On April 23, Legion Magazine’s editorial staff met with Minister of Veterans Affairs Erin O’Toole, Member of Parliament for Durham, for a discussion of issues related to Veterans Affairs Canada. This is the full interview:
Legion Magazine: You are a veteran yourself, serving in the Canadian Forces from 1991 to 2000 and with the reserves until 2003. So you got to watch as the forces went to war in Afghanistan. And you got to watch as the soldiers returned home, many of them having trouble fitting back in to society. You helped found the True Patriot Love Foundation. Can you describe how you felt watching the soldiers come back, watching them struggle?
O’Toole: In 2001, when I was in law school, I was in a morning class and then I drove over to the wing [406 Maritime Operational Training Squadron, operating CH-124 Sea King helicopter training at CFB Shearwater on the eastern shore of Halifax Harbour] to put my uniform on and to run some crews through some simulator missions. On the way over, reports started coming in about a plane hitting the World Trade Center in New York. I use this as an illustration: I drove onto the Shearwater base that morning and waved to the commissionaire, who opened the base gate. That was the policy then, right?
By the time I left that night, the base was in lockdown, with guards with C7 rifles at the doors. We started receiving passengers from Halifax, landing all the Atlantic planes—you remember the air space was closed. My old duty ship was being stood up and there was already discussion that there might be a deployment.
In the 1990s, the military had been in a real malaise. There had been a lot of cuts and a lot of uncertainty. The Cold War had essentially ended and there was a lack of direction. It was post-Somalia [where, in 1993, Somali militia and armed civilian fighters shot down two American UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters], so it was a rough time. I was in the Sea King community, which had been [impacted by] Jean Chretien’s first act as prime minister [the decision to cancel its replacement], so I found the military was like a spinning compass. With 9/11, it found a heading. Resources to the military started flowing after a decade or more of uncertainty. That was good for morale and on a lot of other levels. There was a sense of fulfillment.
My friends in active service felt they were part of something more than just training, which led me to feel a sense of guilt, as I was tailing out of my years in the military. The military was standing back up and the war on terror was on. When you leave and your comrades are still in, there’s a sense of guilt, and you think, how can I help? At first, I got involved with the Royal Military Colleges Club of Canada and its foundation. Then I joined Legion Branch 178 in Bowmanville, Ont.
With Afghanistan, we saw something the military had predicted, but which Canadians were not accustomed to: combat deaths and serious injuries. Canadians had a lack of knowledge about what was going on with the military, because after Somalia and in the 1990s, there was a detachment between society and the military. But with Afghanistan, there was a genuine interest to learn more. I started an annual luncheon at the Albany Club of Toronto to tell the business community what the Canadian Forces were all about, and it focused primarily on Afghanistan.
We had Chief of the Defence Staff General Rick Hillier, and Major Bill Fletcher, my classmate from Royal Military College, who is a Star of Military Valour recipient with Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, and Major David Quick, another Star of Military Valour recipient. So we had perspective on the ground and from senior leadership. Out of our lunch with General Hillier grew the True Patriot Love Foundation [truepatriotlove.com]. Hillier did his characteristic 40,000-psi finger point and said, “You guys need to do more than just lunch. Raise some money for my military families fund,” which he had just started the week before.
So I saw the Canadian Forces undergoing a transformation, with operations that had risks and stress on soldiers and families. My way of showing solidarity with the institution I love so much was to start these luncheons and to volunteer. I worked with regimental associations in Toronto and then ultimately help start the True Patriot Love Foundation. I worked on Remembrance Day activities with Legion Branch 178 in my own town.
So that was my way to show affinity after leaving. Helping the cause and military families and veterans and veterans’ families became my focus, and I brought these passions when I came to Parliament. I spoke on the military a lot. I spoke on the Legion a lot. There’s probably been no bigger fan of the Legion in Parliament in 50 years.
So to finish with what you were driving at, as guys left the Afghanistan mission, the traditional supports that had been there for Second World War and Korea veterans were missing. The environment has changed. Not as many are joining the Legion. There was uncertainty about employment, so True Patriot Love started working on programs for hiring veterans and really educating corporate Canada on what great assets veterans are. Don’t hire them just because it’s a nice thing to do. These men and women have amazing training and capability.
That’s when I started trying to break down the stigma related to mental health, because folks would think if you had a mental-health injury, you couldn’t plug into something. No, the vast majority can address their mental health injury or develop coping mechanisms and be a productive part of a team. I was passionate about all these things before becoming a parliamentarian, and that’s likely the reason why the prime minister asked me to serve in this role.
LM: You frequently use the term “veteran-centric care.” One complaint we hear from veterans is that VAC has an insurance-company mentality, or that it’s bureaucracy-centric. Can you give us a sense of how you intend to change this systemically?
O’Toole: We have reminded everyone at Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC)—more than 3,000 employees, and not only the case managers who are serving veterans, but everyone who works in my department—that they have a mandate to think of the veteran and their family in everything they do, whether it’s developing policy, whether it’s looking at programs, such as the Veterans Independence Program (VIP) and others, to make sure they’re working, to make sure these programs are easy and focused on the well-being of the veteran. You are serving the men and women who have served us—and their families.
For example, almost 100,000 letters related to the VIP go out from VAC’s head office in Charlottetown. A person writing the letter is not delivering it directly to the veteran, but they still must write it with the veteran’s well-being at the centre of it. They can’t just use a letter as it was created 10 years ago.
We set up a veteran-centric communications task force to ensure that the policy departments and the service departments are mindful of the fact that some of our front-facing letters are more than communication tools. I’ve talked to families. They’re stressed when a manila envelope from VAC arrives at their house. That itself causes stress. Being veteran-centric means we must write in a way that’s easy to understand and shows we’re actually concerned about their wellness.
This can’t be a bureaucratic labyrinth they have to go through to get benefits. We’ve seen this with some veterans with permanent injuries, missing limbs, who have said that the forms upset them. Forms are needed, but can we eliminate some, or make the renewal periods longer, and is the language geared toward their wellness?
In the past, if you didn’t feel you were dealing day-to-day with a veteran, you may not have been veteran-centric. But if you are creating correspondence or policies that actually touch thousands of veterans every year, you better think of the impact of the language so it’s well received.
I go to Charlottetown regularly. I also bring veterans. I brought Chris Linford [author of Warrior Rising: A Soldier’s Journey to PTSD and Back] and his wife Kathryn to speak to hundreds of employees in the atrium about their struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and the strain on the family. I want our people in Charlottetown to remember who we’re all serving. It’s been well received. The people who work for VAC are passionate to serve. They don’t want it to be a bureaucracy.
The insurance company example is a good one. I’d like to see some private-sector discipline to our performance, because delays cause stress. This is about doing things in a way that veterans understand, that is focused on their wellness, that reduces stress, reduces administrative burden. We have worked with the Legion to get our disability claim forms down. We want to do that even more.
We find that one huge difference between our traditional war veterans and modern veterans is a higher incidence of people coming forward with mental-health injuries. It is good that they are coming forward, but those cases tend to be more complex. There is also an expectation, especially with Afghanistan veterans, who send something on their phone and they want a response in three seconds, right? Whereas I meet Second World War and Korean veterans all the time and they’re just, “Well, it’ll come,” because that’s the generation, when everything was by mail. Today, more and more young people are signing up for a My VAC Account and they want to manage their file. They want to see that instant input online, not by sending a letter or form. So what we have to do is modernize, streamline and make it easier for the veteran.
LM: The Veterans Ombudsman and the Auditor General have both criticized VAC for a lack of performance measurement and analysis aimed at improving approval rates and reducing appeals. How will you improve the measurement of performance of the VAC bureaucracy?
O’Toole: We have already made some strides. I think you’re driving more at the Veterans Review and Appeal Board (VRAB). We’re making some strides there and we’ll continue to do that. If there are repeated issues going through appeals, we need to learn from that. The ombudsman and I have talked about that. We’re putting more expertise on mental health and medical support within VAC. We now have a medical person who is our Surgeon General. We use that term to help show similarity with the forces.
We’re also working with the Canadian Armed Forces to actually start the VAC process while the person is still in uniform. Before somebody who is injured is released 3(b) [on medical grounds], they tend to remain in uniform for three to five years. That’s good, because they’re getting 100 per cent salary. They’re in the posting and location their families are comfortable with. They may be at the Joint Personnel Support Unit, but they’re still within the military family they’ve known since they were 18 or 19, so this is all good for wellness.
Can we start VAC processing earlier? Can we start vocational rehabilitation earlier? We’re looking at those things very, very closely. I have the Chief of Military Personnel at the table with me. Minister of National Defence Jason Kenney and I—DND and VAC—are working together, more than in generations, to address what we call the seam between the two departments.
In terms of claims reviews, we also have to deal with some myths out there: you will hear about someone being extremely frustrated with a denial. But more than 70 per cent of claims to VAC are accepted on the first instance. You wouldn’t know that from some of the dialogue on Facebook. But we have a duty to the veteran and to society to make sure that we have a fair, quick, less-stressful system, but one that is evidence-based. Because, for example, people in the Canadian Armed Forces, and ultimately veterans, represent a cross-section of Canadians, so there will be people who join the forces with pre-existing mental health issues. There will be people who develop cancer or other illnesses later in life that will not be related in any way to military service. But because Canadians develop cancer, multiple sclerosis, these sorts of things, we need our veterans and families to know that our system is fair, quick and focused at giving them the benefit of the doubt or making it easier to get to yes. But we still have to have an evidence-based, scientific process. So we’re trying to make sure that we have expertise in that department, and increasingly, at the appeal-board level, so veterans can understand the process and see that it has been addressed.
I am also dealing with some of the myths that this is a very unfair system. We have to improve it, but more than 70 per cent of applications are accepted at first instance. When I tell some veterans that, they’re flabbergasted because you only hear about the frustrating cases, but the vast majority are accepted. Veterans need to know that, probably alongside the United States, we have one of the most generous systems for review in the world. We’re going to make it better and simpler, but we have a series of appeals through VRAB where we also provide Bureau of Pensions Advocates lawyers. So, we actually pay for a lawyer to challenge a claim that a veteran feels was not addressed at the department. I have attended a VRAB hearing, and it was very well done. They always end with the veteran having the last word after review of the file, after discussion, so they don’t leave without making final points.
We have some improvements to make, but the system is structured to give veterans the opportunity to advance their claim simply with VAC and, in cases where it’s more complex or needs a second review, in a quasi-judicial board with legal supports provided to the veteran. Or they can use a veteran service officer or they can use a friend. I do think we have to make it work a little bit better, but I also have to say this is structured with the benefit of the doubt at the core of what we’re doing.
LM: The preamble to Bill C-58 says its purpose is “to recognize and fulfill the obligation of the people and Government of Canada to show just and due appreciation to members and veterans for their service to Canada.” “Just and due” leaves room for interpretations that may limit access to VAC resources. In your view, what is the obligation of the government of Canada to those who are injured or wounded in military service?
O’Toole: Following my term as minister, I hope the quote people will remember 50 years from now is that we have a tremendous obligation to serve veterans, as well as to commemorate and remember. A lot of passion and energy have been expended on the question of our obligation.
You may have noticed as you walked in that I have a portrait of Sir Robert Borden in my office. He’s my favourite prime minister; he visited the troops when he was in London for imperial conferences and he was deeply moved by it. But Borden never used the term ‘sacred obligation.’ That’s why it’s in the bill, and why we’ve said it will be liberally interpreted. Liberally interpreted 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.
In politics, we get different parties saying, “I like veterans more.” All parties do. That’s why I say that the gaps in the New Veterans Charter (NVC) were unintended. When the Liberal Party brought the NVC forward after the Neary report [Honouring Canada’s Commitment: “Opportunity with Security” for Canadian Forces Veterans and Their Families in the 21st Century by Peter Neary, chair of the Veterans Affairs Canada–Canadian Forces Advisory Council], they didn’t intend this pre-65, post-65 issue that the ombudsman has flushed out [and which is addressed by the new Retirement Income Security Benefit].
These are unintended gaps, so let’s fix them. Let’s try and take some of the politics out of it. We all want to do well by our veterans, so that’s why we put the obligation in the preamble. It’s still creating conversation in the country. I think that’s good, but I think more than ever we are making it a critical part of the reforms we’re making VAC.
Being veteran-centric means we never want to be satisfied, even when we have programs that are running well or that we have improved. We should always be looking to revisit them, to say, “Is there more we can do here?” For example, has there been more learning on the psychosocial work being offered to support veterans in certain areas? Should we do a pilot program with service dogs? The Legion and other groups have found some good traction with them. We should always be striving.
LM: You recently announced the hiring of more than 100 new caseworkers and another 100 disability benefits staff for claims processing. Some veterans have told us they are concerned that some of those new positions will be cut after the election. Can you respond to their concern?
O’Toole: The concern is unfounded. In terms of case managers, those are permanent. Whether it’s 160 or 180, we’re looking at geographic allocation, because needs are different. Going from a one-to-40 case ratio to one-to-30 is important, but we also have to realize that a Korean War veteran with VIP or a range of other issues or an addiction, or something like that, is not like someone with severe PTSD. We can’t consider these cases interchangeable in terms of ratio. We have to ensure our case managers have the time and that they don’t have burnout and fatigue.
On claims processing, there will be some temporary positions as part of our hiring, so it will likely be well in excess of 100, but some are going to be geared at getting the backlog down. This backlog is one that we actually asked the Auditor General to help us with. So if you ask the Auditor General, you know you’re going to get a kick in the butt. That’s what auditors general do.
What I like about the Prime Minister is that he wanted this because we’re spending more on mental health, but are we getting the outcomes we want? The Auditor General said we’re doing well on vocational rehabilitation, but where we were missing our marks was on claims processing and delays. Some of that is a backlog because of a higher number of mental-health claims, to be honest, so there will be a temporary aspect to get it down to a manageable level. Then the permanent ones, the long term, will help make sure that we meet the service objectives.
So, on case management, all full time, all permanent. On disability claims, there will be a temporary number to get us through the large backlog to a point where we can meet our objectives, and then there’s still a lot of permanent full-time staff.
LM: To the extent that you can, because settlement talks are ongoing, can you give us an update on the Equitas lawsuit [launched by the Equitas Disabled Soldiers Funding Society]. What you think the chances are that it will be settled or prevented from going back to court?
O’Toole: Well, I’m a veteran. I’m also a lawyer, so I won’t comment on legal matters. I will say this: I met with Equitas as a Member of Parliament. You’ll see that Bill C-58 addresses a number of the issues they raised in my initial meeting with them, maybe two years ago now. I don’t like any situation where frustrations lead to court. I used to advise clients to not go to court if you could attain your objective another way. As minister, I’ve listened and taken input from all groups, including my experience with Equitas, and I think they recognize that, but I won’t say anything more than that.
LM: You recently held a veterans’ summit at the Canadian War Museum. There were no less than 25 veterans’ organizations represented there. What are your views on the proliferation of all these veterans’ organizations?
O’Toole: I think it’s good in terms of the fact that there are people out there thinking and wanting to show support, like the True Patriot Love Foundation. Some might call that a veterans’ organization or veterans’ assistance. I think Canadians reconnected with their military and veterans as a result of Afghanistan and the Highway of Heroes. I represent a community along the Highway of Heroes, and I’ve stood on a bridge. This was a grassroots effort started by Legion members in Cobourg and Port Hope and Trenton. Firefighters, cops, retired teachers—no government mandated it. The Canadian Armed Forces didn’t say “be on the bridges.” It was an organic movement. That was very special. Some people say that Canadians became patriotic again with the Vancouver Olympics. I say no, Canadians became patriotic again with the Highway of Heroes, when the rest of the world looked to us. In many ways, the Legion was at the core of that, at a grassroots, local-branch level. Canadians woke up and their passion and connection with the military was reignited. That has also led to more people wanting to help.
The other key thing has been social media. At my veterans’ summit, we had two breakouts where we held working groups run by stakeholders. We had the traditional member-driven organizations, with the Legion as the leadership of that group, and then I had an online group, which I call online peer support. They don’t have memberships, they don’t have bylaws, they don’t elect Tom Eagles or whomever. They’re much looser. Some are angry and very political and not helpful, but they’re very different from the Legion. For example, if somebody visits your website, then you can’t say they’re your member.
I renew my Legion membership every year on Remembrance Day. It’s the way I remind myself. But we have to not squelch the online groups, because there are some amazing groups there, such as the Send Up the Count community on Facebook. There’s a Facebook group called Veterans for a Strong Royal Canadian Legion. In fact, the guy running that site was my first ministerial commendation, Craig Hood. He is trying to get more young veterans to join the Legion. At the end of the summit, I tried to have these groups work together better.
I like to see these online peer supports, where younger veterans are happy and mad. They’re all there on Facebook. Sometimes they dominate my Facebook page. Can we leverage that power of social networking? That instant reach?
Somebody on Facebook will say, “I’m suicidal today.” That’s remarkably raw and instant. They could be in their car or on their phone. So if that veteran is no longer going to the Legion for support, how can we get them in front of someone in the traditional branch?
This isn’t going to happen overnight, but the fact that we ended the stakeholder summit in a very productive way—even the angry voices were shaking hands—I think is the first step in the journey.
What I’d like to see the Legion do—and I’m very honest with this—as minister, you have the biggest fan of the Legion, but because I’m a member and a fan, I say the organization has to evolve, big-time. Dominion Command has been reluctant, and it’s controversial. Some branches have veterans as officers and directors, and some do not. But the only traditional veterans’ group that has an Act of Parliament, from 1926, is the Legion. With every Legion that closes, I care about the loss of the veteran service officer. So how can we get some of these passionate people running the websites and giving their home number for veterans to call at three in the morning? They are passionate reservists and veterans and regular force members. How can we get more of them to plug in to this? I see that as a critical goal.
I’ve said to Gordon Moore and to Tom Eagles—because I’ve been very vocal on these issues as an MP—“How can we help you as a government?” Keeping the distance, of course, and I don’t mind if the Legion kicks me in the butt when they need to, that’s fine. But how can I help you, as a minister and as a young Legion member who served in the military? I’ve said, ”Can we pay for Wi-Fi at every branch across the country?” It might draw in more young people. It might actually allow us to have that as a little satellite place. There’s up to 1,400 branches that are already our eyes and ears because, as you know, the veteran service officer plugs into their district service officer and they have a straight line into VAC.
So how can I help the Legion modernize? Not to say here’s what you have to do, but they need to strike a task force. It has to have some young veterans on it. It has to be driven by Dominion Command because provincial commands are just drifting away. I’m there to help, I’m there to rally, but I’m also there to say avoiding a challenging reboot is not going to help. I say this at public sessions with the Legion, so I’m the biggest fan but, because I respect and love it, I’m going to push.