The national convention of the Royal Canadian Legion in Halifax, as well as a feisty protest in Ottawa last week, have brought veterans issues back to the fore.
On Wednesday, 1,200 members of the Royal Canadian Legion wrapped up their annual conference, which included a pledge from Veterans Affairs Minister Stephen Blaney to reduce the red tape involved in processing benefit claims.
Last week, the group Canadian Veterans Advocacy used the anniversary of D-Day to stage a vigil on Parliament Hill to mark what they say is the low standard of benefits for veterans of recent wars.
Here are four of the biggest concerns facing Canada’s veterans today, according to advocates.
Lump-sum disability award
For many decades, an injured war veteran from Canada received a pension for life. But since the implementation of the New Veterans Charter in 2006, the monthly disability payments were replaced with a one-time payment with a maximum of $276,089.
According to the Veterans Affairs Canada website, the revised charter "shifts the focus from a lifetime of disability to encouraging ‘wellness.’"
Michael Blais, founder and president of Canadian Veterans Advocacy, says the lump-sum payment can actually harm an injured soldier, because they are receiving a large amount of money at a time when they may not be equipped to deal with it.
"I talk to some of these kids that get these lump-sum awards — they run out, buy a new truck, they buy something nice for the girlfriend or the wife, they go on a vacation, they go and put a down payment on a house, or addictions take it all, and then five years later we’re helping them get off the streets," says Blais.
Blais adds that a monthly pension gives veterans of all ages long-term financial security, making it easier for them to get loans, for example.
"For legitimate reasons, like getting a mortgage on a house, that income counts and it’s steady," he says.
It’s well documented that many soldiers have trouble adjusting to civilian life once they leave the service, and frequently turn to drinking or drugs. Too often, this trend can lead to homelessness.
According to advocates, there are no statistics on the number of homeless veterans in Canada.
During its annual conference earlier this week, the Royal Canadian Legion announced it is spending $500,000 to fund Leave the Streets Behind, a program meant to help homeless veterans across the country.
Pat Varga, dominion president of the Royal Canadian Legion, conceded that it wasn’t a large endowment, but said, "it’s a start, and that’s what we want."
Exposure to chemicals
In the course of training and combat, Canadian soldiers have been exposed to a number of toxins.
They include the so-called "rainbow herbicides" (like agents orange, white and purple), famously used by the U.S. Army to defoliate dense jungle during the Vietnam war; mefloquine, an anti-malarial drug some experts believe has the potential to cause psychotic reactions; and radiation in Afghanistan, where radioactive equipment left behind by the Soviets, as well as modern munitions that use depleted uranium, have the potential to produce serious health issues.
In 2007, Ottawa announced a $96-million compensation package for people exposed to toxic defoliants at CFB Gagetown in New Brunswick. The U.S. military tested Agent Orange and other powerful defoliants on a small section of the base over seven days in 1966 and 1967.
The reparations were highly restricted: a one-time payment of $20,000 only available to veterans and civilians who worked on or lived within five kilometres of the base between 1966 and 1967. "They came out with this award, they recognized it was an issue, but the restrictions they put on it, the criteria for getting that award, eliminated 75 per cent of the people who were affected," says Michael Blais.
Post-traumatic stress disorder and mental health
This spring, the military released figures showing that 19 soldiers committed suicide in 2011 – more than at any time since the mid-’90s.
This number, however, only includes soldiers who took their lives while deployed overseas. The military does not take into account reservists who commit suicide, or veterans who do so after returning from duty.
"PTSD is a serious issue," says Jeff Rose-Martland, executive director of the veterans group Our Duty. "I suspect that everyone who has been through war or disaster or similar events has PTSD to some degree, probably much more than they admit."
Pat Varga of the Royal Canadian Legion says that PTSD is not a new concern.
"If I look back at my family life when I was growing up, my father, who was a veteran of World War Two, he had PTSD, but nobody knew what it was," says Varga.
She thinks that soldiers returning from Afghanistan have "more predominant needs."
"It’s affecting them faster than what has necessarily affected some of the people in the past," says Varga.
She believes it’s due to the greater number of deployments for each soldier, as well as the nature of the conflict, in which Canadian soldiers have fought a less-defined enemy that uses asymmetric warfare techniques, like improvised explosive devices (IED).
Rose-Martland doesn’t think that PTSD is more common now, "just better understood."
"Much like problem drinking: now we understand that substance abuse results from other issues. Twenty years ago, it was just an alcohol addiction. Twenty years before that, you were just a drunk. Now, we see PTSD for what it is: a wounded mind."
Two weeks ago, Varga wrote a letter to Defence Minister Peter MacKay criticizing the Department of National Defence’s decision to cut the budget for suicide prevention programs.
"The government has an absolute responsibility to ensure that these young men and women are looked after," says Varga. "I know economic times are tough, but that’s got to be put aside."