From Stephen Harper’s constituency office in Calgary to Parliament Hill, Canadian veterans have been in the streets protesting against the federal government’s changes to veterans’ disability benefits. The central bone of contention in these rallies is the way those disability benefits are distributed to former soldiers. Under the “New Veterans Charter” introduced in 2006, soldiers who joined the army after that date will no longer be eligible for the monthly, life-long, small payments – pain-and-suffering pensions – that veterans previously received, and instead will receive a lump-sum payment.
The pensions, pegged to increase with inflation or civil servants’ salaries, whichever was greater, would help defray health care costs for the lifetime mental and physical injuries sustained in the military. The new lump-sum payments – a one-off that has averaged $40,000 over the past five years – will increase with inflation, but only for new veterans: those who have already received their payment won’t see an extra dollar. This shift from a regular pension to the lump sum seems to signal the Harper government’s desire to wash its hands of veterans’ affairs once soldiers have retired. Basing their assertion on leaked documents, opposition leaders say that the changes are a cash-cutting measure: up to $40 million a year.
Not only are the lump sums far too small to provide for injured veterans’ well-being, but the process of acquiring benefits has become harder. Former veterans ombudsperson Pat Strogan has pointed to overly high burdens of proof placed on veterans, what he describes as an “insurance company mentality” in the department of Veterans Affairs. Following his public critiques of the benefits system, it was announced this summer that Strogan would not be renewed in his post. He has talked about filing a class action lawsuit against the federal government on behalf of former soldiers hurt by the new system.
Whatever your opinions on the military, those affected by these changes are, first and foremost, individuals who are being ignored by the government for whose policies they risked their lives. This editorial is not about the role of the military in Canadian society or about the justness of war in general or Canada’s current military engagements. The fact is that Canada has an army, and its soldiers face incredibly arduous conditions, real danger, and often leave the military physically, mentally, or otherwise injured. As long as this country has a military, the people whose lives are most marked by it deserve to have their voices heard. From dropping $16 billion on jets without any open bidding, to boosting defence spending, to extending the Canadian mission in Afghanistan, the Harper government has been exceptionally hawkish. It’s all the more shameful, then, for the Tories to shortchange veterans, and hypocritical to boot.
In a show of solidarity with these recent veterans, many soldiers from wars of decades past – who will not be affected by the changes to veteran’s benefits – are leading the protests against this new system. Follow their example and demand better treatment for all veterans. Send a message to retired Chief Warrant Officer Guy Parent, the new veterans ombudsperson, by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. You should also write your MP to let them know how you feel. To look up your MP, go to bit.ly/humyMP.