Agent Orange compensation program sends out its first cheques

People who qualify are starting to receive their $20,000 cheques from the federal government's Agent Orange compensation program, but there are complaints the package is too limited.

People who qualify are starting to receive their $20,000 cheques from the federal government's Agent Orange compensation program, but there are complaints the package is too limited.

The Veterans Affairs Department so far has received 508 applications and cheques have been mailed out to 152 people whose health may have been harmed by the testing of Agent Orange and several other powerful herbicides at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in 1966 and 1967.

Many more applications are expected over the next few months. The department has distributed 3,235 application forms for the compensation program.

Ottawa believes as many as 4,500 people— veterans and civilians — may qualify for the one-time payment.

To date, only seven people have been turned down for compensation because they did not meet the criteria.

"We promised we would get the cheques approved as quickly as possible, and that's what we are doing," Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson said Wednesday.

"The men and women who trained on the base, who worked and lived on the base, and who lived in the communities around the base have waited 40 years for a government to act. We don't want them waiting any longer."

Gagetown veteran John Chisholm has sent off his application and is confident he will qualify since he has at least two of the 12 diseases associated with Agent Orange exposure.

Chisholm was closely involved in the 1966 and 1967 Agent Orange tests, carried out for the U.S. military at the large base in southern New Brunswick.

"This government said they would do something about it and they did it," Chisholm said about the federal Conservatives.

"No matter how you look at it, whether you think it's good or not good, at least they did something. That's more than any other government has done."

But people who don't qualify for the payment are bitter about the limitations put on compensation.

"This compensation program ends in 2009, so in 2010, I get prostate cancer and because it wasn't diagnosed within some arbitrary time frame, I'm not entitled to anything?" said veteran Wayne Cardinal of Oromocto, N.B., who does not have any of the qualifying diseases.

"It's just not right.This government says it has billions of dollars to give to everything else but they turn their backs on the veterans. This book isn't written yet. It still has a lot of open pages."

To be eligible for the tax-free payment, individuals must have been diagnosed with one of 12 conditions associated with Agent Orange, as determined by the U.S. Institute of Medicine. The list includes such conditions as Hodgkin's disease, prostate cancer, lymphoma, respiratory cancers and Type 2 diabetes.

Although the U.S. Institute occasionally revises its list and recently added hypertension as a possible outcome of exposure, that relatively common medical problem is not included on the list used by Canadian officials.

Compensation applicants also must have worked or trained at CFB Gagetown, or lived in a community within five kilometres of the base, when the defoliant was tested.

Left out of the compensation package are those who claim they were harmed by the spraying of other herbicides at Gagetown between 1956 and 1984.

Those herbicides had formulations similar to Agent Orange, but were registered for use in Canada and were sprayed widely across the country by forestry, railway and utility companies.

Cardinal said he has joined a large, class-action lawsuit filed against the federal government by people who believe their health was harmed by decades of defoliant spraying at the base.

"I gave the government two years to do what was democratic and right for all the veterans and civilians who were involved," he said. "When they didn't, I joined the lawsuit."

The court action is still in its preliminary stages.

Chisholm said he will not become involved in the suit.

Accepting the $20,000 payment does not preclude court action, but Chisholm said he is skeptical of the chances in a court of law.

"The thing is, how do you prove it?" he said.

"Even with these diseases, there's no conceivable way you can prove these chemicals actually caused the diseases because there's no link. There's a very strong association that these here chemicals caused these diseases, but there's no positive link. That's the problem."