OTTAWA — The new federal budget showers the country’s veterans with cash, but questions lingered Wednesday about the details and just how far the money will go towards improving the lives of former soldiers.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s fiscal plan delivers $5.6 billion — $3.7 billion booked in the current fiscal year — for better programs and services for the most critically injured former military members. The money will be spread out over decades, but federal accounting rules require all of it to be recorded now.
One of the marquee Liberal promises to veterans in the last election was to return to a pension-for-life system — or provide soldiers a choice between that and a lump-sum option.
There was no sign of such a change in Tuesday’s budget, but Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr says the government still backs the promise and needs time to consult on how it can be delivered.
“This is clearly in my mandate letter,” Hehr told The Canadian Press in an interview Wednesday. “We’re working towards implementing those commitments we made during the election and going forward.”
Hehr wouldn’t speculate on how long that will take.
Advocates were left wondering about the pledge, in part because the budget raised the lump-sum disability award for wounds suffered in the line of duty to a maximum of $360,000 next year from the current $310,000. That’s far below other countries such as Britain, where the payout is closer to $1 million.
Mike Blais, of Canadian Veterans Advocacy, said he remains unhappy and will continue to describe this as the “chump-sum award.”
“It’s no better than a worker’s compensation settlement,” said Blais.
He said the award should be equal to what a veteran would have received in a lifetime pension, which was how it worked until Parliament unanimously agreed in 2006 to overhaul the system and pay lump sums for pain and suffering settlements.
As a veteran injured in the 1990s, Blais gets a lifetime pension, which he said will far exceed what soldiers wounded on the battlefield in Afghanistan receive.
“People like me who’ve been on the old Pension Act will make four times more in pain and suffering than guys like Jody Mitic.”
Mitic, a former master corporal, lost both legs in Kandahar in 2007 before going on to become an Ottawa city councillor, author and prominent veterans advocate.
“That’s not fair,” Blais said.
Between what was announced Tuesday and the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of changes introduced last year by the former Conservative government, an enormous sum of money is now being made available to ex-soldiers.
Veterans ombudsman Guy Parent said this is the time to start gathering data, focusing on outcomes and determining whether there’s been a meaningful impact on lives.
“We bring in new benefits (and) we improve the existing ones without necessarily looking at what the impact is on the overall situation on the families and the veterans themselves,” Parent said.
Hehr said he agrees with Parent, but cautioned that measuring outcomes is not a simple exercise and questions about quality of life and satisfaction are complex and individual for the wounded.
The treatment of veterans became a lightning-rod for the Harper government and a political embarrassment for a party that prided itself on supporting the troops, particularly after a group of Afghan veterans launched a class-action lawsuit claiming the new system was discriminatory.
The case has been on hold since last year, when the Conservative government embarked on a series of changes meant to address the inequities and rebuild bridges with the veterans community.
Whether Tuesday’s budget is enough to end the lawsuit remains an open question.
Don Sorochan, the Vancouver lawyer representing the six claimants, said Wednesday he’ll consult his clients, but there will be a meeting with Justice Department lawyers next month.
“To my mind, I’m encouraged by what’s been done,” Sorochan said.
He said he wants to hear about future plans.
Tuesday’s fiscal blueprint also increases the salary replacement for the wounded known as the earning-loss benefit, but ties the minimum benefit to a senior private’s salary instead of a basic corporal’s salary.
That measure will disadvantage the lower ranks, said Don Leonardo of the group Veterans Canada.