The Guardian – Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent

Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent. [PHOTO: METROPOLIS STUDIO]

Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent.

“Controlled energy” comes to mind when asked to describe Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent. While he speaks with the practised diplomacy and calm bearing of someone who has advised top military leaders, excitement frequently lights his eyes as he talks. He has a physical presence and a cloak of practicality—from his years in military search and rescue—that make you feel if someone were suddenly hurt, he could instantly take charge and make good use of office supplies on his desk to render first aid. Behind the business suit and tie and trappings of office, you sense someone capable of quick and focused action.

These are useful qualities for someone whose job entails helping and representing veterans while keeping both eyes fixed on the government department that is their main source of support. Parent’s diplomatic approach will lead him to “work out differences rather than be confrontational,” said Dr. Stewart Hyson, University of New Brunswick professor and expert on Canada’s ombudsmen, although, he adds, some veterans might prefer feistier dealings with Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC).

The ombudsman reports to the minister of Veterans Affairs and his mandate is addressing individual complaints about benefits and services to veterans and their dependants, identifying systemic issues hampering service to veterans and making recommendations to address them. Nearly 10,000 people contacted the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman (OVO) in 2010. Most calls resulted in referrals or the provision of information on VAC programs and benefits, but a couple of thousand resulted in interventions, direct help from the OVO, mainly to mediate problems between veterans and VAC or other service providers. These individual complaints, said Parent, are “our bread and butter.” They provide “the raw data we use to identify systemic problems.”

Parent is aware of his critics. “I know there are people saying I shouldn’t be talking to VAC,” he said. “But without their (VAC’s) people I cannot handle those 2,000 complaints a year. We have no mandate to say, ‘Do this.’ We get their co-operation, and something’s resolved; we can’t do that if VAC thinks we’re against them. I cannot function as ombudsman unless I have credibility on both sides.”

That does not mean he won’t be critical. Parent sees the need for many changes, including eligibility criteria for benefits and their resultant red tape. At his first appearance before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs in February, Parent said people in uniform do not question where and when they serve, so it is “an injustice of the first order” that VAC and the RCMP base the level of their support on such details. “A veteran is a veteran is a veteran,” he said in an interview with Legion Magazine, adding that applying the “one-veteran” principle in VAC, among veterans organizations and in research, would simplify processes, lower costs and result in better service to veterans.

He intends to watch closely as VAC makes the transition from serving traditional veterans to serving modern veterans. While the number of traditional veterans is steadily shrinking, their needs increase as they age. At the same time, the population of new veterans is growing by more than 4,000 a year, and “a big percentage are medically released,” Parent said, and their needs are also going to change over time. He’s concerned about the lack of a strategy for long-term care for modern veterans and a national strategy for homeless veterans.

Amendments to the New Veterans Charter are a good first step to improving support for the 30,000 modern veterans it now serves, and the addition of a clause calling for a review within two years is another good step to making the charter a living document, he said. Parent intends to monitor implementation of the changes by tracking the number of veterans who benefit and looking out for persistent gaps in service. He’s already advised that VAC needs to make clear to veterans and their families eligibility criteria for the Permanent Impairment and Exceptional Incapacity Allowances and new monthly supplements in order to counter inaccurate information disseminated in the media.

He also intends to press for better access to benefits for part-time reservists. “I’ve met reservists whose civilian job paid more than their reservist job, but they (volunteer to the CF) because they are committed and dedicated. So if something happens to them on the job that gives them $3,000 a month, they also lose (a civilian) job where they were making $7,000 a month,” yet they are entitled to less financial support than their regular forces peers. That may have made sense back in the days when the militia was trained strictly for reserve, he said, but “now 22 per cent of our deployed forces are reservists…. The concept of unlimited liability applies equally to reservists as the regular force, so why treat injured reservists differently?” Parent is also concerned about  provisions for reservists from the RCMP and municipal police forces whose injuries may not become apparent until years after their military service.

But that is just the beginning of his long list of issues and concerns. He’s also concerned VAC does not always respond in a timely manner to veterans in crisis, for whom red tape is a particularly difficult obstacle. He gives examples: a double amputee who had to fill out three different applications for injuries related to the same incident, and PTSD sufferers whose distress deepens as they wait for their applications to be processed. He also favours more support for families, better funeral and burial benefits, improved access to Operational Stress Injury clinics.

Like Pat Stogran before him, Parent believes a legislated mandate would give the office more independence and clout. As it is, the ombudsman reports to the minister of Veterans Affairs, who also sets the office’s budget and tables its annual report with Parliament. “It would be an asset,” Parent says, “but my philosophy is you need to use the tools you have been given.” His ability to report on systemic issues is one of those tools. He intends to produce three such reports a year, by the end of his term leaving a legacy of research on 15 substantive problems, plus recommendations for solving them. “Our criteria is to identify how many people are affected and how seriously.” Among other things, he considers financial health, impact on the family and the cost of doing nothing. First up are burial and funeral expenses and the Veterans Independence Program. “I’ve got five years and a good team [of three dozen people in Ottawa and Charlottetown],” Parent says. “I’m going to keep them busy.”

If that agenda sounds vaguely like a campaign plan, it might be due to Parent’s long military experience. He joined the Air Force in 1964, straight out of high school at 17, and trained as a safety systems technician. “It was interesting, but not very rewarding work,” he said. Seeking more challenge, in 1972 he was accepted into the elite Canadian Forces para rescue team, now called search and rescue technicians (SAR techs), and qualified as a paramedic, master parachutist, diving master and mountain climbing and survival instructor.

Every year SAR techs rescue hundreds of Canadians, military and civilian alike; they need to be team players, yet also independent thinkers. Parent is laconic about the nearly 30 years he spent donning a parachute, scuba gear or climbing spikes, as needed, to rescue folks who had encountered mishap or disaster in the full range of Canadian environments. “I found helping people to be very rewarding,” he said. “There were some good experiences.”

Search and rescue techs “don’t hesitate to jump out of an airplane with a parachute in 40-mile-per-hour winds right into the ocean,” said retired Chief of Defence Staff General Maurice Baril. “Guy was risking his life day in and day out…but doing it for a living, not on operations. His physical courage is not questionable.”

Parent moved up the career ladder to warrant officer, then in 1989 became Chief Warrant Officer (CWO) at the base in Summerside, P.E.I. Warrant officers represent the non-commissioned members and have responsibility for troop morale. By the time they achieve the rank of Chief they are a key link between commanders and the troops and their families. With one foot in the barracks and the other in headquarters, their advice is as prized by commanding officers as their wisdom is by the troops. Parent said that shortly after the move from directly helping people to representing people, “I found that representing them was helping them.” In 1991, he was appointed Air Command CWO and in 1995 he became CWO of the Canadian Forces, representing 47,000 non-commissioned officers and privates, and adviser to several chiefs of defence staff.

“Guy was the forces Chief at a really critical time” of unprecedented change, rising operational tempo, steep budget cuts and restructuring, said retired Vice-Admiral Larry Murray, acting chief of defence staff in 1996-97. He credits Parent for championing professional development for officers and non-commissioned members and fighting for a greater voice for military families.

Parent was involved in developing restructuring plans under Murray, and in implementing them under Baril. “I would never have taken a decision that had impact on the troops…without asking him,” said Baril. Parent accompanied the CDS everywhere—visiting troops, giving evidence before parliamentary and senate committees, on foreign tours.

Both former bosses describe him as caring and calm, effective yet quiet and praise his use of influence to achieve results. Baril gives an example. On several overseas trips in the late 1990s, host countries with more stratified societies tried to dissuade Baril from bringing along his CWO, because “non-commissioned members had no status in the social network of their forces that we could see.” But Baril insisted, and Parent, through example, persuaded senior military officers of the value of partnership between officers and non-commissioned members. Several countries later brought in an equivalent rank to the CWO, and Baril credits Parent’s influence for the change. “He was smooth as silk in selling the idea.”

In 1999, Parent was posted to Egypt where he said he “acquired an ability to understand problems, analyze them and look at long-term diplomatic solutions.” As sergeant major, he had to defuse conflicts among military personnel from 14 different countries defending the Sinai under the Camp David Accord.

He retired from the forces in 2001, and joined the Office of the National Defence and Canadian Forces Ombudsman, working his way from investigator to director of investigations and finally, director of the Ombudsman Special Response Team. In 2008, he joined the OVO as director of research and investigations.

Parent has several advantages over his predecessor, noted Hyson. First, Parent’s five-year term is “a longer time period to establish good working relationships with veterans and the government.” Parent also took over an established operation and did not have to recruit, organize and train staff and set up offices.

The sum of these experiences and circumstances will serve Parent well as ombudsman, said Murray. “He understands injuries, he understands danger and he understands…the impact on families.” Parent and his wife Helena Morris raised three sons while he was in the military. “He will speak to power and will use whatever means he needs, and he will do it generally quietly and effectively and sometimes behind the scenes.”

Soon after his appointment, some quiet behind-the-scenes work paid off. Spurred by a law firm’s offer of free services for veterans, Parent wrote to Canadian and provincial bar associations explaining the need for free legal services for veterans seeking judicial review before the Federal Court. Although veterans who don’t succeed before the Veterans Appeal and Review Board can apply for a judicial review of their cases, few do, mainly due to cost.

In December 2010, the Ontario Trial Lawyers Association announced a free legal services program to Ontario veterans seeking federal disability benefits; other associations are expected to follow suit. It’s a quiet accomplishment, the result of focused energy and the calm use of influence.

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