A very busy apprenticeship and short honeymoon marked Jean-Pierre Blackburn’s first year as minister of veterans affairs. He has logged tens of thousands of travel miles: two commemorative trips to Europe, a tense trip to the Middle East marked by a diplomatic incident as the plane carrying him was refused permission to land in Dubai, and by machine-gun fire heard in the distance while hopping onto a helicopter for a quick takeoff during a visit to troops in Afghanistan.
Life in Canada has hardly been less hectic. Aside from a myriad of commemorative activities, including taking part in Remembrance Day and 2009’s End of an Era event marking the passing of Canada’s last First World War veteran, there has been a stream of media reports criticizing Veterans Affairs Canada’s handling of cases, and inaction on recommendations for change.
Then in September came the privacy commissioner’s finding that some members of the department had breached a veteran’s right to privacy. The ensuing media maelstrom shook some veterans’ trust in VAC, and more than one critic described the department as “broken.”
Despite what must be a heavy workload, heavy criticism and heavy demands for media appearances, Blackburn, 62, appeared neither frazzled nor beleaguered during a Legion Magazine interview in October, just a week after his return from the Middle East and in the midst of a stream of announcements regarding proposed changes to the New Veterans Charter (NVC). Even during of a frenzied, backed-up day, there was time for politesse and for taking a moment to ask an aide for help finding le mot juste in English.
The minister had no trouble finding the right words to describe his initial reaction to the maelstrom. “I could not imagine…there were so many things to change and so many problems in the department,” he said. And he knows just the words to describe what he wants to do by the time his tenure is up. “I want to be the minister who has fixed the problems for veterans.”
“There are huge opportunities for this minister to make a dramatic difference to the care of veterans and their families for the next 20 to 30 years,” says Legion Grand President Larry Murray, a VAC deputy minister from 1999 to 2003. “He arrived at the cusp (of change) and many of the tools, although perhaps a bit imperfect, are in place.”
And Blackburn has shown he intends to use them.
In the fall, Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart reported that an investigation confirmed VAC had breached the privacy of veteran Sean Bruyea. Her report also indicated that this breach could be part of a systemic problem, and concluded that an audit of departmental procedures around privacy was in order. A report on the audit is due later this year. “I could not believe it was like that,” said Blackburn. “It happened in 2005, 2006 and may still be happening.”
In addition to agreeing to all the privacy commissioner’s recommendations—immediately enhancing policy, revising information management and consent practices and training employees—Blackburn said he would “go further” to add dismissal to the range of disciplinary options, which had topped out at a five-day suspension. “We have to show that we don’t play with that—it’s very serious.”
Legion Dominion President Pat Varga applauded the minister’s action. Such a breach is “absolutely unacceptable. It’s intolerable. We don’t know what they’ve done and (by press time) we don’t yet know the results of the full inquiry, but I believe the minister feels it’s intolerable as well.”
If VAC is at a cusp, perhaps its minister is as well. His education, business background, private experience and political challenges have given him insights and personal tools useful for the job at hand. He has degrees in business administration, and regional studies and intervention. From 1974 to 1984 he was chief executive officer of the Société d’initiatives et de developpement des artères commerciales in Chicoutimi, Que., which promotes business development. Between political stints, he headed up Blackburn Communications Inc., a public relations and communications firm.
First elected as member of Parliament for Jonquière-Alma in 1984, he cut his political teeth in the Mulroney government and has been in cabinet since the 2006 election of the current Conservative government. His major cabinet portfolios have also included minister of labour and minister of national revenue.
Blackburn’s private life has given him insights into issues that might affect Canadian Forces members as well as veterans. He and his wife Ginette raised their children Charles and Marie-Christine, now adults, in Jonquière. “When Charles decided to be in the military, I was very proud of that.” But his son’s military career was cut short by a knee injury that made it impossible to meet the Canadian Forces universality of service requirement. Blackburn witnessed his son’s struggle to readjust after loss of a preferred career. Added to that was his own necessity to switch careers after losing the election in 1993.
Those personal insights into the value of smooth transition were bolstered during an October visit to Canadian Forces personnel in Afghanistan. He was impressed by their discipline and dedication. “They are so proud to be in the Canadian army.” Yet he discovered they know little about services and benefits of Veterans Affairs Canada. Now he intends to visit every base across the country to spread the word. “If they come back with injuries, they should not be afraid about their futures.” Yet, says Blackburn, “we’re not totally ready to deliver to them—in an appropriate way—all the services they will need. I am implementing those changes,” and addressing the gaps in service between the Pension Act and the New Veterans Charter.
Change has been a long time coming. Frustration among veterans and advocacy groups had been building since the NVC came into effect in 2006. Its aim was to better serve modern veterans with a suite of programs focused on wellness: job placement, rehabilitation services, vocational assistance and financial benefits. Within a year, gaps in service began to appear (Testing The New Charter, November/December 2007) with concerns raised over earnings loss benefits, the lump sum payment for pain and suffering, and the poor level of understanding among those who came under the NVC, both currently serving CF members as well as post-Korean War veterans.
At the time, critics were assured these issues were “being actively looked at” by the department. But no action on recommendations was visible to the public as report followed report, specifically the Gerontological Advisory Committee, November 2006; reports from the Veterans Ombudsman, appointed in 2007; the New Veterans Charter Advisory Group, June 2009; a comparison of veterans services offered by other commonwealth countries and the G8, Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs, June 2009. In 2010, both the House Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs and the Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs had hearings into the NVC and heard evidence about the spat between VAC and the Veterans Ombudsman over co-operation and access to information. A steady stream of news stories accumulated about problems with wait times and access to benefits involving both traditional veterans and their spouses and those covered by the NVC.
By the time Blackburn addressed The Royal Canadian Legion dominion convention in June (Walking The Path of Service, September/October 2010), many were frustrated. The minister announced he would have a report on the department’s five-year review of the NVC in December, but “there were so many problems…that I did not want to wait for this report.”
The first announcement about the latest proposed changes came in mid-September. The improvements will amount to $2 billion in increased benefits, including $1,000 more per month which guarantees a minimum $40,000 yearly income for the severely wounded during rehabilitation, or for life if they are unable to return to work. Eligibility for the permanent impairment allowance was also expanded.
Then followed announcements about the “legacy of care”: $52.5 million over five years to provide barrier-free transitional housing for the injured during treatment; a $100 daily allowance for caregivers; improved spousal access to educational upgrading; extra case managers and extending benefits to veterans diagnosed with the fatal motor neuron disease ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). Research has shown a higher risk among those with military service.
“There is no doubt in my mind that Minister Blackburn is genuine about his concern for the veterans,” said the dominion president. “I believe what he has done is a start.” But, she adds, “I told him I’m not going away. There is still work to be done.” Although the announcements addressed some of the concerns about financial benefits raised in the report of the New Veterans Charter Advisory Group, of which the Legion is a member, there has been no visible movement on many other recommendations. The report has more than a dozen recommendations on providing more support for veterans’ families and survivors, ending the “insurance-based approach” to economic benefits, modernizing the rehabilitation program, increasing veterans’ awareness of the NVC and measuring performance and impact of its programs and services.
Varga says it is impossible to say which should take priority because “we believe them all to be important.” As well, yet to be addressed are issues the Legion has championed, such as improved funeral and burial expenses and ensuring long-term care for modern veterans.
Lorne McCartney, dominion secretary-treasurer of the Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans in Canada, agrees with Varga that the changes are “a good beginning.” But high on his wish list is a change in the government’s attitude towards spending on both traditional and modern veterans. “I don’t think the Conservative party understands how poorly off our vets are.” Even with the expanded financial benefits lately announced, “over a whole lifetime, they’re going to lose out.” Not only do some financial benefits for NVC veterans stop at the age of 65, but at the moment there is a worry about the availability of long-term care facilities for modern veterans should they need them later in life.
Communications, including communicating the needs of the department to his cabinet colleagues, is a major challenge facing Blackburn, said Murray. “Based on what I’ve seen of him, he’s been working really hard.” But it will take more hard work to be an effective advocate for veterans to cabinet colleagues, to get across the intent of the NVC to a public for whom the debate has mistakenly boiled down to lump sum payment versus pension, and ensure departmental employees serve the varied needs of both the modern veteran and the traditional veteran equally well.
Blackburn estimates he has completed only about 40 per cent of the changes he has in mind. He assured veterans involved in a cross-country protest in early November that “other improvements are in the works, notably concerning wait times and bureaucratic red tape.”
The root of the department’s problems, Blackburn added, is antiquation. The department aged along with the veterans from the Second World War and Korean War, but “we didn’t modernize.” Now those traditional veterans number only about 155,000 of the pool of about 700,000 veterans, all potential VAC clients. A top priority is to “change the culture in the department; it should not take six months to answer a question.” As he talks, his hands outline an enormous pyramid. “One of our employees feels we should take a decision, but it has to go another level, then another level, and another…and it doesn’t finish.” He wants to flatten administration and shorten the time in turning around files.
Murray said that prior to the NVC, “we had tools that were designed to look after 80-year-olds well.” New veterans are not only younger, but had been professional soldiers, as opposed to traditional veterans, who were mostly civilians. The NVC was designed to meet their very different needs, yet at the same time, the department has to continue to meet the needs of traditional veterans, growing older and frailer with each passing year. It will take a culture change involving education and training, added Murray, but the demographics of the department, which has a large number of baby boomers approaching retirement age, are conducive to change.
Blackburn acknowledged it will not be a painless process for employees. “It’s very tough for them.” The difficulty will be exacerbated by fast change, but once the upcoming changes are implemented, “they will see we are going in the best direction for our veterans and if we hadn’t acted it would be much worse…the problem was growing, growing, growing.”
Sometimes a new approach will be needed, such as the one he took in extending benefits to veterans with ALS, who were being handled in a slow, case-by-case analysis. “It’s important to find solutions to help our veterans, not to give them more complications,” he said. After being sensitized to the fact that veterans with ALS can expect to survive between two and five years after diagnosis, he realized for them, time is of the essence. Only about 67 cases have come forward since the Second World War. “I asked questions and questions and questions to the department. ‘Why don’t we deliver (services) if it’s not such a huge number?’” The answer: the department was waiting for proof of the connection between military service and development of the disease. “But if the scientific people need 100 years to find an agreement (on the issue) our veterans would have to wait 100 years. So why don’t we find a method to support them?”
The dominion president hopes that finding a way to make the New Veterans Charter truly a living document is among the minister’s new approaches. “We were promised that the charter was a living document and we want that promise honoured, so when there are issues with it or problems arise, changes can be made. He says he’s aware of that and endeavouring to do that.”
Blackburn, meanwhile, said he wants to reassure critics that although the announcements of changes were trickled out one-by-one by the department, the changes themselves were not decided in a piecemeal fashion. “It is holistic,” he added. “Everything is related”—the new charter, the desire of injured servicemen and women to take full part in life upon returning home, the changes needed for them “to flourish” in their post-service lives. Add to that the duty to commemorate their service and sacrifice.
At the time of the interview, Blackburn was working on a program to support communities wanting to establish new memorials to those who died in Afghanistan and other conflicts since the Korean War. There may be a paucity of monuments to modern veterans, but that does not mean their service and sacrifice go unnoticed. “Every time I place a wreath, I remember and say out loud, how many soldiers died in the First World War, how many died in the Second World War, and Korea. And I talk about Afghanistan, the soldiers (who have died) up to now.”
Over the last year he has gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of commemoration for all Canadians after visiting the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, he said. “I think every Canadian in his or her life should go there. It is the monument of monuments.” His voice catches as he describes first seeing Vimy’s twin pillars from a distance. “Those two towers…when you see that you cannot stay [indifferent].” The experience helped him make up his mind in the debate about whether the memorial should be replicated in Canada. “We should not do that. It should stay there…it has to be alone in the world.”
Veterans Affairs Canada
At A Glance
155,700 Second World War and Korean War veterans, average age 86
314,200 regular forces veterans, average age 56
279,600 primary reserves veterans, average age 52
Total: 749,500 number of veterans in Canada
66,202 Second World War and Korean War veterans
65,310 Canadian Forces members/veterans
8,580 RCMP members/ex-members
78,363 veterans’ survivors
Total: 218,455 number of VAC clientele
(as of September 2010)
$1.8 billion disability pensions
$579.1 million health services and treatment benefits
$353.9 million long-term care
$338 million Veterans Independence Program (VIP)
$299 million disability awards
$50 million remembrance programs, including cenotaph restoration and Last Post Fund
Total: $3.4 billion VAC 2009-2010 expenditures
*Source: Veterans Affairs Canada, 2010
Email the writer at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Email a letter to the editor at: email@example.com