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Don't Treat Wounded Vets Like the Enemy

Feds push to stop lawsuit by ex-soldiers who want fair compensation for their disabilities.

Bill Tieleman 5 Nov 2013TheTyee.ca

Bill Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at [email protected] or visit his blog.

"The motivation here is money, saving money on the backs and blood of veterans that served Canada." -- Veterans' lawyer Don Sorochan on inadequate disability benefits.

As Canadians prepare to honour the service and sacrifice of our armed forces, why is the federal Conservative government treating wounded veterans like the enemy?

With Remembrance Day approaching, some of our most severely injured soldiers face hardship and poverty because of changes made to their disability benefits.

It is astonishing that the Conservatives are trying to overturn a B.C. Supreme Court decision allowing a lawsuit from veterans wounded in Afghanistan seeking fair compensation for their disabilities.

Rather than let those veterans have their day in court and have a judge decide on the merits of their arguments, the government wants to stop the legal action in its tracks. It will "review" veterans' situations through a Parliamentary committee with a Conservative majority.

"I announced that the government of Canada will support a comprehensive review of the New Veterans Charter, including all enhancements, with a special focus placed on the most seriously injured, support for families and the delivery of programs by Veterans Affairs Canada. I call on parliamentarians to focus on how we can better assist veterans," Fantino said in early October.

But the government's legal stalling tactics could mean years before the case accusing it of violating the Charter of Rights is heard, says Don Sorochan, whose law firm is taking on the case without charge for the Equitas Society.

The Royal Canadian Legion calls the government's actions "reprehensible."

And it gets worse. The feds are also accused of discharging wounded soldiers from the military before they can qualify for a pension.

For a party and government that claim to be so pro-armed forces, it's a stunning contradiction.

'We're not going to stand for it': vet

The veterans went to court because legislation in 2006 changed lifetime financial support for those fully or partially disabled to a lump sum payment to a maximum of $250,000.

In an email sent yesterday, Veterans Affairs communications director Joshua Zanin said veterans can access other "extensive support" through the New Veterans Charter.

Zanin also pointed to Veterans Affairs' budget increasing to $3.5 billion today from $2.8 billion in 2005.

And in a government statement last month, Veterans Affairs explained its court action this way: "[The veterans'] argument could have a far broader impact than perhaps intended by the plaintiffs... If accepted, this principle could undermine democratic accountability as parliamentarians of the future could be prevented from changing important legislation, including the sort of changes that some veterans would like to see to the New Veterans Charter," it said.

But Legion president Gordon Moore is not happy with the Conservatives.

"They have that moral obligation on behalf of all Canadians. I believe they're trying to slip out, but as we all know there will be an election within [two years] and there's a lot of upset and angry people out there on how veterans are being treated," Moore said last month.

While all political parties initially supported the change to benefits, which included some improvements for retraining and education, it's been clear for years that many veterans face life in poverty. The New Democrats and Liberals now agree changes are needed.

Port Moody's Kevin Berry served in Afghanistan and says the lump sum payment is only equivalent to 10 years of disability pension.

"Disability benefits for veterans have been slashed 40 to 90 per cent since 2006 under the New Veterans Charter, and myself and many others have been grossly under-compensated, and we are not willing to accept it -- we're not going to stand for it," the 29-year-old Berry told Global TV.

Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino says: "There exists a tangle of misinformation regarding how Canada treats its men and women who have served in uniform."

But that's not how wounded soldiers see it, and veterans ombudsman Guy Parent agrees.

"It is simply not acceptable to let veterans who have sacrificed the most for their country... live their lives with unmet financial needs," reads a report Parent released last month.

"Fifty-three per cent of veterans who are assessed to be totally and permanently incapacitated, and who are unable to engage in suitable gainful employment, are not awarded these benefits, which are designed to compensate severely and permanently impaired veterans for a lack of career opportunity and progression," the report states.

Discharged to save dollars?

Then there are accusations of soldiers being discharged early from the military to save pension money.

Corporal David Hawkins served in Afghanistan and suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, but was let go less than one year before he would be eligible for a full pension.

Hawkins said last week he begged not to be discharged but the Canadian Forces did so anyway, saying the reservist from London, Ontario was not deployable on a moment's notice due to his condition.

"If you don't meet the universality of service, you can no longer serve under the military, and basically they don't have any use for you," Hawkins told CTV, adding that the discharge is a "big life changer for me. I don't really know what else there is."

Defence Minister Rob Nicolson claims no soldier is discharged unwillingly, but other stories are surfacing.

To add further insult to injury, Veterans Affairs is cutting nearly 300 jobs, affecting front-line service.

My grandfather served in the First World War and lost a lung from a mustard gas attack.

Why should Canadian soldiers so gravely injured in active military service now be treated far worse than those who were hurt back in 1917?

It's shameful.  [Tyee]

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