A litany of complaints about Veterans Affairs Canada’s treatment of veterans has led to a ‘veterans’ revolt.’ Can new leadership at VAC inspire a culture shift, or should the system be rebuilt from the ground up?
By Sharon Adams and Adam Day | Photography By Louie Palu
“I know what it’s like to feel the wind on your brain,” says retired corporal Bruce Moncur.
He was part of the Canadian contingent in Operation Medusa on Sept. 4, 2006, intent on routing the Taliban from Afghanistan’s Panjwaii district, about 40 kilometres west of Kandahar. He was eating breakfast with a buddy, cold beans and wieners, when two American A-10 Thunderbolt jets mistakenly opened fire on the Canadian platoon. Private Mark Anthony Graham was killed. Moncur, then 22, was one of 30 wounded, hit in the head by a 30-mm explosive armour-piercing bullet.
“I remember being tossed in the air…feeling like I was being electrocuted.” He passed out. When he came to, his right arm was flopping around like a fish on the ground. He checked his arms and legs, was relieved they were still connected to his body. Then he felt blood pouring down his face. “I panicked. I’m catching it in my hands. I’d get a handful, overflowing, and I’d drop it.” He knew he was in deep trouble.
Unable to lift his head, Moncur crawled to a buddy for help. “He turned away and I heard him whispering, ‘Oh, my God. How do you treat an exposed brain?’ I remember thinking ‘This is it.’ I started sending messages, like telepathic messages, ‘I love you’…praying that somehow, some way, those messages were going to get home”
to Windsor, Ont., to his aunt, who had raised him, and his brother. “And then I gave up and said, ‘I’m just going to die in peace on the top of this Afghan mountain.’”
But Moncur didn’t die. He was airlifted to Kandahar, underwent his first brain surgery, and began navigating the exquisite depths of pain. “I felt my heartbeat in my brain, and each heartbeat—there are like, 60 a minute—was absolutely excruciating, mind-blowing,” an agony often not defeated even by morphine.
When Moncur rose from his hospital bed back in Canada to begin rehabilitation, more than five per cent of his brain had been removed. “I’d look at English literature, and…it looked like Chinese. My speech was slurred. I needed a walker. It was very scary.” He didn’t know if he’d ever be able to live independently again.
Nine months of intensive therapy helped Moncur regain the ability to speak, to walk, to read. Years after the event, he was diagnosed with, and received a disability award for, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
After nine years, he still has a lump of metal the size of a water bottle cap buried in his brain, too deep to safely remove. He has bad headaches, dozens a year. Loss of short-term and long-term memory has him living in a constant confusion of missed appointments, forgotten names, late arrivals, laundry forgotten in the washer until it starts to stink. Symptoms from the head wound provoke frustration and anger, which triggers his PTSD.
Then there’s the fatigue. Two hours of concentration leaves him feeling like he’s just run a marathon, and it takes hours of rest to recover.
In 2008, Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) gave Moncur a 10-per cent disability assessment for his head wound, and sent him a cheque for $22,000.
“It was a slap in the face,” he says. “I was given a single cheque, no explanation. I reached the startling conclusion that five per cent of a soldier’s brain is worth a mere $22,000.”
VAC’s table of disabilities, which Moncur calls the “meat chart,” has assessments for loss of eyes, ears, arms and legs—but not for loss of a piece of the brain.
Moncur’s nine-year battle over that assessment ended in mid-January, a couple of weeks after air force veteran Erin O’Toole, Member of Parliament for Durham, Ont., replaced the beleaguered Julian Fantino as Minister of Veterans Affairs. Between his earlier $134,000 PTSD award and awards for his head wound, Moncur now has received 100 per cent of the disability award available under the New Veterans Charter (NVC). Often called the lump sum payment, it is a one-time, tax-free cash award in recognition of pain and suffering, capped at $306,698 this year. Moncur is among those who do not believe the sudden settlement of their grievances immediately after O’Toole’s appointment is coincidence.
Those skeptics also greeted a recent series of announcements sweetening NVC benefits as a political move timed to buy them off or shut them up; a move made not because veterans were in trouble, but because politicians are.
This election year follows a nadir in the relationship between VAC and the men and women it serves. Faith in the federal Conservative Party, the traditional pro-military party, has also curdled. Veterans and the serving military—and their supporters—cannot be counted on to vote as a bloc.
Loud and cranky veterans—and some VAC employees—are ratcheting up campaigns for change. The Equitas Disabled Soldiers Funding Society has launched a class-action lawsuit against the federal government (in abeyance at press time pending settlement discussions), claiming those served by the Pension Act got a better deal than modern NVC veterans. Disgruntled veterans have thrown themselves into what they call the ABC election campaign—Anything But Conservative. The Union of Veterans Affairs Employees is working to swing votes to other parties in a couple of dozen ridings decided by small margins in the last federal election.
It will take a lot to earn back the respect of veterans who feel betrayed by the system meant to serve them. O’Toole believes he has already made a good start with Bill C-58, the Support for Veterans and Their Families Act, which addresses the most serious concerns of veterans and their advocates about the NVC, though perhaps not always to the desired degree. He says he is reforming practices, co-operating with the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) to smooth transition from military to veteran life, and setting his sights on continual improvement in programs and services. O’Toole promises to make the department “veteran-centric.”
“Everyone who works in my department has a mandate to think of the veteran and their family in everything they do, whether developing policy, looking at programs…or writing a letter to a veteran,” says O’Toole. Being veteran-centric “shows we’re actually concerned about their wellness. This can’t be a bureaucratic labyrinth they have to go through to get benefits.”
Historically, there is no denying that VAC has helped better the lives of hundreds of thousands of veterans and their families. And veterans—even the disgruntled ones—praise the hard work and dedication of front-line staff. The department now serves more than 200,000 military and RCMP veterans and families, and 90 per cent of its projected $3.5 billion budget is spent on services and benefits. Thousands more will be helped by Bill C-58. [At press time, the bill had been incorporated into the omnibus budget bill, expected to pass before Parliament adjourned.]
But some fed-up veterans believe the recent political polish is actually poppycock. Ministers come and go, policies change, but the bureaucracy grinds ever on. They are angry that it took media attention to settle some cases, and that those individual fixes don’t solve the problem for those who don’t, or can’t, make as loud a noise.
These discontented veterans don’t believe recent changes will fix what’s really ailing the department—an adversarial system with a skeptical application and appeals process that chews up the very veterans most in need of help and least able to negotiate on their own its complex demands.
They believe the system for taking care of Canada’s wounded warriors is cracked, possibly broken—and they’re laying it on Prime Minister Steven Harper’s doorstep.
The NVC was drawn up by a Liberal government and had the support of all parties before becoming law in 2006. But it was under the Conservative government that the gaps became obvious and it is this government that has dragged its heels, making changes only twice in the past decade, despite assurances the law would be updated as needed. Harper appointed one minister, Greg Thompson, on whose watch veterans’ privacy was breached when they opposed government policy, and another, Fantino, whose personal style was so badly matched to the portfolio that he outright riled veterans. And it is clearly a Conservative strategy to make political hay out of veterans’ issues in the months leading up to the federal election.
In 2012, Harper spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, explaining how Canada outperformed most industrialized countries during the recent financial crisis, not by creating permanent programs and government bureaucracy, but with “targeted and temporary” economic stimulus, investments in infrastructure, training, and support to workers who lost their jobs.
Is it coincidence, he asked, that the financial crisis revealed not just too much national debt, but “too much general willingness to have standards and benefits beyond our ability or even willingness to pay for them?”
Veterans might ask if it is a coincidence that the permanent programs and government bureaucracy that have supported ill, injured and disabled veterans for most of the past century would be replaced by “targeted and temporary” supports to transition all but the most severely disabled veterans into civilian life, such as the one-time payment in recognition of their pain and suffering. Or, as some veterans see it, a kiss-off for life.
The roots of the adversarial system can be traced to post-war pressure to take better care of Second World War veterans than those of the First World War. The federal government set up programs to help veterans resume their civilian lives and to pay for treatment and long-term support of the disabled. With a million possible clients, it made sense to set the eligibility bar high, ensuring those in the greatest need received services, while weeding out fraudsters.
What evolved was a complex system to determine who is eligible and how much support they are entitled to, and an elaborate appeal process for anyone who wants to challenge the department’s decisions.
The system is too complex, with a high burden of proof on the veteran, says Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent. “The transition from DND to VAC should be a path; right now it’s a wall.” Today’s pool of veterans is smaller, so eligibility barriers could be lowered and skeptical attitudes jettisoned.
“Employment Insurance and the Canada Revenue Agency ask you to provide information, you provide it, you get the benefits. Then they audit,” says Parent. VAC could do something similar.
“We have a duty to the veteran and to society to make sure we have a fair, quick, less-stressful system,” says O’Toole, “but one that is evidence-based.” People develop non-service-related illnesses before and during their military careers, he points out, which are covered by the public health care system, but VAC requires evidence of service-related injury or illness.
Despite regulations calling for veterans to receive the benefit of the doubt, the application and assessment system requires upfront proof every step of the way. Instead, the benefits system should be “open, simple and generous,” and focused on veterans’ needs, says Parent, but to get there requires a change in VAC culture.
Canada’s servicemen and servicewomen are steeped in the country’s highest values—and we demand they uphold them. “Duty, honour, loyalty, it’s bred into them,” says Gary Walbourne, Ombudsman for the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces. Yet their honesty is questioned the moment they apply for benefits. This may pass the notice of the majority whose claims are approved without a hiccup—more than 70 per cent of VAC’s annual 40,000 first-time claims receive “favourable” decisions—that is, at least part of the claim is accepted, though perhaps not to the desired degree. But to those of the remaining 30 per cent subjected to the rejection and appeals process, VAC’s skepticism can be humiliating—and infuriating.
Retired corporal Shane Jones, who lives near Halifax, had been treated for PTSD before being sent to Afghanistan in 2005, where a military vehicle rollover broke his skull and injured his brain. He was medevaced to Canada, and later also diagnosed with a herniated spinal disc and sciatic nerve damage, which has left him in chronic pain. But his applications for disability pensions for head and back injuries were initially rejected because, as he says VAC put it, “there is not enough evidence to support that your injuries happened overseas in a special duty area.” “I lost it,” says Jones. “For God’s sake, it was all over the news.”
Since then, he has gone from one fight with VAC to another—appealing eligibility, appealing assessments, appealing retroactivity—appearing four times before the Veterans Review and Appeal Board. And he has called VAC. He has called VAC a lot. And he has called VAC a lot of bad names. “Every single time something went wrong, I had to stand up and fight for myself,” says Jones. “I had to put my face in the media. I don’t like that. Now my family is finally financially taken care of.”
After 10 years of appeals, Jones now receives a total of $5,500 monthly from VAC, which includes Pension Act allowances and monthly amounts for support of his wife and children. He also receives a small military pension and Service Income Security Insurance Plan (SISIP) long-term disability payments. His most recent battle, over reimbursement for a prescription, was settled days after he made a critical comment on the minister’s website.
Jones and Moncur have struggled with the system for years, and it’s easy to see how such battles can be life-shattering—an accumulation of anger and frustration that can break the spine of a marriage, turn someone into a basement-dweller, raise thoughts of suicide.
The rebel commander
“I’m concerned about the 10 or 15 per cent whose lives have been shattered,” says Pat Stogran, a retired colonel of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry who led the first Canadian troops into Afghanistan in 2002. He was also Canada’s first Veterans Ombudsman.
Stogran also served as a United Nations observer in Bosnia, where he was credited with saving thousands of lives by preventing a 1994 massacre in Gorazde—and was undeservedly discredited for how he did it. He went over the head of a British commanding general to request that NATO use air power to stop an invasion. Stogran says his PTSD is rooted in a subsequent smear campaign, and a feeling of betrayal by his own chain of command.
Appointed to a three-year term as ombudsman in 2007, Stogran had a short honeymoon. He aired his disagreements with bureaucrats in the media. In 2009, he told the House of Commons Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs that department bureaucrats had denied him access to information he believed he needed to pursue his mandate to look into systemic issues. He criticized the bureaucracy for its “insurance-company mentality,” and politicians for stinginess over benefits. Veterans empathized with his frustration and applauded when he “went rogue” after hearing that his appointment would not be renewed. Today, as leader of the online Rebel Gorilla Army (rebelgorillas.ca), Stogran continues to fight for veterans’ causes in podcasts. “I can be a catalyst for everyone’s change,” he says on the website.
Stogran’s departure in 2010 arguably seeded the veterans’ revolt (November/December 2014). Consultation and negotiation, the tried-and-true tactics of traditional veterans’ organizations led by The Royal Canadian Legion, was too slow a process for some, who decided to take action themselves. They protested Stogran’s loss, inaction on changes to the NVC, and funding cuts. They organized what has become an annual national protest rally. And they’ve created new advocacy organizations, including Moncur’s Afghanistan Veterans Association of Canada.
Moncur and Stogran are two leaders of the veterans’ revolt—a revolt involving many splinter groups, with many prominent voices but no single indisputable leader. These veterans have paid their dues in bone and blood and mental health and they insist on being heard on their own terms, unmindful of political correctness. Critics have said these rebels are unrepresentative of the majority, and dismiss their behaviour as irrational, intemperate, impulsive and impatient. The same wounds for which these veterans are hailed as heroes also leave a legacy of symptoms that opens them up to such criticism.
Because they have so many voices, so many watchful eyes, the rebels have been able to track—and criticize—every step in the fight for changes to the NVC and every cut that has squeezed budgets or downsized the department.
Downsized, and less personal
At first blush, downsizing VAC seemed a no-brainer—the workload would wane dramatically with the number of traditional veterans. That has not proved to be the case so far. Between 2009 and 2014, VAC’s client load declined just over eight per cent; it lost 32,930 traditional veterans, but picked up 21,315 modern veterans.
A lot of those new cases are more complex, too. Improvements in battlefield medicine and trauma care have increased the number of soldiers who survive horrific wounds—and go on to live with severe disabilities. As well, operational stress injuries have been added to the benefits mix. Veterans with mental health issues increased from under two per cent of VAC clients in 2002 to almost 12 per cent in 2014. This trend is expected to continue.
Modern veterans’ attitudes are different from those of traditional veterans, whose values were shaped in the frugal and more religious years of the Great Depression, before fruition of Canada’s social security net. Truly thankful and ever mindful of the needs of others, they worry that the more they claim, the less there is for others.
Military service today is seen as a long-term career, in addition to an honourable duty. Modern veterans matured in a more litigious society. Computer savvy, they go to the VAC website to consult the table of disabilities, as did Moncur and Jones. They are also products of a more cynical age, where the Internet ensures broken political promises are never forgotten, and positive spin on government announcements is shortly contrasted with in-depth criticism. Modern veterans are better informed, quicker to claim for benefits, and inclined to claim every benefit to which they think they are entitled.
They are more politically savvy, more apt to protest publicly and air their opinions and grievances over social media. They’ve drawn a connection from the political goal of balancing the budget by 2015 and the policy of across-the-board cuts of five to 10 per cent in all federal departments to VAC staff cuts, office closures, longer processing times and less contact with staff.
The across-the-board cuts announced in 2012 affected VAC disproportionately since, as the department so often touts, 90 per cent of its budget is in mandated payments. “Only 10 per cent of the budget was for administration, including staffing,” says Union of Veterans Affairs Employees national president Carl Gannon. “The cuts had to come from that 10 per cent.”
“We have taken resources out of backroom administration, from bureaucracy,” Harper told the House of Commons in December 2014. “We have put it into services.” But media soon reported VAC’s cutting of 10.1 per cent of jobs in internal services—“backroom” to most voters—versus a third of the positions in its disability-award program.
Between 2009 and 2014, while the number of VAC clients declined 8.2 per cent (from 218,596 to 200,644), more than 20 per cent of staff positions were cut. Nine of 32 district offices were closed, described as underused, including one in Windsor, which had 2,629 clients in 2012 and 10 staff, including three case managers and three client-service agents, according to Public Service Alliance of Canada figures.
To Moncur, closing the Windsor office is a betrayal. When the economic slump hit Windsor, he says, military recruitment ramped up. “So our unemployed sons and daughters joined up and went to war,” says Moncur. “What was the thanks when they got back and needed help? The closure of their office. How underhanded, deceitful and gross.”
Politicians have argued that veterans can now choose how they deal with the department—over the Internet, on the toll-free line or at 600 Service Canada locations across the country. For many, face-to-face service by someone knowledgeable about the benefits system is not one of the choices.
Employees on toll-free lines are not always familiar with complex policies and are unfamiliar with your personal case, says Moncur. With the nearest VAC office now a two-hour drive away, he often uses the toll-free number. “First it was someone in Winnipeg and next time it was someone in Halifax. They say they’d look into it and get back to me. The phone call back was from somebody else. It was very impersonal. I felt like there wasn’t anybody who really gave a damn.”
On one occasion, he signed and sent in a release to allow his lawyer access to his files, and was told an appeal date would quickly be set. When he called several months later, he was told the signed release had been lost. Although the information had already been released to his lawyer, his case had been put on hold, without his knowledge, until he sent another signed release. The system, he says, “is heartless, faceless.”
More paperwork, fewer people
Just as political attitudes after the Second World War left their trail in departmental practices, so modern small-c conservative values—particularly that private business practices are more efficient and economical than publicly delivered services—are leaving a trail today.
Some services have been downloaded onto communities, advocacy groups and families. VAC is no longer a one-stop shop for veterans, but one of many resources. Advocacy groups are supplying more and more services that veterans once expected the department to provide. Legion service officers across the country report a dramatic increase in demand for their varied services. Legion service bureaus have recorded a 36 per cent increase in VAC benefit applications and departmental reviews on behalf of veterans from 2012 to 2014. Families are absorbing more, and without sufficient support, according to Jenny Migneault, who had to quit her own job to take care of her husband, Claude Rainville, who left a 20-year military career with physical injuries and PTSD.
The departmental goal of meeting client needs while controlling costs is reflected in its five-year transformation plan “to fundamentally change how VAC does its business.” This is to be supported by business planning, performance measures and timelines, in a method known as managerialism—the application of business procedures to running other organizations, particularly those not in the business of making a profit. Critics argue that VAC has transformed front-line workers’ jobs and guided focus away from veterans’ needs. Jobs have been reorganized and standardized to make them more efficient and positions have been cut to contain costs. Standardization of procedures and tracking of employees’ performance has increased the amount of paperwork and decreased face-to-face contact.
“There is not the type of interaction there was five years ago,” says Gerry Finlay, Legion provincial command service officer in Edmonton. “It’s all triaged now, centralized.”
A decade ago, a major part of the job of VAC area counsellors was conducting home visits to veterans within a defined geographic area, doing assessments and arranging for services. They have been replaced by client-service agents, who work mostly over the phone, and case managers, who cover larger areas, are now used only in complex cases, and whose caseloads are juggled in order to balance out workloads.
Nick (not his real name) is a 40-ish retired naval technician who lives in the Maritimes. He was in treatment for injures to his back, neck, arm and shoulder when he was medically released with PTSD two years ago, after serving two decades. He was assessed at five per cent disability for his back injury and received a cheque for part of the PTSD disability award. His claims for the other injuries were rejected.
“They said there wasn’t enough medical information” or evidence connecting the injury to service, although his military doctor made case notes. And surely, he says, there are records of the months he spent in physiotherapy for his neck, arm and shoulder injuries.
Two months after he left the navy, Nick had a back spasm that caused a heavy fall and he broke his neck. He shuffles slowly instead of walking, cannot move his head, is in obvious constant pain. He doesn’t want his name used because he is appealing several VAC decisions, including rejection of his application for the Veterans Independence Program, which helps pay for housework and yard work so disabled veterans can remain in their own homes.
A home visit would have revealed all this. Instead, his caseworker called to say he was being sent more forms. “I said, ‘I can’t fill this in. I cannot look down at the paper.’”
At least 100 full-time permanent caseworkers and 100 disability benefits staff, temporary and permanent, are being hired to tend to the backlogs created by the deep cuts, O’Toole announced in April. Skeptical veterans worry that the jobs were eliminated at one stroke of the pen, brought back by another, so what’s to prevent them disappearing again after the election? Some of the disability benefit jobs are temporary to deal with the backlog, says O’Toole, but the case managers are permanent additions. They will be allocated to where they are most needed, and all caseloads are to be cut from 40 to 30.
Despite this positive news, case managers are still assigned only complex cases. As veterans’ conditions improve, they fall off the list and could be overlooked if their conditions deteriorate. And caseloads are juggled to achieve balance, contributing to case manager turnover. Some veterans have lost count of how many case managers they’ve worked with.
With increased workloads and time pressures, caseworker communications tend to focus on the current problem, with less time to consider a veteran’s other—or future—needs. Veterans frequently complain they have to know what to ask for, that VAC is not going to fill in the gaps.
“A classic example is reassessment,” says Legion service officer Finlay. The appeal process is explained in decision letters, but not the reassessment process. Veterans can have their conditions reassessed every two years, or earlier if there’s been deterioration, but they can appeal each decision only once. “I’ve seen a lot of people putting in an appeal,” says Finlay, when a reassessment could more quickly and easily make the difference in a ruling.
“I was about to waste my one appeal” in that way, says Moncur. “I didn’t understand the system, and nobody took the time to explain it to me.”
Social work professionals argue that the quality of services delivered cannot be judged by business standards. Humanity can’t be summed up in a tick box. What ends up being measured is not how well client needs are met, but how well the needs of the bureaucracy are.
Such micromanagement also raises the risk of a cover-your-ass mentality, Stogran points out. If an employee’s performance is judged on meeting goals, one of which is cost containment, it might be tempting to make assessments that are low enough not to spark criticism or review of their work, but which would drive veterans into the appeal process.
Inflexible business practices can lead to pettifoggery, too. VAC quibbled over an 82-year-old veteran’s mileage claim, saying it would reimburse for the shortest route to a medical appointment, along a new highway which the veteran felt unsafe driving, rather than his usual 24-kilometre route. “That’s the culture,” says Parent, “People questioning what is the cheapest way.” It’s fine for the needs of the organization, but veterans need some flexibility.
The Auditor General’s 2014 report on veterans’ mental health services reveals the dichotomy in viewpoint between VAC and veterans. The department’s performance-standard goal is to turn around 80 per cent of benefits applications within 16 weeks. But from the veterans’ perspective, it takes twice as long—32 weeks—to receive an eligibility decision, the report says. The two parties start counting at different times—VAC when the application forms have been completed to its satisfaction, and veterans from the moment they first send in the forms.
The report noted that VAC had not analyzed issues from the veteran’s perspective to find and remove barriers. Nor had it analyzed successful reviews and appeals to spot changes that could reduce their number.
VAC “measures output, not outcome,” says Parent. For instance, “They know how many people went through the vocational program, but don’t know how many have gone into jobs they’ve trained for, and have stayed there.”
Remember, says Parent, “VAC is not selling a product. It is offering benefits that have been earned by people who have been injured.”
Time for a new system?
Despite VAC’s transformation program and amendments to the NVC, Halifax navy veteran and clinical psychologist John Whelan has seen no decrease in clients, nor a change in their beefs about the system. Whelan served as clinical director for the CAF addiction-treatment programs before opening a private clinic for the treatment of complex military PTSD in 2004. “It is time for a new system,” he says. “I think this one is irreparable.”
Veterans still suffer culture shock when they are handed off to VAC, says Whelan. They come with emotional baggage. They are apprehensive about the future, in emotional and/or physical pain, and dealing with life-altering disabilities. Many feel betrayed. They arrive at VAC exhausted, and are plunged into the frustratingly complex application and appeal system, irksome delays and infuriating skepticism. Some vent their anger, not realizing that many people equate anger with violence.
Reams of paperwork have to be filled out—by veterans, doctors and therapists. Whelan came to realize that “our role for VAC was about substantiating claims, identifying who’s eligible for a particular program…[and] ferreting out malingerers. As clinicians, this is not what we’re about.”
Starting in about 2010, he noted something odd: after a year of therapy, instead of expected improvements, veterans “would come off the rails, go off their meds, go crazy. We were kind of scratching our heads, and said, ‘What the hell is happening here?’” Then veterans started bringing in “a ream of paperwork” and said they’d gotten a small portion of their disability award, and that the rest would come after reassessment. They were regressing in anticipation of their reassessment.
“If it’s truly an award for pain and suffering, shouldn’t that be [established] at the point of injury, not for residual damage? I saw it as a perversion,” says Whelan. “It was just too much for me, I said, ‘Nope, not doing this anymore.’” He communicated his concern to caseworkers and, about two years ago, stopped taking veterans who needed VAC assessments and concentrated on developing a PTSD group therapy program and research.
VAC declined requests for an interview with a subject-matter expert on questions of case management and disability awards.
The rebel path
Moncur can’t remember all the steps that led him to the rebel path. One came in 2013, when someone at VAC explained that his claim had been classified with those of veterans suffering from headaches, and that maybe it could be moved up one more level. It was another affront.
“Apparently to Veterans Affairs, getting shot in the head in Afghanistan is the same as an office worker suffering headaches,” says Moncur. So he explained—again—his story: a battle wound, losing part of his brain, his long recuperation, chronic physical and neurological problems. He was sent “an encyclopedia of paperwork” to fill out, including a form with seven questions that took him six months—and 30 pages—to answer as completely as he could.
But Moncur clearly remembers the last step. He was one the veterans organized by the Public Service Alliance of Canada to go to Ottawa in January 2014 to plead with the minister not to close the nine district offices. It resulted in the now-infamous televised confrontation between Fantino and veterans.
The next day, Moncur went to the House of Commons to hear debate on the issue. He listened to opposition MPs argue for leaving the offices open. He happened to have a view of his own MP, Jeff Watson. “I watched him start heckling…that was the moment I wanted to be in politics. I had voted for him more than once. I wanted him to be fired. I wanted to help whoever was going to take his job. That was it, that was the moment when I said, ‘I am no longer a Conservative.’ They cannot make the next government.”
Moncur decided he would run for the NDP nomination in Windsor-Tecumseh, for retiring NDP MP Joe Comartin’s seat. He lost. The rebel’s path does not always lead to victory.
Moncur has gone through the medical and vocational rehabilitation programs, and received the maximum disability award. “I’ve utilized VAC to the fullest potential,” he says. When he left the military, he was in the officer-training program. He thinks by now he’d have made it to captain, with a salary between $75,000 and $98,000. Now, he needs the Earnings Loss Benefit to top up his salary to the minimum $40,000 guaranteed under the NVC. He’ll require this benefit until, “I’m fully recovered—or make more money.” He would need a job that pays at least $52,001, he says.
With plans to go to law school on hold, Moncur is encouraged that VAC is hiring at least 100 more case managers. He has worked in Comartin’s office, helping veterans process VAC claims. “I’d be a perfect test pro-ject to start hiring veterans as case managers. I ran it by them; we’ll see. They’ve been receptive to a lot of things only to make a temporary measure of appeasement.”
Meanwhile, he’s working to support a change in the federal government. And if there’s no change?
“The only thing that’s going to make a difference is the Equitas lawsuit.”
A way out of the quagmire
Discord over the NVC will continue, says retired brigadier-general Joe Sharpe, because there is a disconnect between veterans’ expectations of how they will be supported if they are disabled and what politicians see as their obligation. Sharpe chaired the Croatia Board of Inquiry that investigated medical problems of returning peacekeepers in 1999.
Sharpe believes only a written covenant—not a preamble appended to a particular piece of legislation—will sort out the problem. A written promise enforceable by a court, it should provide the philosophical basis for all programs and benefits, and enshrine four pillars of veteran support: that veterans and their families will not lose financially or in quality of life due to duty-related disability; that they will be rehabilitated to the highest possible standard; that they will continue to fulfill their potential after rehabilitation; and that they and their families will be respected for their service and sacrifice.
The NVC still falls short of meeting those expectations, although after 10 years of hard work by veterans and their advocates, the more serious gaps identified in numerous reports have been addressed. But more gaps will appear, says Parent, because veterans’ needs continually evolve.
“We have processes and procedures built up over the years that were probably required and needed at the time, but they’ve been layered upon and layered upon and layered upon,” says DND/CAF Ombudsman Walbourne.
The NVC itself is a layering on of programs and benefits to make up for the Pension Act’s deficiencies in serving modern veterans. It added programs, but uses similar processes to determine eligibility, assess disability severity and determine amounts of disability awards. The scrutiny is ingrained.
VAC is implementing changes, says O’Toole, which will let veterans and families know the system is “focused at giving them the benefit of the doubt or making it easier to get to yes.”
Bill C-58’s preamble says its purpose is “to recognize and fulfil the obligation of the people and Government of Canada to show just and due appreciation to members and veterans for their service to Canada” and that the act “shall be liberally interpreted so that the recognized obligation may be fulfilled.”
“‘Liberally interpreted,’” says O’Toole, “means liberally construed and enforced. So I think more than ever before, the tremendous obligation we have to serve those who serve us is not just discussed, not just in speeches, historic or present. It’s in Bill C-58, and we say that will mean liberal application going forward.”
Sharpe feels the preamble is a step in the right direction, but that it stops short of what he sees as a social covenant. Some of the terminology leaves itself open to interpretation. For example, he says, “‘Just and due appreciation’ does not match with the soldier’s unlimited liability. I see the use of limiting language as a legal precaution—much more suitable to a contract than a covenant.”
Parent goes ever further. “Isn’t it about time we have a charter for all veterans, not a New Veterans Charter, not the old Pension Act, but legislation that combines the best of both?”
Veterans and their advocates have won skirmishes, but the fight will rage on, for the battle goes beyond the NVC to a more fundamental question: what do we owe disabled veterans, and veterans in general?
Answers to that question vary widely, depending on generation, financial times, political viewpoints. But if fully supporting veterans is truly a sacred duty—
a “recognized obligation”—of all Canadians, should it not be protected from the vagaries of politics and changing times by a written covenant?