Veterans

What Happened

The New Veterans Charter (NVC; 2006) significantly reduced the pension entitlement of Canadian veterans of modern conflicts; 21st century Conservative federal budgets cut services to Canadian veterans; the federal government violated the privacy rights of certain veterans. In response, critics, including the first Veterans Ombudsman, and groups such as the Canadian Legion strongly protested the threat to what they argued was a ‘social contract’ between Canada and its serving men and women. This conflict brought into sharp relief apparent contradictions between the federal Conservatives’ public commitment to the Canadian military and its history and their treatment of vulnerable veterans. On October 1, 2014, even as it prepared to ramp up the nation’s military commitments in the Middle East, the Harper administration apparently retreated with a proposal to reconsider the pension provisions of the Veterans Charter, albeit with the significant proviso that changes would be within the existing departmental budget.


Background

By the end of the 20th century, as WWI, WWII, and the Korean Conflict grew more distant, veterans constituted a sharply declining proportion of the electorate and the portfolio of Veterans Affairs became less powerful. Such diminishment contrasted with growing popular awareness of the extent of injuries and the difficulty of readjustment into civilian life of military personnel serving in modern conflicts such as the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Rwanda. Reports of subsequent suicides sharpened recognition of the needs of modern veterans (see also http://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/canadian-soldier-involved-in-standoff-with-police-dies-by-suicide-1.2010243).

Even as the numbers of war veterans declined, the 21st century Conservative Party embraced past wars as emblematic of the nation of dutiful individuals it contrasts with the so-called nanny state associated with liberal and progressive politics (McKay). In seeking election in 2005 and beyond, it also committed itself to the ‘renaissance’ of the Canadian military (Richter), although warships and jet fighters continued to need renewal. Even as anniversaries related to human rights attracted little or no official funding (e.g. the Northwest Rebellions of 1885 and the Canadian Bill of Rights 1960) and the National Archives of Canada came under the budget knife, federal enthusiasm for the War of 1812 remained unabated.

A smaller constituency of veteran voters and the costs of dealing with increasingly acknowledged conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder encouraged Paul Martin’s Liberal government, supported by the Conservatives, to propose the NVC in 2005, subsequently passed into law under Stephen Harper’s minority in 2006. That government then passed the 2007 Veterans Bill of Rights, which asserted expectations of accessible and respectful services from the federal government and identified ‘special citizens.’

Despite such plaudits, veterans found that the shift to lump sum payments for injury provided in the NVC only too readily promised poverty, especially in old age. Scholars confirmed shortcomings in a cause vigorously taken up by the Canadian Legion and Pat Stogran, the first Veterans Ombudsman, a well-respected Afghanistan veteran. In 2012 six veterans, supported by Stogran, who was effectively fired in 2010, joined in a lawsuit against the federal government. Opposition brought punishment. At least two critics, including Stogran, saw their right to privacy regarding health information violated by federal officials in a transgression condemned by the federal Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart.

In 2012-2013, the closure of nine veterans’ affairs offices from Corner Brook, Newfoundland Labrador, to Prince George, BC, further enraged veterans’ groups. Highly publicized meetings with an impolitic Minister of Veterans Affairs, Joe Fantino, produced charges of disrespect and arrogance.

In early 2013, Ottawa’s overall response to protest was summed up in its legal response to the 2012 lawsuit: this “argued the country has no special obligation to its servicemen and women and that the current government can’t be bound by the political promises of its predecessors.” The resulting bad press and threats by veterans to campaign against the Tories in the 2015 election proved, however, instructive. On 1 October 2014, the Harper administration promised to revise the Veterans Charter to produce a better deal. Some skeptical veterans, however, saw only “window-dressing.”

Relevant dates:

  • October 2014: Conservative government announces intention to overhaul veterans’ benefits and more particularly to address pensions;
  • April 2013: Veterans Ombudsman produces “Improving the New Veterans Charter: the report,” which condemns the pension provisions of the NVC;
  • January 2013: In its response to the lawsuit below the federal government denies that the NVC violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms;
  • October 2012: Six veterans of the Afghanistan Conflict file lawsuit in BC Supreme Court arguing that the compensation for injury under New Veterans violated ‘a social contract’ with military personnel;
  • 2012-2013: Jobs cut announced and implemented in Department of Veterans Affairs; nine district offices closed;
  • October 2010: Canada’s Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart confirms breach of Operation Desert Storm veteran Sean Bruyea’s personal medical records after he testified to a House of Commons committee about the shortcomings of the NVC;
  • 2007: Conservatives enacted Veterans’ Bill of Rights for the Canadian Forces and Royal Canadian Mounted Police; this identified “veterans” as “special citizens” and provided for a Veterans Ombudsman;
  • 2006: New Veterans Charter (Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-establishment and Compensation Act) enacted.

Role or Position

Since at least WWI, Canadian veterans have sometimes been a potent force in Canadian politics. In some ways, their battle for rights and the willingness of Canadian politicians and the general public to recognize state obligations to veterans has formed a significant part of the foundations of the welfare state (Morton and Wright).

Implications and Consequences

Free Speech: The breaching of the privacy rights of individual veterans who spoke out agains the cuts and the failure to renew a critical Veterans Ombudsman both smack of intimidation in an attempt to avoid future criticism.

Transparency: Conservative public policies with respect to the military promise renewed support but deliver a shortfall, both to veterans and today’s serving men and women.

Published: Oct. 17, 2014

Photo: CTV News Atlantic

Sources