News Release

Chairman's Update: Veterans Summit and New Veterans Charter Reform

By: Brian N. Forbes
Chairman, The National Council of Veteran Associations in Canada
Chairman, Executive Committee, The War Amputations of Canada

May 12, 2015 – The recent Veterans Summit was held on April 14, 2015 in Ottawa at the Canadian War Museum. There were in excess of twenty veterans' organizations in attendance together with representatives from National Defence, the RCMP and various online organizations. The Summit was an all-day affair chaired by Veterans Affairs Canada Deputy Minister Walt Natynczyk with active participation from the new VAC Minister Erin O'Toole and senior staff from the Minister's office together with Departmental officials.

As the day progressed it was difficult not to be impressed with the enthusiasm and energy brought to the gathering by the new Minister and Deputy Minister. Indeed, their positive engagement in the overall reform of the New Veterans Charter and the enhancement of the administrative culture within VAC was much appreciated by all in attendance. Both the Minister and the Deputy expressed a desire to be proactive in this particular process and, in all my years of involvement with regard to veterans' concerns, I do not think that I have seen a more dynamic duo. Of course, time will tell as to whether these good intentions result in substantive improvements in the operation and administration of Veterans Affairs Canada.

As many of you will know, the Minister and "Deputy Walt" (as he likes to be called) have emphasized over recent weeks a Veteran-centric philosophy vis-à-vis the ongoing mandate and operation of the Department. Although much more needs to be done, there is little question, based on our experience of late, that our relationship to VAC has been much improved leading to far more responsiveness to the individual concerns expressed by The War Amps Service Bureau in dealing with specific issues and cases. In my recent personal dealings with VAC, I have noticed that the staff and employees of the Department have indeed been revitalized, and we may have passed through the "dark ages" which exemplified the level of communication and working relationship which existed over the last number of years.

As opposed to the state of denial and the abysmal levels of communication which previously existed in VAC, both the Minister and the Deputy, on countless occasions during their presentations to the forum, underlined their joint priority in being prepared to listen and consider the concerns and proposals of veteran stakeholder groups in upgrading veterans legislation including the New Veterans Charter.

In this context you will have noted that the Minister has made a number of announcements over the last six weeks which specifically deal with New Veterans Charter reform and staffing requirements within VAC. In addition, the Deputy has completed a cross-country tour of all district offices of VAC with the specific intent of improving the culture and administration of the Department. I am attaching a copy of the Press Release issued by the Minister's office concurrent with the Veterans Summit entitled "Minister O'Toole speaks with Veterans' Groups at Ottawa Summit." This attachment will provide you with a substantive list of the recent announcements made by the Minister, together with appropriate background papers and the specific proposals laid out on the day of the Summit concerning increasing staffing levels with regard to case managers and new disability benefits employees. With reference to the staffing enhancement annunciated this week, there is little doubt that this announcement finally represents a recognition of reality; however, it must be said that this reversal of policy now being implemented reflects badly on previous Ministers and administrations within VAC. The validity of representations made in the past justifying the cuts and the assurances as to the ability of the Department to handle the volume of cases and applications are, to say the least, highly questionable.

It is fair to say that significant momentum and substantial traction has been developed through the various recommendations brought down by the Minister which are the Government's attempt to respond to the proposals made by NCVA, the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs, the Veterans Ombudsman and the Veterans Consultation Group with regard to New Veterans Charter reform.

Unfortunately, as I have stated in a number of interviews in national media, the Minister's announcements reflect, in my judgement, "half measures" and are not fully responsive to the comprehensive recommendations made by the Standing Committee and the aforementioned multiple Advisory Groups including our own NCVA proposals.

After years of what I have described as unacceptable inertia within VAC, there are solid indications that the first phase of positive incremental change is taking place, and it is our job to maintain the pressure on the Government to complete this vital assignment in addressing the inequities which still remain in the New Veterans Charter.

I would like to make a number of comments and observations concerning these announcements from both a positive and negative perspective:

  1. The clear focus on Seriously Disabled Veterans is commendable as it has consistently been the position of NCVA/The War Amps of Canada that the highest priority to the veterans' community and the Government must be the seriously injured veteran. This prioritization is reflected in the Minister's proposals particularly with regard to the new Retirement Income Security Benefit (RISB), Critical Injury Benefit (CIB), Family Caregiver Relief Benefit (FCRA) and the enhancements to the Permanent Impairment Allowance.
  2. I would reiterate that, based on our experience over the last few months, there has indeed been significant improvement in the ongoing relationship between veterans' stakeholder groups, the Minister/Deputy and the senior levels of the Department both from an operational and administrative viewpoint.
  3. As I have stated, the true litmus test for judging the new hierarchy within VAC will rest on whether our new Minister will continue his commitment to treat the New Veterans Charter as a "Living Charter" and implement further measures to improve the overall culture of the Department. On a number of occasions at the Veterans Summit, Minister O'Toole expressed his commitment to the veterans' organizations in attendance, and indicated that he would continue to welcome the input and proposals that the individual groups may wish to make in furthering this objective.
  4. Bill C-58 has been placed before Parliament, spelling out the specific provisions arising from the Minister's announcements in the statutory legislation which the Minister intends to have passed before the end of this Parliamentary sitting, i.e., June 2015. It is clear, upon a review of the Bill, that the devil will indeed be in the details, as there are a number of references in the Bill to regulations and policy guidelines which have yet to be formulated to support the general provisions of the Act. It is my considered opinion that, until these regulations et al are finalized, it will not be possible to evaluate the precise eligibility criteria for the newly proposed major benefits and the "factors to be considered" in the administration of the new Law.
  5. It is also self-evident that budgetary constraints still exist, as it is my opinion, upon review of the announcements and Bill C-58, that the Minister's proposals have been structured to "fit into" the budgetary envelope resulting in proposed benefits which are targeted to specific cohort veterans rather than the veteran population at large. The Government fixation with balancing the Budget in this election year remains a restraint on complete New Veterans Charter reform at this time.
  6. As I stated to the Minister at the conclusion of the Veterans Summit, much more needs to be done to rectify the voids that have been readily identified in the Charter. The present state of development cannot be considered a total fait accompli but merely a significant first stage of remedial legislation.

    For those who wish more information on the additional areas of the Charter, which need to be addressed at this time:

    • See the NCVA Submission to the Standing Committee of April 2014 for the full scope and extent of the gaps and inequities that we submitted to the Standing Committee which were largely adopted in the Standing Committee Report of June 2014 "The New Veterans Charter Moving Forward."
    • See also the NCVA Legislative Agenda of November 2014 approved at our Annual General Meeting in Toronto for a comparison of the NCVA proposals, the Standing Committee recommendations and the reply of the former Minister.

In summary form, the following gaps and inequities in the New Veterans Charter remain unaddressed notwithstanding the enactment of Bill C-58:

I would further mention that, as part of the afternoon session at the Veterans Summit, working groups were established to review not only New Veterans Charter concerns but also other priorities of the veterans' community. As a consequence, I had an opportunity to underline specific elements of our NCVA Legislative Agenda approved at last year's Annual Meeting.

One interesting discussion related to the whole question of cutting red tape within VAC and the various tools that could be employed to reach this objective. You will have noted that both the Minister and the Deputy have adopted a philosophy which is rather compelling in that VAC should "get to yes faster." Implicit in this affirmative pronouncement is the fact that layers of bureaucracy and undue red tape within the Department must be eliminated to create a more administratively efficient VAC.

In my view, our submission on red tape cutting is highly material in that our proposals largely focus on the utilization of presumptions to improve the speed and results to be achieved from the adjudicative branch of the Department.

I am pleased to advise that the Deputy has enthusiastically engaged in this process and we will be holding meetings over the course of the next few weeks with senior officials of VAC to further these initiatives.

I will keep you apprised as to developments on all fronts, as the newly conceived legislation, regulations and policy statements proceed to full implementation over the course of the next few months.