Hon. Mobina S. B. Jaffer:
Honourable senators, I rise today to speak on the Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs’ most recent report, From Soldier to Civilian: Professionalizing the Transition. I would like to thank each senator who contributed to the creation of this report. I would like to specifically thank Adam Thompson, the clerk of the committee, and also Havi Echenberg and Isabelle Lafontaine-Émond from the Library of Parliament.
Before I begin, I would like to share a few statistics that put this report into perspective.
In Canada, there are close to 700,000 veterans and more than 100,000 serving members of the Canadian Armed Forces. Each year, 9,000 to 10,000 Canadian Armed Forces members are released, of which approximately 1,600 are released for medical reasons. Unfortunately, one third of the people who leave the military have difficulty making the transition to civilian life. However, what these numbers fail to show is just how difficult a failed transition can be for our veterans. To truly drive home how much our veterans are struggling within the current system, I would like to share a story with you.
Steven Wright is a proud veteran from the Royal Canadian Navy. He served Canada for 34 years and was able to rise through the ranks to become a lieutenant by the end of his career. Over his decades of service, Lieutenant Wright obtained several injuries. However, he believed that Canada would support him when he transitioned back into civilian life. This never happened. Instead of receiving his benefits after transitioning into civilian life, Lieutenant Wright was told that he would have to wait.
Lieutenant Wright struggled to support himself and his family without his benefits. He had to completely max out his credit and borrow from his family, and he ended up in massive amounts of debt. Eventually, he had to take a job despite his injuries and lack of medical support. Even after going that far, Lieutenant Wright still struggled to support himself. He missed mortgage payments and was struggling to make the payments for the car that let him go to his job.
Five months later, Lieutenant Wright received his first pension cheque, but it was too little, too late. He still had no support for his injury, and he still struggles to deal with the debt that built up over the five months. Simply put, we failed Lieutenant Wright, along with the countless other veterans that experience difficulties in our transition system.
This is unacceptable. These are people who served in the Canadian Armed Forces for decades, with multiple deployments and citations, and made Canada proud.
These are people who have made the ultimate sacrifice so that we can have such an amazing life. That is why the Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs conducted our study. Our veterans deserve a system that will care for them and give them what they need as they transition into civilian life. To find out how we can best help these veterans, the Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs held five meetings and called on a variety of witnesses to speak on issues in our transition system.
Each of the witnesses we heard from was clear on one point: Our current transition system does not work, and it cannot be fixed with piecemeal changes. We need to rebuild our system entirely. We need a system that is defined, professional and consistent for all of our veterans.
To put this into perspective, I would like to contrast our transition system with our recruitment system. When members of the Canadian Armed Forces join the military, they are given all the support they need. From day one, our Canadian Armed Forces members have a future set out for them, and they have a clear plan to follow. Regardless of where they are in the country, they will always have the resources and support they need from a single point of contact through their whole career.
In direct contrast to this, our veterans are dealing with a bureaucratic nightmare. Their benefits are often not ready when they are released, and when they try to get help, they are faced with a complex system and massive amounts of paperwork that they cannot handle. It is not difficult to see which kind of system is more effective. Our veterans deserve a professionalized system that can clearly lay out and manage their future as civilians, just as our military did for them when they were first recruited.
To professionalize our transition system, our committee created 13 recommendations, each of which is based on issues that witnesses raised during committee meetings. I would like to highlight them today.
Our first recommendation is straightforward, yet critical: We must not release our veterans before their benefits are ready.
It is no understatement to say that the first months after release are the most important months for veterans. During this time, they decide what they want to do with their lives as civilians. This is a very difficult process for many veterans.
To quote a veteran interviewed by the Veterans Ombudsman:
I joined the army at age 19. Before that, I was in high school. I was never really a civilian adult. I don’t feel that I am transitioning “back” to civilian life, but becoming a civilian for the first time.
These people are counting on us. The veterans are counting on us to help them decide what they can do with their lives as civilians. We need to be sure that they have all the support they need during this important time. If we release the veterans before their benefits and services are ready, we are destroying their chances to have a future as a civilian. We cannot let this happen.
Many of the recommendations in our report also deal with the bureaucratic nightmare of paperwork that our veterans face as they undergo their transition into civilian life. When they are part of the Canadian Armed Forces, members only have to deal with a single point of contact that can assist them with any problem they may experience during their career.
Meanwhile, veterans deal with 15 separate organizations. Each of these organizations has its own separate paperwork and its own processes. This leads to real problems for veterans as they try to deal with each of these organizations. There are often broken lines of communication between the various offices that handle their file and, as a result, incorrect and incomplete information goes around.
In some cases, files are lost entirely, forcing veterans to restart the entire process of requesting the support they earned. Meanwhile, while they deal with this bureaucracy, they are unable to support themselves and their families.
This is simply not acceptable, and our report lays out a range of different solutions to simplify the administrative complexity veterans deal with. These solutions include reducing caseloads for Veterans Affairs case managers; creating release centres on military bases to manage cases during transition; creating ID cards and an easily navigable web portal for veterans — and I’m very pleased to tell you, honourable senators, that this recommendation has already been implemented by our government. It also includes providing veterans with priority access to health, education and social services.
With that said, it is important to remember that the job of simplifying the system for veterans does not end once they have been released from the military.
Half of all veterans come back several years after release since their needs only manifest after they leave the Canadian Armed Forces. These people also deal with bureaucratic nightmares.
In many cases, the organizations dealing with these veterans simply do not have a complete file on hand, despite it being part of their service record and medical history. As a result, these veterans are forced to prove their injuries all over again, no matter how traumatic it may be for them. In fact, they often have to go through the same test multiple times to satisfy any of the 15 organizations that could be dealing with their case. This is absolutely unacceptable.
From the moment that our veterans remove their uniforms, they should have everything they need in place to request the services they need down the line. They should get the same level of service that we gave them when we recruited them. We should not have separate kinds of services.
I would like to share another story with honourable senators to emphasize just how important it is for our veterans to have accurate information on hand.
Mark Campbell’s whole life was committed to our military. When he was 13, he signed up with the army cadets. He then went on to the reserves and eventually became a proud major in our military who deployed in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, tragedy struck in 2014 when a Taliban bomb destroyed both of his legs. Major Campbell returned to Canada as a hero, thanks to his service and his sacrifice for all of us in our country. However, he struggles with psychological trauma and finds himself in constant pain from the blast.
In cases like these, our government should have been there to give Major Campbell everything that he needed. However, because his medical file was mishandled, his medical assessment was incorrect and left him with far less money for his injuries than he should have received.
This devastated Mark, who struggled to deal with the cost of his condition along with his whole family. His wife developed secondary PTSD as she tried to support the whole family herself and was eventually left unable to work because of the mental strain. His son also started demonstrating mental health symptoms soon after. Despite this, both of them were also deemed ineligible for support because of Major Campbell’s original assessment.
Cases like these are unacceptable. If a single mishandling of a medical file can completely ruin the lives of a whole family, then we need to provide veterans with a system that can protect them against this kind of situation. That is why our veterans committee recommends that each veteran should have a complete medical file and recommends a streamlined medical approval process for veterans that prevents repeated testing.
These main recommendations, along with the others that are covered in the report, cover a sweeping range of topics, yet each and every one of them is essential. To repeat what each of the witnesses we heard from told us, there is a serious need for change. What we have now simply does not work and is failing one in three veterans. Each one of these cases means another tragic story, like that of Steven Wright or Mark Campbell. We cannot let this go on anymore. We must rebuild our transition system.
Honourable senators, we, in this chamber, have a unique opportunity for real change to take place. Calls for change are coming from across our government, military and civil society. Even the Minister of Veterans Affairs and the Chief of the Defence Staff acknowledge that something has to be done now. This broken system has to be fixed now.
Honourable senators, I urge you to adopt this report and add your voices to this call for change. By following our 13 recommendations we can reach the goal of creating defined, professional and consistent transition system for all veterans. We must treat our veterans with the respect they deserve after putting their lives on the line for our country. These veterans cannot wait any longer.
Honourable senators, the men and women who stood up for us and have made the ultimate sacrifice deserve nothing but the best from us. Thank you very much.
The Hon. the Speaker: Honourable senator, will you answer a question?
Senator Jaffer: Yes.
Hon. Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu: I would like to congratulate the senator on this long-awaited report. As you pointed out in your report, the government recently gave $10 billion to a terrorist, yet the Prime Minister told a soldier at a town hall that veterans are asking for too much. That is an insult not only to our soldiers and veterans, but to all Canadians who are grateful to them.
Besides this report, what do you intend to do to ensure that the government behaves with greater sensitivity towards people who gave part of their lives and bodies to defend the rights of Canadians?
Senator Jaffer: Thank you very much for your question. I believe that under Senator Dagenais’s leadership and the committee’s work — we have a lot of work to do. First, I urge you to pass this report. Second, I believe honourable senators should ask the Leader of the Government in the Senate to answer this question because he would be in a better position than I to respond.