, Colonel Stogran became vocal about his dismay. He was the former Veterans Ombudsman. He said, among other things, "It is beyond my comprehension how the system could knowingly deny so many of our veterans the services and benefits that the people and the Government of Canada recognized a long, long time ago as being their obligation to provide."
Imagine this, honourable senators. Canadian veterans had to demonstrate in the streets of this country, in front of the offices of Conservative members of Parliament, to attract the attention of this government to do something at this late date.
It brings me to the first substantive point in this bill, that the government made much of this change to the Earnings Loss Benefit:
The government tabled legislation in November 2010 to increase the benefit to ensure a minimum annual pre-tax income of approximately $40,000.
These are their words. That was, of course, wonderful news, and I think many of us were happy that the government was finally addressing these shortcomings in a system that chains certain veterans to a bleak financial existence.
I was happy until I read the bill and began to think about it. Honourable senators, this bill, that statement about bringing the Earnings Loss Benefit up to $40,000 minimum per year and having to have this legislation to do it is more hype.
The government, the minister and officials yesterday on his behalf admitted specifically that the minister had the power to increase that minimum from 75 per cent of whatever it was that the military personnel had been earning to a minimum of $40,000. He had the power to increase that minimum under the regulations, the legislation already in place.
The minister could have increased the minimum five years ago. This government took five years and wasted time while they were spending millions of dollars to evaluate, commit to and sell the purchase of $30 billion worth of jets. The government waited five years to increase a basic minimum for our veterans who have been grievously wounded and damaged in many ways, psychologically and physically. It took the government five years to increase the minimum, and to add insult to injury, they said that they could not do it until they passed this piece of legislation. Of course, they could have done it before they had this piece of legislation.
The second disappointment on this particular feature was pointed out by General Sharpe and We found that family life was almost always negatively affected by an injured parent's symptoms of anger and depression others. General Sharpe is an adamant spokesperson for veterans and has had a distinguished military career on behalf of Canada and Canadians. He said that rather than have this minimum be the lesser of 75 per cent of earnings or $40,000, it should be the greater of 100 per cent of earnings or $40,000. This is a fundamentally important difference.
Why should someone who has been hurt in service of Canada and Canadians take a 25-per-cent pay cut? Any of us in this house would find this pay cut, if not catastrophic — I know Senator Smith had a catastrophic pay cut — difficult to accept. However, we did that under this program to our injured, wounded soldiers and other military personnel, such as air people and the like.
Another implication of this Earnings Loss Benefit that General Sharpe and others noted, was that a military career would be cut short by grievous injury that ultimately would see that individual leaving the military and leaving the future opportunities for promotion, progression and for the increased earnings that come.
Here is an example of how significant that impact can be. Let us say a soldier was earning $80,000 and was grievously injured. The soldier receives 75 per cent of their earnings. That would be $60,000, or a 20-per-cent reduction. The soldier was 28 or 30 years old and would have been in the military for another 20 years. Even if that soldier had not received a single promotion, even if that soldier had not received a single increase of any kind, that soldier would have earned $20,000 a year more for 20 years, which is $400,000. That soldier who lost two limbs, perhaps three limbs, lost $400,000 because of this funding formula.
Let us assume that the soldier would have remained in the military, became a lieutenant or captain at age 28 or 30 earning $80,000, and by the time that person retired, was a senior officer earning $120,000. The average over that 20-year period would be $100,000, which would be $40,000 a year more than the soldier would have received under this particular program. Over 20 years, that amount becomes $800,000. This program has cost that person $800,000 that they would otherwise have had. This program has cost this military personnel — this person that we hear the minister, the Prime Minister and all of us speak so highly of, for the dedication, service and sacrifice they have made for Canada, for Canadians, for other people, for freedom around the world and for that lofty, important, ideal freedom — $800,000 that they would otherwise have had.
I know you are smiling, but it is a serious matter if you are the one that loses two legs doing what your country has asked you to do, senator
A third point on this benefit is whether it should be retroactive. The honourable senator vaunts his government's commitment to veterans over and over again with words, and does not back it up where it counts. Those people suffered grievously because the government did not fulfill its promise and did not fulfill its spin. It is spin to the government and it is their life to them.
Then there is the question of whether this legislation should be retroactive because, of course, military personnel have begun to receive this benefit at lower levels than $40,000 in the past. We have been in Afghanistan for a long time. The question is, should the benefit be retroactive? Of course it should be retroactive. Personnel should not be disadvantaged in the receipt of these funds only because of date of injury.
The government's official news release for Bill C-55 also informs the public that the bill will increase the permanent impairment allowance, which is a monthly benefit between $12,000 to $18,000 now, payable for life to compensate for lost job opportunities as a result of permanent and severe impairment. That allowance will increase by $1,000 per month, so an injured person could receive as much as $30,000 a year. That increase would be helpful, honourable senators can imagine.
However, the problem is while the government hypes this allowance to say it will benefit 3,500 personnel, right now only 20 people receive it. How do we get from 20 to 3,500? Not very easily, honourable senators, because it is very, very difficult to qualify for this money. The government is hyping this, raising people's expectations, many of whom are in desperate psychological straits because of their injuries, and they will read this and then find out that it is not so simple to get that money.
Honourable senators, the question of 3,500 is interesting. If there really are 3,500 people already injured, why are they not on this? Have they been languishing for five years while this government has taken all that time not fulfilling its responsibility to these people, even though it takes credit over and over again for being great supporters of veterans — verbally, but not with their actions or their money — or are they anticipating far more injuries in the future? We hope that is not the case.
Honourable senators, perhaps it is that they have allowed 3,500 people, or as many as, to languish for five years because they have not gotten around to increasing this because they say they did not have legislation. They could have brought in legislation five years ago, but they did not have to because they had the power to regulate anyway.
Sometimes one asks the question, what does the emperor look like with no clothes? Honourable senators, just look at this government and you can tell.
In press releases and public speeches, government representatives have also boasted about the monetary advantages for veterans stemming from these changes. Our veterans would be receiving an additional $2 billion.
This is another hype and spin that raises expectations that simply cannot be fulfilled or met by anything like what is found in this bill.
Honourable senators, the government says that this program will give an additional $2 billion to veterans, a fine sum of money, a significant sum of money that would probably genuinely, if it were true, enhance the livelihood or the quality of life of many, many veterans who have suffered injury.
Of course, let us look at that number. The minister yesterday pointed out that over the next five years it will result in an extra $200 million. If it takes five years to spend $200 million in this program, it takes 50 years to spend $2 billion in this program. They are hyping a $2 billion commitment over 50 years. Do honourable senators know what the present value of $2 billion is over 50 years? Honourable senators, it is a heck of a lot less than $2 billion. Again, this is a betrayal of the good faith and the sensitivities of our wounded veterans. This is hype that this program cannot fulfill and it builds hype upon hype, upon hype. The only people who might significantly benefit from that hype are Conservatives running for office, benefiting from political hype at the expense of veterans.
It is embarrassing, it absolutely is embarrassing.
Finally, this bill is not as remarkable for what it contains as for what it does not contain. We have heard many veterans, veterans' representatives and witnesses speak of what is not in the bill and what this bill needs.
Honourable senators, I would like to acknowledge the work of Senator Pépin, our colleague — who, very unfortunately, may be sitting in this Senate for the last two days of her tenure here in the Senate.
Most particularly, I want to acknowledge Senator Pépin in this context, for her work in support of military families. There is still so much work to be done, however. The families of injured veterans have a great deal of very special needs that are not being adequately met. They are not addressed or met in any way, shape or form in this piece of legislation.
I want to underline that we have heard from many people the idea of increasing the minimum under the Earnings Loss Benefits from 75 per cent to 100 per cent of what the veteran was earning. It is very important that they receive a proper, equitable payment that reflects what they had been earning and what the progression of their earnings might otherwise have been. There is also another issue, and that is the comparison between what our military personnel get for an injury of a certain kind and what a public servant in Ottawa would get for the same or lesser injury.
Honourable senators, there is evidence that a public servant working in Ottawa on the job who rolls a government vehicle and loses a leg, is entitled to about $350,000 in lump sum grant. However, military personnel driving in a truck in Afghanistan who loses two legs and an arm would get a maximum of $270,000. That is a difference of $80,000.
It is a shame. One can only question why that is.
There is also evidence — and we are having it documented from witnesses, before the Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs — of, for example, other countries like Australia that give considerably more for these kinds of injuries than our soldiers receive. Testimony yesterday underlined the fact that the program that the soldiers are on excludes them from the possibility of doing what you can do in private life in Canada, and that is suing for a settlement that is consistently in the order of $350,000 in the courts for these kinds of injuries where liability is incurred and at stake.
I would like to emphasize input that I have received — and many of us have — from Sean Bruyea, who is a journalist and advocate for disabled veterans and their families. He has suffered a great deal in his own life as a result of injuries incurred during his service in the Canadian Forces.
Mr. Bruyea makes the points that I want to accord to him, and I honour his efforts by mentioning them on the record. He thinks the Earnings Loss Benefits should be calculated to match current National Defence pay scales, which is, in effect, saying go from 75 per cent to 100 per cent of earnings. The Earnings Loss Benefits should be calculated to increase with normal career progression for each veteran who is unable to work.
Honourable senators, this emphasizes a point made by a number of presenters, including General Sharpe who wants the Pensioners Training Regulations to be amended to include all CF veterans, and amounts of benefits to be updated to reflect modern costs. General Sharpe would like to look at the kinds of post-secondary — college, university, undergraduate and post-graduate — program supports that World War II veterans received, and that American GI veterans receive now, but which the veterans of our Canadian Forces simply do not. General Sharpe laments the fact that, as in previous cases of rushed legislation, veterans feel that they have not had due process. He feels that veterans have not had a chance to present before our committee, for example, in the kind of detail that they feel that they deserve, and any reasonable person observing the process would feel they deserve as well.
Honourable senators, again we were driven by the minister, who would not give us even four days to take this bill through our processes, without accusing us of delay, after five years when he could have done something. Six months or seven months after it was presented to the public as an initiative that would be presented by government to the House of Commons, and here we are being pressed again to rush this through when it is a start but it is not adequate. It is not enough. It is filled with gaps. It does not meet the needs of these veterans and their families.
Honourable senators, perhaps the greatest indignity is that they have not had due process before these institutions, which reflect the very freedom that they fought for and were injured for, and have much of the rest of their life diminished because of, and this government has waited all this time. They have let them down in a way that is unforgivable.