by Natalie Salat
|Canadian Forces Advisory Council chairman Peter Neary (left) and Roméo Dallaire highlight the urgency of looking after current CF veterans with the release of a discussion paper.
Canada must do more to help the new generation of Canadian Forces veterans and their families adjust to life after military service, says the Veterans Affairs Canada–Canadian Forces Advisory Council. After a year of study, the 21-member council released a discussion paper in March urging the government to reform the current system of veterans benefits, which is difficult to navigate and in many cases “inadequate”. Minister of Veterans Affairs John McCallum and organizations such as The Royal Canadian Legion have praised the council’s report.
Council chairman Dr. Peter F. Neary presented the discussion paper along with retired lieutenant-general Roméo Dallaire, a fellow council member, in Ottawa. “Our collective response to the needs of Canadian Forces veterans and their families has been inadequate and unworthy of us,” observed Neary, a historian and professor at the University of Western Ontario whose father had been active in the Great War Veterans Association, the Legion’s precursor. “Veterans with multiple medical conditions are in pain, and can’t always get the help they need. Many have trouble finding and maintaining jobs. Families are breaking down, children are at risk.”
He pointed out that the list of service providers was lengthy and complex, from VAC to provincial health care to local social work. “The choices to be made are not always clear. Winning benefits from one program often results in benefits being clawed back from another.”
While acknowledging that improvements have been made, such as closer cooperation between the Department of National Defence and VAC, Neary encouraged the latter to develop a suite of updated programs similar to the Veterans Charter that existed after WW II. “There were many programs within it to help men and women coming out of the forces find their way back in civilian life: income support, job-finding programs, training, education, family assistance. We need to do that again for our CF veterans.” In 2003, the number of veterans released from the Canadian Forces since the end of the Korean War—411,000—exceeded the number of wartime veterans by more than 100,000. Each year, 4,000-5,000 people are released from the military.
The council includes representatives from government, academia, the military and veterans organizations. The Royal Canadian Legion is represented by retired lieutenant-general Lou Cuppens. The council made six key recommendations—a thorough overhaul of the way injured veterans are compensated; timely, flexible and accessible help for transition to civilian life; better family support; increased health care benefits, including rehabilitation and mental health programs; a policy to give disabled CF members priority for employment in the public service; and improved funeral and burial benefits.
The recommendations were referred to VAC’s modernization task force which started work in September.
Dallaire described the increasing demands on the Canadian Forces. Throughout the 1990s, as missions to Bosnia, Afghanistan and other far-off war zones increased, the downsizing of the forces continued. Soldiers were not facing the traditional enemy but complex situations where human rights were abused and abandoned. Dallaire himself suffered post-traumatic stress following his 1994 United Nations mission to Rwanda, in which he did not have the backing to prevent genocide. “The jobs and the risks are continuing to increase … and the missions will not stop. (Canada) wants us to support these nations that are hurting.”
This participation comes at a price, he continued, not just in terms of lives lost, but also in the hundreds or thousands of veterans who suffer physical and psychological problems. “Many do not return the same people as when they left.” Dallaire’s experiences led him to realize that support structures were not in place. “If this was happening to myself and my family, I extrapolated, ‘What must it be for the young private who’s 21, newly married (with) a young child, and he comes back beaten up. What’s the system to help him?”
In a phone interview, McCallum said, “(The report) shows that the programs for the younger CF veterans are not what they ought to be. To me, that is the number 1 priority. We have in the past had a good set of programs for veterans in a variety of areas, and right now the major program we have is the disability pension. In and of itself, the report indicates that it’s not enough. I agree.”
The council highlighted that even veterans who do not want to take on a disability pension are often forced to go through the pension gateway in order to be able to access other services, such as medical benefits. While the veteran waits for a pension to be adjudicated, opportunities for early intervention are often missed.
McCallum agreed this needs to change. “If the central component is the pension, then the person has every incentive to be as sick as possible….We should have programs which encourage people to be well.” The modernization task force shared similar goals to the council, added McCallum, such as facilitating a veteran’s return to the civilian world of work. “We’re hoping before too long to turn these general propositions into more concrete ideas.”
While McCallum could not provide a specific timetable or budget, he noted, “In a matter of not very many months we should have proposals that the government will have to consider. Certainly the programs will have to be beefed up significantly, and there will be some cost attached to that.” He also praised the advisory council for bringing onboard all interested parties, including the veterans organizations.
Dominion President Allan Parks remarked, “We are fully satisfied with the document and its acknowledgement of the Legion’s leading role in advocating change to the current system. The adoption of the recommendations will better meet the needs of veterans and their spouses as we move into the future.”
For his part, Neary expressed hope that veterans benefits would return to a spot high up on the national agenda. “We need to be loyal to the people who have been loyal to us.”