By Sean Bruyea & Robert Smol
Everything Veterans Wanted to Know About the Liberals’ Pension for Life Plan …
And Should Not Be Afraid to Ask
Changes to the Pension Act resulting from the New Veterans Charter led to a demand for a new benefits plan for injured soldiers. Will the Liberals’ proposed Pension for Life plan bring about the desired reforms needed?
If there is any praise worthy of the Trudeau Liberals, it would be their ever so sharp appreciation and application of political spin, evasion and deception. No doubt should this government’s anaemic feint at implementing life-long pension actually come into effect in 2019 (an election year), they will claim that they had fulfilled their sacred obligation to Canada’s disabled veterans.
But the reality is that this revised pension scheme is a pale reflection and a clear reduction when compared to the lifelong monthly pension Justin Trudeau personally promised. Monetarily, it does not go anywhere near corresponding pension amounts given to those who, ironically, were lucky enough to “take a bullet for Canada” before 2006.
As with any “new and improved” marketing campaign, this alleged attempt at bringing back disability pensions for veterans must be aggressively scrutinized, not just for the actual content of the pension plan but also for the manner and circumstances in which it was presented.
Indeed, the manner, time and location of the Liberals’ new pension announcement says much about how the government itself feels about what they are doing to today’s disabled veterans. When the Liberals promised to bring back lifelong pensions, it was done very publicly at the height of the 2015 election.
Disconcertingly, the announcement of the much-anticipated return of these pensions in late December 2017 was made neither in a public venue nor even a Veterans Affairs facility but in a high security, claustrophobic basement room in National Defence Headquarters. Injured military, veterans and family members were not welcome. Nor could Parliament ask questions on the proposals since the Liberals waited until the House rose, making the announcement only days before Christmas. Government clearly was not proud of these proposed programs knowing full well how vulnerable the plan is to scrutiny and criticism.
Before we look at the announced details of the plan, let’s take a look at how military members and veterans are compensated for their injuries.
When Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) members suffer a service-related disability, government has the legal obligation to compensate for both pain and suffering through tax-free amounts as well as taxable compensation for lost income. But let’s be frank, this is no magnanimous gesture of appreciation to our military veterans. Indeed, this legal obligation is no different than court awards or most provincial workplace insurance programs. Simply put, military veterans were historically the first employment group in Canada to be compensated for lifelong injuries.
The creation of the 1919 Pension Act after the Great War is widely seen as the origin of this way of recognizing wartime sacrifice on behalf of Canada. In fact, lifelong recognition of pain and suffering as well as compensating for lost income dates back to the War of 1812, when the first comprehensive plan for disabled Canadian veterans was implemented in 1816 and 1817. Government provided lifelong pensions with additional amounts for spouses and children as well as assistance in re-establishing the individual, such as land and farm supplies.
Re-establishment and retraining support was expanded to all returning Second World War and Korean War veterans, whether injured or not. However, CAF veterans after this period did not fare so well. Beyond the oft-ridiculed Second Career Assistance Network (SCAN) seminars, releasing members received absolutely no assistance. Only recently have they started receiving some limited help beyond SCAN. The injured did not receive universal rehabilitation and retraining assistance until the CAF made the Service Income Security Insurance Plans (SISIP) for lost income and rehabilitation mandatory in 1982.
At least all injured CAF members and veterans, under the Pension Act, were eligible for lifelong monthly payments plus amounts for spouses and children.
However, back in 2005, it was the Liberal government under Paul Martin that introduced the legislation eliminating lifelong pensions. At the time, this plan had the full support of the Conservatives, the Bloc Québécois, as well as the NDP. This so-called “New Veterans Charter” replaced the lifelong disability pension with a one-time lump sum payment as part of a hodgepodge repackaging of already existing programs. Persistent complaints under the Harper Conservatives and calls to change these programs were met with bureaucratic stonewalling and political insouciance.
The latest programs announced by the Liberals are to take effect in April 2019 and will bring some changes that can be divided under pain and suffering as well as income loss. Veterans, undergoing retraining or if unable to fully return to work due to their lifelong injury, will continue to receive an income loss paying 90 per cent of their military salary until age 65. They also will continue to receive retraining if able to work.
There is nothing new here. However, positive announcements include raising the minimum income loss to just over $48,000 annually, allowing veterans to receive employment income up to $20,000 annually without penalty, and collecting up to 70 per cent of their military salary, “less offsets,” after age 65.
The positive news ends there. Unlike court awards and most workplace insurance schemes, the new Liberal program for lost income will not fully recognize lost career progression but provides a token one per cent annual increase per year for every year less than 20 years that the veteran served in the military. Considering that current Deputy Minister of Veterans Affairs Walter Natynczyk and Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent have approximately 40 and 50 years respectively of career progression while collecting full military pensions and top public service salaries without “offsets,” disabled veterans are being grossly short-changed on this one.
Under the category of pain and suffering, an existing taxable allowance for those with severe injuries will be replaced with a lower-paying non-taxable allowance of up to $1,500 monthly. A currently available taxable supplement of $1,100 monthly will be eliminated with no replacement.
Furthermore, under the same category of non-taxable benefits for pain and suffering, injured veterans will have a choice between a lump-sum payment of up to $360,000 and a monthly “Pension for Life” up to a maximum of $1,150 to compensate for their injuries. There are no additional amounts for spouses or children. The average “Pension for Life” likely will be around $200 per month. For the 60,000 veteran recipients still receiving the Pension Act, they are paid an average of $680 per month plus amounts for spouses and children.
For a government aggressively branding itself as gender equal, it is ludicrous that female veterans will receive less each month in pain and suffering payments than males because “sex is a factor of life expectancy.” Imagine corporate Canada or the civil service under our current prime minister paying their female employees less with the justification they will live longer in the job than their male counterparts. If there were to be any discrepancy based on gender, women should be paid more given the hyper-macho culture of harassment and abuse they have long endured.
As for family members, frustratingly, they can only collect income benefits if the disabled veteran dies as a result of the military injury. Lifelong suffering benefits will be paid out only if there is “any residual amount” to be paid to the deceased veteran. Years of sacrifice caring for a veteran living with severe psychological suffering or multiple amputations mean nothing if the veteran dies of a heart attack or car accident. No such restriction exists for the recipients who got coverage under the old Pension Act. Survivor benefits are paid throughout their remaining life at their full, not “residual” amounts.
Certainly veterans will be severely anxious and perplexed by the complexity of the new program and its murky criteria to qualify. But military veterans, and indeed all Canadians, should be beyond furious at the fact that civilian government employees disabled in a flying accident and all RCMP members can continue to apply for the lifelong Pension Act programs, but we veterans, for whom the program was specifically designed in 1919, cannot?
Why the discrimination in favour of other government employees and against those who volunteer to wear the military uniform? This is the question our veteran community needs to ask again and again at every campaign rally and at every town hall between now and the next election.
Indeed, comparisons between Pension Act recipients and this new program is where veterans will likely condemn this new program, and any political party that supports it. If the program is so much better than the Pension Act, why are Pension Act veterans denied access to the new program?
Predictably, government is clearly hoping that the “soldier on” “carry on” “yes Sir” conformity and deference to authority we may have learned in the Forces will somehow manifest itself again in our post-service life. As bureaucrats and politicians bide their time while older generations of veterans die off, is it their intention we lose touch with the better benefits that our fathers’ and grandfathers’ generations received in decades past? Callously, government is counting on their endless rhetoric and accolades to avoid providing the same level of support to differing groups of veterans based upon arbitrary application and release dates.
Many questions will gnaw at the honour and dignity of Canada’s proud veterans. Guy Parent has repeatedly voiced his own empty rhetoric for “one veteran, one standard,” which is also a key commitment in the Liberal mandate letters. The ombudsman’s silence on this new program is not merely deafening, it demonstrates his fear to bite the enriched hands that feed him.
“I won’t go back to the Pension Act of 1919,” said Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan in a recent interview with CBC. “It did not meet the needs of our veterans.”
Really?! Of course, like any disability compensation program, there were those who did not get quite what they thought they deserved from the old Pension Act. But the reality is that, before 2006, there was nothing even remotely resembling the widespread anger, desperation, and sense of betrayal seen among disabled veterans in the last decade.
Our men and women in uniform fulfill their debt to serve and sacrifice at a moment’s notice. How can governments perennially string along vulnerable disabled veterans and their families? Politicians of all stripes dance around repaying that debt until the next election campaign begins, claiming there’s not enough money in the federal till. They wait until the public outcry has become unbearable, and then make only token gestures even when tragic veteran suicides blanket the news.
Meanwhile, Canadians know our veterans, disabled or not, should and must not wait until politicians and bureaucrats exhaust their bag of excuses to honour lifelong sacrifice with equitable and dignified lifelong compensation.