Fix Bill Giving Wounded Troops Jobs Priority, Watchdogs Say

February 18, 2015 Updated: February 19, 2015

OTTAWA — The military’s watchdog urged the Senate on Wednesday to fix a bill intended to give wounded ex-soldiers first crack at federal civil service jobs, but the Harper government appears ready to allow it to go through as written.

Gary Walbourne, the Canadian Forces ombudsman, says National Defence should have the power to determine whether a soldier’s medical release is a result of military service.

Bill C-27 gives Veterans Affairs that responsibility, something Walbourne says doesn’t make sense, adds unnecessary red tape and could ultimately defeat the purpose of expedited job placement.

“To have a process to determine what is already been determined, for me, just defies logic,” Walbourne told the Senate’s veterans affairs sub-committee, populated on Wednesday by mostly Conservative members of the upper chamber.

The legislation, which gives wounded troops the top statutory priority for federal jobs, deserves to be passed, said veterans ombudsman Guy Parent, who called on the committee to attach an “observation” to the bill noting the concerns of watchdogs before it comes up for a final vote.

Walbourne argued that National Defence is best suited to justify why a soldier is being given a medical discharge, not the veterans department, which should only assess the impact of the release on an individual.

Allowing Veterans Affairs to decide whether an injury is the result of military service could take as long as six months, delaying not only job applications, but also the distribution of benefits, Walbourne said.

What may seem like a bureaucratic squabble between departments has long been a major sore spot for ex-soldiers, some of whom were let go from the military only to find veterans affairs does not see their medical condition in the same way.

Kayleigh Kanoza, a spokeswoman for Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O’Toole, said the government “would like to see this bill brought into force as soon as possible,” but wouldn’t say whether it is prepared to entertain changes at this stage.

“We are committed to continuous improvement in our treatment of veterans, and look forward to seeing the Senate’s study,” she said in an email.

The Conservatives came under fire in 2013 after troops who were considered medically unfit complained they were being summarily released. The government responded by introducing legislation to bump those wounded soldiers to the front of the line for civil service openings.

Mike Blais, of Canadian Veterans Advocacy, said he can’t understand why the government would allow a flawed bill to become law when two of its watchdogs have already sounded the alarm.

“They just want to ram it through before the election, wrap themselves in the flag and say they’ve done something,” said Blais.

Liberal MP Marc Garneau, a former member of the military, said the Conservatives almost never amend their legislation and the opposition considers this is O’Toole’s first real test as minister.

“If the government really wants to send a strong signal that it is listening and that it does want to make change, everybody is going to be watching Mr. O’Toole to see if anything happens,” said Garneau.

Conservative Sen. Carolyn Stewart-Olsen said she’s been told that the two departments are already working together to make the transition between military and civilian life seamless and that “the red tape will be eliminated.”