Mr. Speaker, thank you for that decision. We are fed up with the lack of respect for the House of Commons.
My colleague from Châteauguay—Saint-Constant just delivered a passionate statement about veterans. A report was presented, and I would like him to comment on the government's reaction to that report. Just a few weeks ago, I was outside the House of Commons on Wellington Street, and I saw veterans selling t-shirts to raise money for their prescription drugs.
This government has ignored veterans, and that is disgusting. We saw the government's response. Can the member for Châteauguay—Saint-Constant tell us more about the government's response to the report?
Mr. Speaker, I am proud to rise to speak to Motion No. 532, from the member for Edmonton Centre, as I did on the motion by my colleague, the member for Châteauguay—Saint-Constant, debated earlier this year. That motion called for immediate action to address the mental health crisis facing our soldiers and veterans due to the closing of veterans offices.
I am surprised by the comments by the MP for Durham. His comments appear to contradict the findings of the standing committee and the very motion by the member for Edmonton Centre calling for further action. I would certainly agree that this is not a partisan issue and that all members in this place are proud to stand and speak on behalf of our Canadian veterans.
Motion No. 532, tabled by the member for Edmonton Centre, calls on the government to examine all possible options for a fully unified continuum of care for the men and women in uniform and veterans. He calls for the elimination of all unnecessary bureaucratic processes; the elimination of duplication and overlap; further improvements in care and support, particularly for seriously injured veterans; continued support for veterans' families; and strengthened connections between the Canadian Armed Forces, the Department of National Defence, and Veterans Affairs Canada.
This motion, in perhaps a less specific way, appears to mirror the official opposition calls, as stated unanimously in June 2004 by the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs, for specified enhancements to the veterans charter and repeated calls by injured veterans for more long-term supportive services.
While I commend the member for Edmonton Centre, a retired and honoured armed forces member, for tabling this motion and for calling for greater action in support of Canadian war veterans, it is unclear if he is now mirroring the opposition's calls for action by the government.
These questions arise: Is the member similarly decrying the wasted taxpayer dollars spent in forcing our veterans into a five-year court battle to end the clawback of the service income security insurance plan, or SISIP, benefits? Is he also now joining the opposition in supporting the RCMP call for the government to drop its court proceedings contesting the claim by the RCMP disabled veterans to end the clawback of their benefits? Third, is the member perhaps now regretting this past February having voted against the motion by the member for Châteauguay—Saint-Constant calling for more government support for veterans and military mental health services? That motion stated:
That, in the opinion of the House, the men and women who bravely serve Canada in the armed forces should be able to count on the government for support in their time of need, and that the government should demonstrate this support by (a) immediately addressing the mental health crisis facing Canadian soldiers and veterans...(b) reversing its decision to close veterans' offices; and (c) prioritizing and concluding the over 50 outstanding boards of inquiry on military suicides....
I was proud to stand in support of that motion by my colleague. It is clear that the member for Edmonton Centre is proud of his role in the armed forces. Can we hope that he is now publicly joining our call for the government to support the government's sacred and fiduciary duty to our veterans, contrary to the position presented on behalf of the government in the Equitas court case?
It is unclear if the intent of Motion No. 532 clause (c), which says, “further improve care and support, particularly for seriously injured veterans”, is intended to also include mental health conditions. We can hope so. If so, it is encouraging that the member is now speaking in support of calls for greater federal support for veterans suffering mental conditions as a result of their service and for suicide prevention interventions. It is also encouraging that the member has brought forward this motion seeking greater action on a continuum of care for our veterans. Action is needed, and it is needed now, to strengthen the veterans charter, as recommended by the standing committee.
I fully support and stand behind the member's call to eliminate any unnecessary bureaucratic processes put in the way of timely access to veterans' benefits and supports. For those already suffering physical or mental challenges, the support should be front and centre and readily available in the community to facilitate a timely response. Certainly toll-free phone service is neither sufficient nor appropriate.
I would remind the House that we, on this side of the House, have stood repeatedly to call on the government to invest more time on support and services for those who are suffering mental distress and to prevent any further suicides.
Increased financial support is needed and is needed now. The government response to look into this is not an acceptable response. On this side of the House, we appreciate that the member has brought forward this motion. However, I am troubled that the member's response to some of the questions posed to him are that it would have to happen in a phased manner. Yet, here we are with the government projecting that there will be a surplus. Surely, this matter should be front and centre and somewhere high on the list of priorities for increasing services.
The veterans charter is a step forward, but based on actual experience and the significant frustrations experienced by veterans, further actions are now required, as clarified by the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs.
The member for Edmonton Centre has called for phased improvements. We would say that the ball is in the government's court. It can bring forward changes and move forward bureaucratically both within the reassembling of the various agencies and between Veterans Affairs and the armed forces. It can also make services available in a more timely fashion in our veteran communities.
The New Democrat calls for improved health support to our veterans are not new. In 2006, we called for the immediate elimination of the unfair reduction of the veterans disability pension benefit from the SISIP benefits.
Sadly, the government opposed this action. Here we are almost a decade later and this action was finally only taken in response to a court order and the expenditure of resources by our proud veterans. We are asking for an immediate response to the critical needs of our injured veterans, not reform over time.
As per the standing committee, we must address the personal injuries of soldiers before they depart or are dismissed from the forces to civilian life. As many members have said, it is important to merge the veterans and military services and benefits as recommended by the committee but in an expeditious manner.
There is a clear covenant and undertaking that when Canadian men and women serve in our armed forces and are sent off to war, we will ensure their care on their return, whether for physical injuries or mental disabilities, including PTSD.
Canadians expect that the federal government will ensure that full benefits and services are provided in a timely manner as physical disability is often accompanied by emotional and mental health challenges.
I can share that a very close friend and neighbour of mine, not through war service, lost one leg below the knee and then a second. It was an extremely difficult time both with respect to the physical recovery as well as adjusting to life in a new and different way.
Our members of the armed forces tend to be the most physically fit, energetic and determined of Canadians. That is why they step forward to serve. When they suddenly face a mental or physical disability, it is incredibly challenging for them and the family then bears the brunt of that.
I am proud to say that the city of Edmonton has brought forward fantastic health and other services to assist those who are returning and facing physical disabilities. I am proud that we have the services available for veterans housing.
However, it is important that the government steps up to ensure that when members of the armed forces return from serving, they are given every care, consideration and support, so that they can move forward and adjust to society, not just at retirement when they go into a retirement home but at the height of their young lives.
Mr. Speaker, I think it would be more respectful to veterans and to former RCMP officers as well.
Eric Rebiere, whose 24-year career in the federal police force ended in 2006, two years after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after taking part in NATO policing missions in Croatia and Kosovo, said the government should have one standard for all people who served in military operations, including RCMP officers who volunteered for policing missions.“They have created sub-classes of veterans, and that is discriminatory under the (Veteran) Charter”, Rebiere said. “To say we are not veterans is an insult”.
At a rally on Parliament Hill earlier this month, Rebiere spoke about how the RCMP has for more than a century participated in Canada's military ventures. Like other retired RCMP officers, Rebiere is covered by the Pension Act and receives monthly payments, but can't access many of the programs the Canadian Forces veterans have.
Eric Rebiere pointed to Section 4 of the Department of Veterans Affairs Act, which requires the ministry to be responsible for “the care, treatment, or re-establishment in civil life of any person who served in the Canadian Forces” and “of any person who has otherwise engaged in pursuits relating to war”.
What we have also found among veterans themselves is great support among veterans organizations that have felt often under attack by the government. We have seen the closing of so many veterans offices that the cutbacks in services to veterans have been quite appalling. I know on this side of the House that particularly the member for Châteauguay—Saint-Constant and the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore have been at the forefront in standing and saying that it is unacceptable. What we need to do is put in place a full array of services for our veterans, but that is not what is happening, and veterans are aware of that.
Even at the Royal Canadian Legion's Dominion Convention in Edmonton on Tuesday, members voted unanimously to amend the Legion's definition of a veteran to include RCMP members and peace officers who serve in special duty areas. There is support from the veterans organizations themselves to say that veterans organizations should include RCMP veterans.
What the NDP motion of instruction is stating is that we instruct the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs “that, during its consideration of Bill C-27, an Act to amend the Public Service Employment Act (enhancing hiring opportunities for certain serving and former members of the Canadian Forces), the Committee be granted the power to expand the scope of the Bill in order to allow members of the RCMP to qualify for the priority hiring program”.
This is no small thing. As Mr. Rebiere has said so eloquently, RCMP veterans are treated even worse than veterans by the government. It is an appalling state. Just two weeks ago, as I was leaving Parliament Hill to go to the airport to take a flight home, I came across a group of Canadian veterans standing at a table in front of Parliament Hill on Wellington Street. They were selling T-shirts to raise funds for their services. Look at that picture for just a moment. Because of the Conservatives' slashing and cutting of veterans' services, we have veterans selling T-shirts to try to provide services.
These are people who put their lives on the line for Canada. These are people who have said that they are willing to do anything to reinforce and defend Canadian democracy, yet Conservatives are forcing them to sell T-shirts to provide for services. I can think of nothing more despicable and nothing more hypocritical than the Conservative government's actions in the cutbacks to veterans' services and the closure of veterans' services offices right across this country. The hallmark of the government is treating our veterans with disrespect, and we see that constantly.
They are willing to be there when there is a photo-op. They are not willing to be there when it counts, which is where the NDP is every day in the House of Commons fighting for veterans and saying that veterans have the right to be treated with due respect by the Conservatives and have the right to a full array of services when they have been willing to put their lives on the line for their country.
In my riding there is a veterans hospital, George Derby Centre. It is another one of the veterans hospitals that have been subject to cutbacks in the services offered to veterans. I see veterans regularly. Some of them are my friends. When I see the cutbacks being put in place and the services not being offered to the same extent they were even a few years ago, it saddens me.
That is why New Democrats are saying today that we want to engage in a vigorous debate, rather than having the debate shut down, as we just saw happen in the debate on the environment. My seat mate, the member for Halifax, spoke very eloquently about the environment. We wanted to engage the government on the environment, and the government said no, it was not going to talk about the environment in the House of Commons.
Now we have a debate on veterans' services and on expanding the scope of Bill C-27 to allow members of the RCMP to qualify for a priority hiring program. Our hope is that instead of the government shutting down debate, which is the only thing it seems to be able to do these days, it will actually engage in what is an important debate.
Mr. Rebiere was very clear that what is needed is the provision of services for RCMP veterans that match the services offered to veterans. New Democrats go even further. We would say that the services offered to veterans need to be expanded and enhanced, and the cutbacks have to stop. It is fair to say that this motion of instruction, if Conservatives are going to be consistent in what they have been saying, should receive the support of the Conservative members of the House so that they provide RCMP veterans and veterans with the full array of services that should be the entitlement of those who have been willing to put their lives on the line for their country.
When the bill was first introduced, New Democrats said that Bill C-27 simply does not go far enough. It overlooks entire groups of veterans. We thought that in principle, it was a good start, but that is only a first step in providing the full array of services that need to be provided to veterans in this country. We are saying today that we indeed need to expand the purview of Bill C-27 so that RCMP officers are included.
Eric Rebiere, a 24-year veteran of the RCMP, says that he feels like a second-class veteran. When there are veterans outside Parliament Hill selling T-shirts to try to provide some semblance of service because of the cutbacks by the government in terms of veterans' services, it is fair to say that veterans need to be treated better. That includes RCMP veterans. That is why we are offering the motion of instruction today. We hope it will have the support of both sides of the House so that RCMP veterans are no longer treated like second-class veterans and are included within the scope of Bill C-27.
That it be an instruction to the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs that, during its consideration of Bill C-27, An Act to amend the Public Service Employment Act (enhancing hiring opportunities for certain serving and former members of the Canadian Forces), the Committee be granted the power to expand the scope of the Bill in order to allow members of the RCMP to qualify for the priority hiring program.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise to speak about this important veterans and RCMP veterans issue. I would like to say right at the beginning that I am very fortunate to be sharing my time with the extraordinary member of Parliament for Châteauguay—Saint-Constant.
The government shut down the debate on the environment, and it seems to want to shut down the debate on veterans. The Conservatives should actually be listening attentively.
An RCMP veteran named Eric Rebiere, from Bath, Ontario, said yesterday that the government is discriminating against veterans by offering different groups of them different benefits packages. The article, which has been carried across the country, says the following: “I feel like a second-class veteran”. This is an ex-Mountie speaking.
I am just going to read for the record the article itself. It is from Kingston, Ontario, and is dated yesterday. It states:
A retired Kingston-area RCMP officer is calling for the federal government to stop what he calls "discrimination" between different groups of veterans. Eric Rebiere, whose 24-year career in the federal police force ended in 2006—
The hon. member for Châteauguay—Saint-Constant.
The last time the House considered this motion, the hon. member for Châteauguay—Saint-Constant had eight minutes left for questions and comments.
The hon. member for Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine.
The hon. member for Châteauguay—Saint-Constant.
Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank all of my colleagues for the wisdom that they bring to this particular bill. I am, of course, referring to colleagues on this side of the House. I would like to particularly thank the member for Saint-Jean for introducing this important bill. I am sure members are aware that the intent is to make regulations under the Department of Veterans Affairs to extend health care benefits to former members of the Canadian Forces who meet military occupational classification requirements and have been honourably discharged.
I have to say that despite what we have heard tonight from the government benches, the veterans of this country know that they have been shortchanged and undermined by the government. They know that they have been disrespected. When the government throws around money numbers and rhetoric, the veterans of this country know that it means nothing when it comes from the government. They have been disrespected over and over again, and they will remember. There is an election next year, and the veterans of this country will most certainly remember.
I want to talk about the bill before us.
I believe that it is absolutely the honourable thing for us to do because it would honour those who have sacrificed so much for our country and give honour to our country. The sad truth is, as I have said, that the current government, the Conservatives, and previous Liberal governments, have failed our veterans. Passing and implementing this particular piece of legislation would be a step in the right direction, an important step in the right direction, and would undo some of the terrible wrongs that we have seen over the last years.
I want to reiterate some of what my colleague from Châteauguay—Saint-Constant said because I think it bears repeating. Veterans Affairs has been hit with many cuts in recent years. In 2011, the transfer of Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue Hospital to the province of Quebec marked the loss of the last federally funded and federally run veterans hospital in this country. At the time, job cuts accompanied that closure, and New Democrats were terribly concerned about the negative impact this would have on the standard of care provided to our veterans.
In 2011, the government maintained it could cut those 500 jobs through attrition and better planning, but those job cuts were accompanied by a slashing of $226 million from Veterans Affairs' budget, a reduction of 5% to 10%. Canada was the only country to do this. Everyone else went through austerity, the Brits and the Americans, but they did not cut their veterans' budgets. Only the Conservative government did that, and it is despicable.
Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for Rivière-du-Nord. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank my colleague from Châteauguay—Saint-Constant for introducing this very important motion. The men and women who serve our country deserve to be treated with the utmost respect and dignity. Sadly, many retired RCMP and Canadian Forces members are not being given the respect they have earned.
I am most grateful for the opportunity to take part in this important debate concerning some quite remarkable citizens of this country. They are indeed remarkable citizens because collectively they take citizenship very seriously. They prove their commitment to Canada through their service in the Canadian Forces.
When our country was in danger during World War I and World War II, or when our country called upon Canadian Forces members to be peacekeepers in places far from home, such as Somalia, Bosnia, Lebanon, Cyprus, East Timor, and Afghanistan when they were sent to serve in NATO, or when our country asked them to help communities jeopardized by floods, earthquakes, ice storms, forest fires, hurricanes, or tornadoes, they did not hesitate. They did what they were asked to do. They did their duty in the World Wars, in Korea, and in a multitude of deployments since then.
In the course of that duty, our country made a contract with them. Canada made promises that the men and women of the armed forces would not be forgotten or abandoned. The government made, and continues to make, promises assuring these men and women that they would be remembered and honoured by a grateful nation.
That is a wonderful sentiment. I know without a shadow of a doubt that the people of Canada are grateful and that they do remember and honour our servicemen and women in the Canadian Forces and the RCMP. I see it every day from my constituents in London—Fanshawe.
However, sadly what has become painfully obvious is that the government neither honours our veterans, peacekeepers, and those currently serving, nor is it willing to provide the services, pensions, programs, and special care to which these veterans, members of the armed forces, and their families are entitled. It is painfully obvious that the services needed are not there or are not effective.
In the past few months, the number of veteran suicides has been heartbreaking. There have been eight military suicides in the past two months alone. We mourn with those families. Clearly we are not doing our job in ensuring that all of our veterans have access to the help they need. The policies that the Conservative government has put in place are not working. Further cuts and the removal of services is not going to improve the situation. This is an obligation, and it is not going away.
According to Dr. Ruth Stewart at Athabasca University, “A growing number of veterans, as well as serving Canadian military personnel, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other operational stress injuries”. She argues that the ability to deliver effective and relevant psychological intervention is increasingly urgent.
I have a quote from Dr. Pierre Morisset, a retired major-general and the chair of the scientific advisory committee for Veterans Affairs. He was a witness before the Veterans Affairs committee in February of last year. Dr. Morisset said “When a soldier leaves the forces and is officially known as a veteran, then he's treated in the civilian health sector”.
Dr. Morisset then went on to say that the civilian health care system “is not necessarily tuned to the reality of what kind of life the soldier may have had”. Similarly, Dr. Stewart argues that the Canadian Forces represent a distinct culture containing distinct subcultures. They possess unique languages, norms, and customs, and are socially stratified to a degree that is completely foreign to most North American civilians.
Once a soldier leaves the military, he or she is left to the care of civilian doctors who do not have the expertise to deal with the specific issues that veterans face. How can they, when one considers Dr. Morisset's observations?
Veterans are our national heroes. As such, they are a federal responsibility and should be looked after by the federal government. They are not, as the Conservative government believes, a problem to be offloaded onto the provinces.
The decision to close nine veterans offices to save money and make the government appear to be managing the finances of the country seems to be part of a larger picture, one of low priority and the out-of-touch approach the Conservative government shows regarding the care of our veterans.
I have examples. First, according to its report from last year, the Royal Canadian Legion identified 150 homeless veterans in Ontario alone. This is a disgrace.
Second is the cost of funeral and burial services. Some years ago the assets cut-off to provide monetary help through the Last Post Fund was $24,000. That included all the assets of the veterans. That amount was reduced by the Liberals. It is now just over $12,000. In 2014, the cut-off under the Conservatives remains at just over $12,000. This means that 67% of veterans will not qualify for federal help. It seems to me that $12,000 is rather a pittance when we look at the cost of things today.
Third, a veteran can be reimbursed for health-related travel. That is fine. However, what happens if that veteran cannot afford the cost of travel in the first place? It seems to me that there could be, and there are, veterans who need to travel for health care and cannot provide the upfront money.
Fourth, there is a shortfall in the number of mental health workers. The promise to hire them was made in 2003, over 10 years ago, and we are still waiting for all the positions to be filled. A health care provider told me it takes a minimum of six months for CF personnel to access health for post-traumatic stress disorder; that is six months for someone in profound and immediate distress.
Fifth, the closing of Veterans Affairs offices will be effective tomorrow. Service levels will be reduced for veterans because these closures are coupled with staffing cuts at the remaining regional offices. Regina, for example, will be taking on 4,500 files from Saskatoon, doubling its client numbers. The Regina office has seen a reduction in staff from 16 to 11.5 since 2012. My local London office will see its caseload increase by almost half when it takes on files from Windsor. The London office has two fewer staff now than it did in 2012.
Finally, there are the ridiculous lengths that the government is prepared to go to create the illusion that it is providing real help. Why on earth would the government spend money on an app for a smart phone instead of addressing the shortfalls in care for our veterans?
I should not have to remind the members opposite that supporting our troops means that we have to support our veterans too. When will the government stop with the platitudes and start looking at the issues that our veterans face every day? It is the least the government can do, and it is the morally right thing to do.
New Democrats are committed to our veterans and we are calling on the government to make veterans a priority. Specifically, we are asking for immediate hiring of the long-promised mental health professionals to assist soldiers and veterans with their mental health needs. We ask that the government reverse the wrong-headed decision to close regional veterans affairs offices that provide front-line services to veterans. We ask that it prioritize and conclude the over 50 ongoing boards of inquiry on military suicides to give grieving families answers and closure. Care for our veterans is part of the contract, the covenant, that we undertake with the people who voluntarily enlist and protect our country. We asked them to serve; now it is our turn to serve them.
I beseech the government. It is important that we have a decision on this today. We have asked for a vote on this motion tonight and we have asked the government to reverse its decision, to say, “We made a mistake. We are going to allow those offices to remain. We are going to serve the people who served us. We are going to serve our heroes”.
What did the Conservatives do? They said no, we are putting the vote off until Monday. They are putting off their responsibility. They are putting off that vote so they can say there was nothing they could do.
We have known about this plan to reduce offices and staffing for over a year. We have been asking the government about it for over year. We are at the crunch now, Mr. Speaker. I implore you to speak to the members opposite to tell them that our veterans deserve better than what the government is giving.
Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for Mississauga East—Cooksville.
As the member of Parliament for Renfrew—Nipissing—Pembroke and CFB Petawawa, the largest Canadian Forces Base in Canada and training ground of the Warriors, and as a 14-year veteran of the Standing Committee on National Defence, I welcome the opportunity to participate in any debate regarding the well-being of the women and men who serve Canada in uniform.
I mentioned my number of years in service on the Standing Committee on National Defence to highlight that I am not some Johnny-come-lately when it comes to interest in the care of our soldiers. I witnessed the decade of darkness first-hand, and I am proud to say that I voted with the Conservative government and Prime Minister to reverse that decade of neglect.
I have watched in disgust every time our soldiers and veterans have been made into political footballs and kicked around by the opposition. The worst example for our women and men in uniform was the decision by the Liberal Party to use military procurement for partisan purposes and send our soldiers into Afghanistan without the proper equipment. The cancellation of the EH101 military helicopter contract for partisan political reasons cost us the precious lives of Canadian soldiers. It is a fact that once our Conservative government provided the strategic lift for our soldiers to get them off the ground and away from the IEDs that lined the roads of Afghanistan the casualty rate dropped.
Let us be clear. On behalf of all Canadians, the current official opposition, regardless of what it says, does not believe that Canada should have an armed military, and pardon me if I sound cynical every time the Leader of the Opposition invokes the name of our soldiers and veterans and tries to embarrass our government. I am prepared to accept at face value the motion of the member for Châteauguay—Saint-Constant to work with all members of Parliament to improve the lives of our soldiers and veterans, as long as the politics are taken out of the discussion and facts are allowed to guide the way to our decision-making. I recognize that government is not perfect and there is always room for improvement.
My riding of Renfrew—Nipissing—Pembroke is served with a Veterans Affairs office in Pembroke, and a sister office, an integrated personnel support unit, IPSU, at Base Petawawa. Unlike the offices that are being closed, the Pembroke office is a very busy, high-tempo shop with 29 staff members. The caseload in this office is split between traditional Veterans Affairs clients and newer rehabilitation cases, more recent DND veterans. Veterans Affairs and DND work together through the integrated personnel support centre to help Canadian Armed Forces personnel, regular and reserve alike, and its veterans and their families, to achieve a successful transition from military to civilian life.
IPSCs were founded on the principle that early intervention makes a difference in recovering from illness or injuries and successfully re-establishing civilian life. The IPSC at Base Petawawa provides support to Canadian Armed Forces, ill and injured personnel and veterans and their families, with the focus on the following core functions: the return to work program coordination, casualty support outreach delivery, casualty tracking, casualty administration and advocacy services, support platoon structure to provide military leadership supervision, administration support, and a liaison for military family resource centres with local base support representatives and local unit commanding officers.
Veterans Affairs collaborates with the Department of National Defence to conduct outreach to Canadian Armed Forces personnel veterans and their families to provide them with a clear understanding of the number of programs, services, and supports available to them. This includes conducting transitional interviews with members before they leave the military.
Base Petawawa also operates an operational trauma and stress support centre. These centres were established to meet the needs of Canadian Forces members returning from overseas deployments and suffering from tour-related psychological problems. Operational trauma and stress support centres are an initiative designed to complement the full spectrum of high-quality health services that the Canadian Armed Forces provides to Canada's military personnel wherever and whenever they serve.
This government recognizes the important and selfless contribution of our military men and women. That is why I worked hard, together with all of my colleagues, to provide them with the best health services possible. Because we understand they are more likely to suffer from operational stress injuries such as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, we know mental health services and support are critical. That is why Veterans Affairs Canada, the Department of National Defence, and the Canadian Armed Forces are working together to ensure that veterans and military members with mental health issues receive the help they need.
Significant investment has been made by the Canadian Armed Forces to ensure that our military members receive the highest standard of mental health care possible. Since 2006, the Canadian Armed Forces health care investment has increased, bringing our expenses in health care close to $420 million each year. There are no budget cuts when it comes to caring for our military.
In 2012, the government announced an additional $11.4-million investment, to enhance the armed forces mental health care system specifically. This brings the total amount of annual mental health investment for military members to $50 million. These investments translate to approximately 400 mental health professionals dedicated to our men and women in uniform, and we are currently working on bringing in additional qualified applicants to fill the spaces available.
One of the challenges of having a military base in rural Ontario is the shortage of health care professionals for the entire population. Even though the federal Conservative government has struggled to find mental health care professionals for Base Petawawa, we have successfully staffed five doctors for a base population of 6,000 soldiers; compare that to one psychiatrist for a local civilian population of 100,000 people. We have five doctors for the military population of 6,000 and one for the remaining 100,000 people in the civilian population. Is there a health care crisis in Renfrew County? Yes. Is the federal government trying to deal with the provincial shortage? Yes.
To the family and friends of the military members and veterans who have taken their lives in the past and in the recent months, I extend my sincere condolences. Every suicide is a tragedy. As Canadians, we are all affected when one of our Canadian Armed Forces members takes his or her life. We know how much they gave to this country.
Canadians are proud of our armed forces. The Canadian Armed Forces is among the best armed forces in the world. The health of our military members will always be a priority for the Conservative Government of Canada. The strength of our military organization is its people, and we need to continue to take care of them and their families.
Our government is supporting the men and women in uniform in the Canadian Armed Forces who are suffering from mental illness. However, I wish to reiterate the role we play in eliminating the stigma around mental health. Going through mental illness is very difficult, so let us encourage people to seek help, because seeking help is the first step to recovery.
Mr. Speaker, I wish to clarify at the outset that I have the pleasure of sharing my time with the member for Saint-Lambert.
Mr. Speaker, it is my honour to rise in support of the motion moved by the member for Châteauguay—Saint-Constant. I think it is very important to reiterate what the motion says, because we will be voting on the motion and it is important for Canadians to be watching and seeing the very specific measures that we are simply asking all the members of this House to support, so that, in fact, we can provide the best possible support to our veterans who have served in honour.
That motion simply calls for the House to ensure that the men and women who bravely served Canada in the Armed Forces be able to count on the government for support in their time of need and that the government should demonstrate this support by immediately addressing the mental health crisis facing Canadian soldiers and veterans, by hiring appropriate mental health professions; second, to reverse the decisions to close the veterans offices, which it has decided to close; and third, to prioritize and conclude the over 50 outstanding boards of inquiry on the military suicides, so that grieving families may have answers and closure.
I think these are very reasonable requests. These requests come from those who have served and their families.
I also wish to add my condolences to the families who have recently suffered through these suicides.
On behalf of their families and our veterans, I request all members to support this motion.
We send our armed forces into conflict and dire circumstances. They witness the atrocities of war. Any ordinary person would probably suffer some kind of mental trauma from this. It is important that we, the members of Parliament, be here to stand up for them and ensure that the appropriate medical services are there when they return, whether those are minor concerns or whether they may lead to post-traumatic stress disorder or other problems. Many who suffer mental problems also may suffer physical disabilities because of the impact they have on their health and on their families.
We are imploring all the members of this House to carefully consider this motion and its reasonable requests. This is the least we can do for our veterans.
Many of those recently deployed to Afghanistan have served not just one but numerous deployments, and so they have been subjected to considerable stress. I, my constituents, and all Edmontonians recognize and are extremely grateful and proud of their contribution, and in particular, the Edmonton Garrison for their service continuously in the mission to Afghanistan. I had the privilege of participating in the recent memorial to their service: the installation at city hall.
I have had the honour, as well, of attending with the former minister of defence one of the repatriation ceremonies at Petawawa. I can share with members that it is an extremely emotional experience. It brings home, very clearly, the sacrifice made, not just by our soldiers but also by their families who are left behind.
It is absolutely critical that we provide the best possible first-rate health services to our armed forces.
My father served in World War II, in the air force. I never had the chance to speak with my father because, unlike many of his friends, he chose not to discuss the war. I suspect, in his time, in his generation, this was something they kept to themselves, if they were stressed by the experience. I regret now that I did not take that opportunity. However, many of his friends, colleagues who fought, and members of our family circle have often regaled us, as children growing up, with their tales of the war. One of them, particularly, was a hero: a fighter pilot who was shot down and interned. Therefore, I am fully aware of what occurred in those wars. Unfortunately, I did not meet my great uncle who served in World War I, because he gave his life in that war. There has been a lot of contribution by my family.
I grew up being very proud of our armed forces and continue to be honoured that they serve in my city. It is home to 5,000 military personnel and their families, so it is important that I stand up on their behalf and seek the best possible supports for them.
At the start of the Afghan mission, 750 troops from the 3rd Battalion of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry deployed, and they have continued to serve through that mission. As my colleagues have shared, veterans should not have to return home to fight for the health and financial benefits that they should be awarded. It is critical that as members of this House we stand up and hold the government accountable for ensuring those services are provided, and in a timely fashion.
I have been absolutely appalled at the stance of the current government. These are not the only lawsuits; the government seems to have a propensity for wanting to take Canadians to court instead of delivering on the services it should be delivering. There was the extended lawsuit that was dragged out, costing many millions of dollars. The veterans finally won that case and ended the clawback of their disability benefits. As my colleagues have mentioned, the second lawsuit on the fiduciary responsibility of the government to its military is now proceeding. We highly recommend that the government back off on wasting Canadian dollars on fighting our armed forces in courts and instead simply extend them the benefits they deserve.
The recent suicides are indeed a tragedy that could potentially be avoided. We are not saying absolutely that the lack of services is directly the cause, but any additional health services that can be provided will help to avoid a tragedy. Many in this House have previously spoken in this place about the suicides that have been suffered in their own families. They have implored that all of us stand up for more attention to supports in mental health.
I note that the Library of Parliament just issued a report on the current issues with mental health in Canada. It says that one of the solutions is more funding for mental health promotion and that investment would likely produce long-term savings. That is not just savings in dollars, but savings in lives. Very clearly this is one of those areas where we need to be giving greater attention.
Given the rise in the number of suicides among our veterans, there is an issue. It is not enough simply to say to the veterans that they should be reaching out. My experience with those who are suffering mental distress is that we need to be watching over those people, whether they are in our family or among our neighbours or in the armed forces.
Clearly, we need additional measures. There are a number measures that have been recommended by the Veterans Ombudsman, by parliamentary committees, and certainly in this House today. I encourage all members to give them due consideration.
First of all, we need to reduce the cuts to the veterans offices. I run into this all the time, whether we are asking for health studies or the impact of industrial activities, any kind of activity that is going on in rural areas. We are often told that the concentration of the population is not enough to justify the expenditure or action. We need to ensure that even if they are small offices in a rural area, it is important that these citizens also have equal access to those services. I look forward to assurances that they are not missing those services simply because they are not near a major centre. We have to remember that a lot of our first nations peoples also served in the armed forces and they very often live in rural areas, not close to major centres.
As some of the members have reminded us, the armed forces and our veterans are a unilateral federal responsibility. There is a deep concern, for example, with the hospitals and the long-term care centres, such as the Kipnes Centre for Veterans in Edmonton. I am very proud it exists; it is a fantastic centre. It is very important that we think about the future of those services.
We have a good number of veterans returning home. As we have lost World War I veterans and we are slowly losing the World War II veterans who will not be using those services anymore, it is important that those high-quality services be available to all our veterans. They should all be equal in the way we treat them when they return.
A very dear friend of my father was living at the Kipnes Centre, and I had a chance to visit him there. He was very upset because his wife, who was not a member of the armed forces, could not live with him, and he therefore entered into a deep depression.
There are many policies that merit being looked into again. With a small expenditure of money, we may be able to serve our veterans in a better way. A 1-800 number is not sufficient. I get complaints all the time in my office about 1-800 numbers to other services, such as pensions, immigration and so forth. Let us ensure the veterans are better looked after.
I would like to close with a quote from the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore that he shared with us before the Christmas break. It was on the tombstone of a fallen World War I soldier. It says, “This Canadian soldier left his home so that you can live in yours”.
That is something for us to keep in mind. It is very important that we make sure these services are available to all of our veterans.
Mr. Speaker, I rise to today to speak on behalf of the Liberal caucus, along with other colleagues, on this opposition motion put forward today by the hon. member for Châteauguay—Saint-Constant.
There is a crisis emerging in the support for injured soldiers and veterans alike. This is a crisis that has led to a number of tragedies and recent suicides. I want add my words of sympathy and compassion for the families and friends of those members and veterans.
However, like so many crises, this one did not appear overnight. Over a decade of engagement in Afghanistan has created an entire new generation of veterans as well as a generation of current serving members, some of whom are now suffering as a result of their service.
The men and women who enlist in the Canadian Forces to serve their country are called on to risk their lives and often go through traumatic events.
The government and the people of Canada are duty-bound to provide our soldiers, sailors and veterans with the best mental and physical health services, as well as access to government services that they can count on. The Conservative government has not been able to fulfill this solemn responsibility.
This is a debate I think we all wish was unnecessary. Unfortunately, the government, time and time again, has put its own economic and political self-interest ahead of the well-being of Canadian Armed Forces members and veterans alike, and sadly, the years of government neglect contribute to the tragic consequences of which we have spoken.
The hopelessness and despair that leads people to consider ending their lives is a hopelessness and despair that is added to when budgets are cut and services are worsened even when a crisis, and some of the steps that need to be taken to address that crisis, is identified.
Far from a complete solution to the complex issues facing our service men and women and our veterans, the motion represents a step forward, and that is why the Liberal Party will be supporting the motion.
The mental health crisis affecting both current Canadian service members and veterans did not arise overnight. Countless independent experts, armed forces medical officials, the National Defence and Veterans Affairs Ombudsmen, and even a parliamentary committee have sounded the alarm bells and offered solutions.
I would suggest that while the Conservatives have had a lot of words about how much they care for our men and women in uniform, but when it comes right down to the actions that have been identified that need to be taken, they have performed poorly. In fact, I would say that there have been eight wasted years. The Conservatives have simply chosen not to listen.
In 2009, the Standing Committee on National Defence issued a report that provided both an assessment of the government's CF mental health strategy and 36 concrete recommendations to address the issues and gaps they found. Recommendations included everything from prevention to early identification to addressing stigma to providing support to integrating resources and finding ways to make sure that medical professionals are hired and available. The committee recommended that the assessments continue over the course of years and that the military reservists be included.
Four and a half years later, this report gathers dust on a shelf in the minister's office. Many of the recommendations, I would say most of the recommendations, have not been implemented, and there has not been a single follow-up report from the government.
In 2012, the Canadian Forces Ombudsman recommended that the Canadian Forces evaluate its capacity to respond to the PTSD/OSI challenge and to address the “palpable and growing tension between commander and clinician...relative to OSI medical treatment and administrative support”. Yet the government seems to be caught by surprise, rushing forward to claim that now it will provide solutions while remarkably still ignoring the fundamental issues that created these problems in the first place.
There is not only a lack of resources, there is a lack of care and a lack of intention to make this a priority. More than just ignoring the issue, the Conservative government has actively made it more difficult to provide adequate care to Canadian Armed Forces service members and veterans alike.
The ombudsman made recommendations to enable “…more decisive leadership of the mental health system's capacity to meet the OSI imperative”, yet we found out that in 2010, there was a hiring freeze. Therefore, the efforts made by the Surgeon General and military medical personnel to fill the gaps in medical professional care have been consistently and routinely blocked by that hiring freeze, which the government and the minister responsible chose to do absolutely nothing about.
Of the 12 recommendations made by the ombudsman to improve the treatment of injured reservists, only 4 were judged to have been fully implemented in his follow-up. That is 4 out of 12. That is a failing grade.
Contrary to its claims of unprecedented support—and more than one photo op, I might add—the government has failed to reach even the benchmarks for mental health professionals set in 2003 under a previous Liberal government, to say nothing of the new levels now needed after over a decade of engagement in Afghanistan, including in some of the most dangerous terrain.
The Canadian Forces ombudsman's report in the fall of 2012 warned the government then that it had never reached the 2003 goal of 447 mental health workers. We knew what was needed to support injured armed forces members. We knew that back in 2003, and the level of support needed has only gone up. However, the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff, when questioned at the House of Commons committee on national defence, recently admitted that he is “very concerned about the capacity we have” to treat injured soldiers, given the government's Canadian Armed Forces budget cuts.
In September 2012, a national defence press release boasted about how funds earmarked for additional mental health workers were “identified personally by Minister MacKay”. At the time of the press release, 378 mental health professionals were employed. Remember, the goal set in 2003, before the primary operational period in Afghanistan, was 447. We had 378 of those positions filled, and now 18 months later, what has happened? The government has hired a measly 10 more. As of last month, 388 positions were filled. It is far short of what is needed, and the gap is costing lives.
The Conservative government may be earmarking the funds; it claims that it has the funds and that it has added funds, but it is making it impossible for the Department of National Defence to spend them. In their frustration, defence sources have gone to the media to share their frustration and alarm. According to a recent report in the Canadian press:
Even though the positions were identified and money earmarked, every potential hire—both contract and public service—has been subject to an increasing level of scrutiny....
Rather than being able to hire the staff they know they need, they are instead forced to justify every application in writing, put it up several chains in the department's bureaucracy and put it before a committee of assistant deputy ministers at national defence, by which time either most of those applications have been denied or the person being recruited had moved on to another position.
According to the ombudsman, Mr. Daigle, as of today there are currently 76 qualified professionals that could be hired immediately, but they have remained in the candidate pool because of a “cumbersome” and slow-moving hiring process. The government's own hiring freezes blocked the provision of necessary medical support positions. The support is not there. Over half of the military bases in Canada do not have a psychiatrist.
These shortages are not going unnoticed. They are affecting access and quality of care, but they are also affecting morale. When I talk about hopelessness and despair, imagine the plight of a serving forces member injured in Afghanistan who has to wait up to two years to get a medical diagnosis and before that medical diagnosis is made, that person cannot access the support and services that are needed. That is the situation that our men and women are facing.
While the government tells us one story with a lot of nice-sounding words about what it is doing, the service men and women I spoke to in Petawawa certainly told another story. There appears to be a gap between what their experience is and what is said by the government and higher ranks in the armed forces, and that is contributing to the sense of hopelessness and despair.
I will draw the House's attention to recommendation 2 in the standing committee's report that I referred to, which is entitled, “Pour de meilleurs soins: services de santé offerts au personnel des forces canadiennes, en particulier dans le cas des troubles de stress post-traumatique”.
Recommendation 2: The Department of National Defence should cause an independent audit to be conducted of military patient case management practices to determine the extent to which a gap exists between expressed Canadian Forces policy and the actual practices applied to the continuing treatment and care of injured Canadian Forces personnel. Once defined, appropriate measures should be taken, throughout the chain of command, to eliminate the gap and improve patient care.
Four years ago, it was already clear that there was a disconnect between what was being said and what was being experienced. The committee said, address that and take care of it in all levels of the chain of command. What has the government done on that level? It has done nothing.
This was echoed when I met with executives at the Alberta NWT Command Legion. They told me about mentally injured service members waiting months and months for diagnosis, without which they have no access to the operational stress injury clinics that would otherwise be available. I heard how the Legion itself was paying, from its scarce funds, rent for injured service members who were being discharged from the forces, and who were not receiving the retirement benefits due to them in a timely manner and unable to pay their rent. The Legion was providing support to fill the very gaps created by the government because of a lack of intention to correct the situation.
Retired General Rick Hillier, former Chief of the Defence Staff, neatly summed up the issue when he said:
I think that now this is beyond the medical issue. I think that many of our young men and women have lost confidence in our country to support them.
How sad is that statement? How sad are Canadians to know that there is that lack of support for the men and women in uniform who serve us so well? The government is balancing its budget on the backs of veterans and Canadian Armed Forces members. General Hillier is right: this is beyond a medical issue. This is a case of the government abandoning those who have served it.
When the Canadian Armed Forces cannot spend the money it is given, that money flows back into federal coffers as lapsed funds. In 2011 alone, the Department of National Defence gave back $1.5 billion of unspent funds to the federal treasury. There are announcements of funds, but those funds lapse and are given back. There are announcements of correcting problems, but those problems do not get corrected.
To date, up to $7 billion of funds have lapsed from the Department of National Defence. What kinds of supports could have been provided with those funds?
Why does the government say it is correcting these problems and filling these gaps and, meanwhile, not spend the funds available, but turn them back into general revenues, and not hire the medical professionals needed? This is not only with regard to mental health care or veterans' offices closing down.
I would ask how many dollars are being saved by closing down these nine offices that are so critical to injured veterans who depend on that kind of one-on-one care that they have been receiving. How much is being saved? What percentage is that of the $7 billion that have been allowed to lapse from the National Defence’s budget?
Clearly, aside from the commitment to the members of the armed forces and veterans for photo opportunities, there is no commitment by the government to provide these men and women who have served, and do serve, with the resources they need. As well as the lapse in funding, the government is now cutting funding outright, across the Canadian Armed Forces.
In shocking testimony in late 2012, before a Senate committee, Lieutenant-General Peter Devlin, the commander of the army, told the committee that the land forces operating budget had been shrunk by an eye-popping 22%, a figure that does not show up anywhere in publicly available defence documents.
Training has been hit particularly hard. According to Lieutenant-General Devlin, the training budgets for the formation are probably 45% plus lower than they have been. By 2014–15, the army will have only 75% of the budget it had three years prior. Between the strategic review and the deficit reduction action plan, the Canadian Armed Forces is dealing with $2.7 billion less than planned,and less than promised, because this is a government that made a huge show of its defence strategy. It calls it the Canada first defence strategy. I call it the Conservatives failed defence strategy.
The fundamental underpinning of the strategy was stable and increased funding for 20 years. However, that has simply not happened. By 2010, the budget freezes meant that statutory salary increases were coming out of the department's own budget and forcing them to shrink spending on other things. Since then, there have been billions in budget cuts. This is a Conservative failed defence strategy that impacts the men and women in uniform and our veterans every day.
These cuts have specific consequences. The Veterans Transition Network, founded by Dr. Marvin Westwood and Dr. David Kuhl of UBC in my riding of Vancouver Quadra, has been providing valuable support to returning service members since 1999. To date, the Department of National Defence has yet to fund a single participant. Of the countless veterans who could benefit from this program, Veterans Affairs has funded participation for a mere eight. It then used this program to celebrate the government's branding and to claim credit, but in fact, eight people have been funded; not eight events, not eight workshops, but eight veterans.
In testimony before the National Defence committee, the executive director said:
They're talking about supporting our program in principle, and I'm sure, with budget cuts as they are, that everyone is starting to ask where the money is going to come from.
That is one more example of the government's inability to follow through.
Even the most basic services, such as offices for veterans to interact with and housing for military families who support those who serve, have fallen victim to Conservative cuts.
The Conservatives are cutting 781 employees from Veterans Affairs workforce by 2014–15, some 22%, as well as closing the nine veterans service centres. How is that going to improve services to veterans? Of course it is not. It is going to make things worse. Instead of supporting veterans, the government has decided to nickel-and-dime their pensions. It is more willing to spend scarce resources on lawyers defending the government when veterans have to go to court to get served than it is to spend it on the veterans. It does not take much to figure out where its priorities are: in its own interest and not in the interests of veterans and the men and women in uniform.
I want to conclude with this. The issue of supporting our armed forces members and our veterans is not a Liberal, Conservative, or NDP issue.
It is a human issue. It is a Canadian issue. It is an issue of right and wrong. It is an issue of will, intention, and action, not words. The men and women in uniform stand up for Canada every day. Why is the government not standing up for them?
The government appears willing to spend time, money, and political capital on commemorating battles of yesterday. We want the government to spend that time, money, political capital, and will on supporting our armed forces members and our veterans with the resources they need and deserve today.
It is my duty pursuant to Standing Order 38 to inform the House that the questions to be raised tonight at the time of adjournment are as follows: the hon. member for Terrebonne—Blainville, Privacy; the hon. member for Châteauguay—Saint-Constant, Veterans.
Resuming debate, hon. member for Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine
The electoral district of Châteauguay--Saint-Constant (Quebec) has a population of 107,165 with 84,347 registered voters and 203 polling divisions.
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