By Jim Scott
If there was any doubt that Canadians care deeply about the men and women who serve in our military, it has surely been dispelled by events in Ottawa the last few years.
Notable in 2000 was the internment of the Unknown Soldier. Not only did ordinary citizens turn out in long lines to pay their respects to the deliberately unidentified casualty of the Great War, but a crowd of as many as 20,000 were on hand for the dedication of his final resting place at the National War Memorial.
With the advent of the Afghanistan War and the thousands of service personnel who experienced injuries of mind and body there, annual crowds for the November Remembrance Day ceremonies at the downtown Ottawa monument swelled into the hundreds of thousands. Thousands more took time from their days to line the Highway of Heroes whenever the remains of soldiers were transported from CFB Trenton to Toronto.
We do not consider that the obligation to repay this service is ended with their last paycheque while in uniform, but that anyone who commits to this sacrifice be restored to the best possible physical, mental and financial health.
In practice it’s a tall order to maintain a bureaucratic and fiscal focus on a programme that can run for decades. After the Great War, the Pension
Act of 1919 generally sought to compensate returning veterans and support those who could not find re-employment. A small population of 11 million could only do so much for the more than half a million men who came back from this horrible maelstrom.
Over the years the principle remained the same. There was a pension or a programme but you were on your own. Here’s a hand up, not a hand out.
By the 1990’s the country had thankfully not had to send hundreds of thousands of citizens into combat but other factors were being recognised. Psychiatry had begun to realise that the trauma of being in combat could persist with many individuals for years, affecting home and work life in dramatic ways. It was not fair to simply pay off the veterans and send them on their way. The country now needed to monitor and assist their soldiers, sailors and aircrew in a more comprehensive way.
When the Conservative Party was elected in 2006, they began a process of addressing wider needs with the New Veterans Charter. Aside from a monetary calculation, there was added a concept of “quality of life”. The veteran was seen as a focal point for his/her family and the support personnel that could run the gamut from career and training assistance to daily medical care for the disabled. The government was criticized for changing the lifetime pension to a lump sum payment, (and closing a few bureaucratic offices), but at least there was recognition that more could and should be done.
From this we now have the Veterans Well-being Act of 2018. New components have been added. New funding has been added to existing programmes such as the Emergency Fund that provides up to $2500 in ready cash to help with immediate expenses.
Still front and centre is a focus on getting service personnel back into civilian life. Career Transition Services and the Veterans Education and Training Benefit provide counselling to allow the retiring CAF member to pick their next career move and get funding for any courses that will lead to employment. The amount available rises with years of service: six years qualifies you for up to $40,000 and twelve years or more bumps it to $80,000. The money can be used for tuition, books and living expenses, and stays available at the original amount for up to ten years.
For those with disabilities there is a return to the Pension For Life as well as additional compensations based on the level of impairment. You may qualify for a tax-exempt Pain and Suffering Compensation or an Additional Pain and Suffering monthly payment. There is a taxable Income Replacement Benefit that allows up to $20,000 in employment income without claw-back. For those who need additional help at home there is a new Caregiver Recognition allowance that can pay up to $1,000 per month for any one over 18 that the veteran wishes to name as caregiver, (who is not paid to provide care).
The government has removed the time limit for spouses or survivors to receive rehabilitation services or vocational training.
In a briefing with VAC recently I raised the issue of one component: the Veterans and Family Well-being Fund. From a $12 million budget VAC will disburse $3 million per year in funds for groups that conduct research or otherwise come up with schemes to “support the well-being of Veterans and their families.” The academic or business group does not have to consist of veterans, but simply convince the bureaucrats in charge of the programme that the end result will be some sort of improvement in veterans’ lives. Perhaps some good will come of it. Or, more likely, the groups that know how to tap government slush funds will figure out how to tap this one too.
As with any government programme, regardless of the helpful-sounding language in the brochures, the devil remains in the details. The Veterans Affairs Canada website is user friendly and written in plain English, (I presume the same on the French side), so by all means explore it and look ahead to the days you’ll be on Civvie Street. It remains to be seen if the bureaucrats of VAC can live up to the cheery tone of the Veterans Well-being Act. I do not doubt the sincerity and professionalism of our public servants. My only wish is that every individual who puts on a military uniform for this country feels the admiration and respect that every citizen has for them.