Five Things O’Toole Can Do to Win Back Ex-soldiers

Veterans’ community divided on whether new veterans affairs minister can heal rift
January 7, 2015 Updated: January 7, 2015

OTTAWA—The appointment of backbench Conservative MP Erin O’Toole as Canada’s new veterans affairs minister ignited a fiery social media debate this week among veterans, their supporters, and political observers.

In particular, those in the veterans’ community appear divided about whether O’Toole will be able to patch things up with former soldiers, a key constituency for the Harper government.

Here are five of the most burning issues on the file and some potential fixes:

Find a way to end the lawsuit over the New Veterans Charter. The Harper government’s defence against a class-action suit, brought by veterans of the war in Afghanistan, has been an unmitigated public relations disaster. Government lawyers have argued that the country has no extraordinary legal obligation to its returning soldiers and that current and future governments cannot be bound by political promises of care made during the First World War—a stance that’s deeply offensive to those who have served.

One possible fix, as proposed by the Commons veterans committee, would be to spell out an expression of gratitude in the preamble to a rewritten veterans’ charter, which documents the government’s contract with vets. The government has said it likes that idea and plans to use the language of the old pension act, which governed veterans’ benefits for decades until 2006. Whether it will be enough to soothe the bruised feelings remains to be seen, as some veterans have said they would only be satisfied once the court statement is withdrawn.

Fix the disability award system. By far one of the most controversial changes in the New Veterans Charter was the replacement of lifetime pensions for injuries with a system of lump-sum payments. Soldiers who lose limbs or suffer mental trauma are reimbursed through a workers’ compensation-style chart to a maximum of $306,000. The fact that modern-day veterans receive less than their predecessors is at the heart of the class-action suit.

In 2011, the government decided to allow injured veterans the choice of whether to take the lump sum or have it paid out in stages. But it did not change the payment schedule, which falls well below what civilian courts in Canada award those who suffer comparable injuries at work.

Fix the Permanent Impairment Allowance. Wounded soldiers forced to take lower-paying jobs or unable to work at all are eligible for the allowance. But veterans’ ombudsman Guy Parent found last year that nearly half of the most severely disabled ex-soldiers are not receiving the stipend, while those who do only get the lowest grade of the benefit. The government introduced a supplement in 2011, but Parent notes that you can’t create a program, set aside cash to deal with a problem and then not spend it.

The government, in responding to renewed complaints from MPs last fall, said it agrees “with the spirit and intent” of calls for change, but it must study the “fiscal and legal implications” and that “further due diligence” is required.

Help wounded veterans with no military pension. Almost 18 months ago, Parent found that 400 of the most severely injured ex-soldiers who don’t qualify for a Canadian Forces pension face poverty after the age of 65 because of the way the patchwork of benefits and allowances is organized.

The Royal Canadian Legion says the government can fix the problem by extending another assistance program, known as the earnings loss benefit, to past 65. MPs want to see that same program, which provides 75 percent of a soldier’s gross pre-release military salary during rehabilitation, adjusted to 90 percent and made non-taxable.

The government says it has to study the tax implications, claiming such changes could actually penalize some veterans.

Hire more case managers. Veterans often complain about dealing with frazzled, overworked case managers. The depth of the staffing cuts at Veterans Affairs, particularly when it comes to disability awards, was a hot topic in the Commons last fall. In a report last June, the veterans committee said 230 case managers handled an average of 40 files each, an excessive workload that’s leading to poor service, critics say.

The government has not specifically addressed the issue, but did post a number of job openings at the department just before Christmas.