On Remembrance Day I will be attending the wreath laying ceremony in Nanaimo, and I hope that you will take time to attend the ceremony in your community if you are able to. It is important to remember those who served our country and died while in service. It is also important to respect our injured veterans, veterans spouses, those who are actively serving our country and the families they support.
There are a number of issues impacting veterans, active military service members, and their families, that were brought to my attention during the election campaigns this year and in the months since I became a Member of Parliament. I would like to bring attention to these issues as we reflect on Remembrance Day.
Disabled Veterans Benefits
In 2006 the Harper Conservative government brought in the New Veterans Charter. The enactment of that legislation was the most sweeping change to Canada’s social contract with veterans since WWII. Prior to the NVC, a disabled veteran was eligible for a lifetime pension up to a maximum of $2733.00 a month, based on the extent of their injuries. The NVC did away with lifetime pensions for disabled veterans in favour of a single lump sum payment of up to $360,000, but it is reported that the average lump sum payment is $43,000. According to veteran’s advocates, the result is a loss of 30 to 90% loss of total benefits. The end result of the NVC is that Canada has two classes of disabled veterans, and those who became disabled after its implementation are significantly worse off. Veterans groups have been fighting to have pensions and benefits returned to pre-2006 levels ever since the New Veterans Charter was implemented. During the 2015 federal election the Liberals promised to restore lifetime pensions for disabled veterans. In December 2017 the Liberal government announced major revisions to the NVC, and in April 2018 it was renamed the Veterans Well-being Act. The revised act, which came into effect this spring, gives disabled veterans a choice between a lifetime pension or a lump sum payment, the amount of which is calculated based on a veteran’s level of disability and age. The Veterans Well-being Act is widely acknowledged to be an improvement on the NVC, particularly in terms of providing access to mental health care, but it did not restore pensions to pre-2006 levels except for a small percentage of severely injured veterans. This remains an unacceptable situation for veterans organizations because it violates the “one veteran — one standard” principle.
“It is totally unacceptable that we continue to have veterans’ legislation in Canada which provides a significantly higher level of compensation to a veteran who was injured prior to 2006 (date of the enactment of the New Veterans Charter) when compared to a veteran who was injured post-2006.” ~ Brian Forbes, Executive Chairman of The War Amps and Chairman of the National Council of Veterans Associations.
A report published by the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs in May 2019 estimates that 3000 - 5000 Canadian veterans are homeless. The findings also indicate that veterans are more likely to experience “episodic homelessness”, being homeless three or more times within a year. The reasons for homelessness amongst veterans, as with the general population, are complex.
“We know that there are many pathways into homeless, such as poverty, lack of affordable housing, job loss or instability, mental illness and addictions, physical health problems, family or domestic violence, and family or marital breakdown. What sets veterans apart is that they not only deal with all of these same issues but they also struggle with their transition from military to civilian life.” - Debbie Lowther, VETS Canada
There are homeless veterans in Nanaimo-Ladysmith. Most are in our communities, either in encampments or shelters, but some who have experienced trauma feel safer living in wilderness areas, far from other people. It’s hard not to feel that the system has failed them.
In June 2019 I took part in adopting a motion to end homelessness amongst veterans, but a motion is only a statement, not a bill, and it has no concrete actions, timelines and targets attached to it. In the Veterans Well-being Act the Liberal government committed $15 million dollars to building housing for homeless veterans. Will it be enough to make a significant impact on the problem? In the absence of legislated actions and targets that’s difficult to say.
Recently two housing projects for homeless veterans have made headlines. In September, work began on the Andy Carswell Building, a 40-unit residence in Ottawa that will open in November 2020. This project will provide long term affordable housing for veterans who are homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless. On November 1st, the Homes for Heroes Foundation’s 980 ATCO Village opened in Calgary. The goal of the project is to provide transitional housing for homeless veterans, and a safe space to access services as they reintegrate back into their community. 980 ATCO Village is comprised of 15 tiny homes, a resource centre, counsellor suite, family suite and community gardens. The Homes for Heroes Foundation is working to develop similar projects in other cities across the country.
Developing housing for the homeless is challenging work that requires engaging all levels of government and gaining community support. It’s important to recognize and support the efforts of the non-profit societies who are driving these initiatives, and the governments, service organizations and corporations who are backing them. And I would be remiss not to specifically mention the work of the Royal Canadian Legion. In the BC/Yukon region the Legion operates 70 facilities that provide more than 4500 units of affordable housing, and has built or contributed to 1100 units of assisted living housing, with more in the works. The Legion also offers front line support and assistance to homeless veterans, and those at risk of becoming homeless.
What we often refer to as the “doctor shortage” would be more accurately described as the “family practitioner shortage”. It’s a problem that most Canadians are well aware of, and many have experienced directly. Family members of active military service members who are moved around the country every few years are less likely to have a family doctor than other Canadians. They frequently rely on walk-in clinics. Though less than ideal, it’s a situation that’s generally manageable when everyone is healthy, but it becomes a problem when a family member has a chronic or serious health condition. When coordination and continuity of care is lacking, it not only places additional stress on the family, it can put the patient with the chronic condition at increased risk of poorer health outcomes. Veterans face similar challenges when they retire from active service. Retirement often means relocation, but even when it doesn’t, securing a family doctor can be difficult.
According to a report published by the Canadian Institute of Health Information, we now have more doctors per capita in Canada than ever before. So why do we still have a chronic shortage of family physicians? The answer is a complex combination of factors. There is no quick fix, or single solution, that will alleviate the shortage, but there are definitely steps that can be taken to turn the tide. I believe we should be looking seriously at ways to eliminate student debt so that new physicians are not graduating medical school with the equivalent of a mortgage. Doing so would address one of the major disincentives of going into family practice, which is the overhead cost of setting up or taking over such a practice.
The “Gold Digger” Clause
The Canadian Forces Superannuation Act was passed in 1901. The act, which regulates pension arrangements for Canadian Armed Forces members and their dependants, contains a clause that most now view as outdated and discriminatory. It’s commonly referred to as the “gold digger clause” and it disqualifies the spouse of a veteran from receiving survivor pension benefits if the couple married after the CAF member turned 60. In 1901 sixty was a very advanced age, but that is certainly not the case today. Many veterans have decades long marriages that begin after the age of sixty.
It is time for the government to stop the unfair treatment of veterans spouses, modernize the CFSA and do away with the “gold digger clause.” In their 2015 platform the Liberals promised to do this but so far have only committed funds to Veterans Affairs Canada to “to identify impacted survivors and ensure they have suitable financial support.” Veterans advocacy groups are not satisfied with this “stop gap measure” and want to see the outdated and unfair clause removed.
As we remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice to serve our country, it’s also important to take time to reflect on the diverse experiences and needs of Canada’s veterans and active duty service members.
"And above all, remember that military service is more than war – there is humanity in there, too. It matters what we call people who serve, and that we reflect and respect their services equally. I thank all soldiers for their service to their country – even those who feel unseen.” - Kelly S. Thompson, Veteran & Author, "Girls Need Not Apply: Field Notes From the Forces"