Veterans’ ombudsman’s final speech on his watch to the Senate

Veteran’s Ombudsman Pat Stogran appeared Wednesday, November 3, 2010, before the Senate subcommittee on veterans affairs for the last time. This what he said:

 Mr. Chairman

Committee Members

I would like to thank you for the opportunity to appear before your Committee one last time. Throughout my tenure as Veterans Ombudsman, I have grown to appreciate the work of the Senate’s Sub-Committee on Veterans Affairs. I have also found the reports of the Committee to be most informative, reflecting what I perceive as a genuine intent to do right by our Veterans and their families. I consider it an honor and a privilege to have been able to contribute to that process.

Last week I appeared before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs. I offered a list of eleven recommendations that can and must beimplemented as a matter of urgency in order to break the culture of denial and often poor treatment of our Veterans and their families that is firmly entrenched in Veterans Affairs Canada and the Veterans Review and Appeals Board. I think ten of them can be initiated and implemented relatively easily. However, my number one priority, to legislate the position of Veterans Ombudsman, is going to be a true test of how sincere our Government is in its commitment to improve the treatment of the Veterans who have served them and our Country so well. In my humble opinion, this is the one way that Parliamentarians can, in the near term, demonstrate an enduring and substantive commitment to our Veterans and their families – a commitment that is commensurate with that which members of the Canadian Forces and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are demonstrating to Parliamentarians on a daily basis in places like Afghanistan.

Members of the CF and RCMP are sacrificing their lives for the Government agenda, yet Veterans have very little influence on the system that looks after them. Relationships with the major associations are superficial at best. Veterans deserve dedicated representation inside the machinery of government. The Office of the Veterans Ombudsman should be legislated so that Parliamentarians cannot exert undue influence and bureaucrats cannot manipulate or obstruct it.

My other recommendations are:

2. The standard of proof that the Department and the Veterans Review and Appeals Board expect Veterans to meet is interpreted as per the Balance of Probabilities in civil tort.

This is wrong. Legislation intends a much lower standard in the so-called “Benefit of the Doubt”;

3. The Veterans Review and Appeals Board is the only federal tribunal that fails to make its decisions public. They should be directed to start publishing their decisions forthwith, and former decisions should be admissible as evidence in the appeals process;

4. The Veterans Review and Appeals Board currently employs the same staff for both reviews and appeals. This collective approach lends itself to undue influence and potential bias. The Board should be compelled to have dedicated and separate review members and appeals members;

5. Veterans who wish to appeal Board decisions before the Federal Court must do so at their own expect. The Bureau of Pension Advocates should be empowered to represent select cases in the Federal Court when it is felt there is potential to serve the greater good;

6. The Veterans Review and Appeals Board has been selective of if and how they will adhere to decisions of the Federal Court. They should be compelled to conform to those decisions;

7. The Department’s capacity to conduct research is very limited and has had little impact on improving the treatment of our Veterans. Veterans Affairs Canada should be directed to be more proactive in effecting research that benefits the Veterans Community by partnering with other organizations and adopting research conducted by allied nations;

8. The Government’s commitment to keeping Veterans programs and services current and relevant is woeful. The Department must be mandated to actively and frequently update programs and, when required, urge the Government of the day to make amendments that reflect leading edge knowledge, best practices and lessons learned to advantage Veterans and their families;

9. The Department’s aversion to taking risk is excessive, and the control measures they employ cause an unacceptably poor standard of service for Veterans. Veterans Affairs Canada should be compelled to decentralize decision-making to the levels and locations where it will best advantage Veterans and applicants;

10. Departmental adjudicators will not communicate directly with Veterans and applicants to ensure applications are accurate and complete, which causes unacceptable turnaround times, confusion and wasted effort. Veterans Affairs Canada should be directed to engage directly with Veterans and applicants as is the practice with other service providers of government; and

11. The inefficiencies in the system can cause the adjudication process to take years, but the retroactivity upon approval is limited. Government should mandate that retroactivity be applicable to the date of first application.

These are only a start, but they are some positive steps towards destroying the current culture at Veterans Affairs Canada that too often fails to fulfill the obligation of the people and the Government of Canada towards the Veterans who have served this Country so well and their families. Most importantly, however, is that the mandate of the Veterans Ombudsman be enshrined in legislation. Therefore, this committee should exercise all the influence it can to make this a reality.

The commitment of our service personnel today is as great as the commitment of our Veterans of World War I and II was when they came in from the mines, the logging camps, the farms and factories so many years agoand accepted the condition of unlimited liability in the service of our Country. Sadly, in my three years as Veterans Ombudsman, it has become painfully obvious to me that the commitment to our Veterans and their families is nowhere as comprehensive as it once was.

For many years now, Veterans Affairs Canada and success federal governments have been increasingly and deliberately stepping away from the obligation towards our Veterans and their families that was once recognized as a duty to uphold. Gone are the days when Veterans actually participated in decision-making within the corridors of federal power to ensure that the commitment to them remained strong and true. By legislating the position of Veterans Ombudsman, our Veterans may once again have some degree of representation in the processes of government that decide the fate of those who sacrifice so much for our Country.

I would like to take this opportunity to draw your attention to another alarming issue that has been presented to me: the way RCMP Veterans perceive they are being treated. Many members who sustained injuries while serving on so-called peacekeeping duties overseas with the Canadian Forces have reported that they face huge obstacles when claiming for their duty related injuries after being discharged. They receive little support during the release process, have no case managers, no trained OSISS-like peer support counselors, or access to programs to assist them to re-integrate back into the civilian life.

From what I have been able to ascertain to date, the way we treat RCMP Veterans with disabilities lags behind their military counterpart. Much like the regular force military relationship with their reserve forces, the RCMP have a growing cohort of municipal and provincial police officers who have been deployed on international operations. Unfortunately, if they succumb to service related injuries later in life they often have to fend for themselves within lessthanempathetic provincial and regional systems. They too, are deserving of a Veterans Ombudsman who has the authority to review their issues.

The delivery of Veterans benefits and services should be treated as a national security issue, not as a social program. To effectively recruit, employ and deploy the Canadian Forces and RCMP, service personnel must have complete faith in the “system” that looks after them while serving, as well as after service. When the frequency and intensity of operations increases, so does the effect it has on those who serve. Therefore, national security decision makers need to start factoring into their calculations what capacity is going to be required to respond to Veterans’ needs.

Before closing, I would like to acknowledge the steps taken by the Government of Canada in the past months to ensure fairer treatment of our Veterans and their families. I especially appreciate the Prime Minister’s leadership by intervening personally in the Brian Dyck case. To me the Brian Dyck case characterizes everything that is wrong with the current system. This leadership augurs well for the future. I emphasize to you, however, that the steps announced are only the beginning of the changes needed if we are to serve our Veterans and their families in the way that they deserve.

Now is the time for action.

Our Veterans and their families are the responsibility of all of us; we must not let them down.

Finally, I wish to thank the Committee for the work that you do and for the honour to appear before you. It has been my pleasure to serve as Canada’s first Veterans Ombudsman. I wish to express my thanks also to my team, who have soldiered on in the face of some very volatile, uncertain, and ambiguous times. I would also like to thank the rank-and-file at Veterans Affairs Canada and those members of the Veterans Review and Appeals Board who work so hard to serve our Veterans and their families, but have been frustrated by a system that is so broken.

Finally I wish to thank all Canadians who have expressed their outrage at the revelations that have taken place since my press conference on 17th of August, demonstrating how truly broken the system is. To all of you I submit that a Veterans Ombudsman with a legislated mandate is a keystone requirement to correct this alarming situation.


About Bonnie Toews and John Christiansen

Bonnie's Blog Posts invite our readers and free spirits everywhere to share life's adventures with us. I talk about writing my novels, reading books, chatting with other writers and John's and my journeys around the world. We welcome your anecdotes to our experiences and discussions.
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