Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino said Thursday the work done by his department is a social contract with veterans, even though government lawyers have denied any such agreement exists.
In a statement, Fantino said "some have called the work done by Veterans Affairs to be a duty, a responsibility, a commitment, a social contract or a sacred obligation. I believe it is all of those things."
The statement comes after government lawyers denied the existence of a social contract or covenant between the government and the Canadian Forces in response to a lawsuit launched by a group of veterans.
The class-action lawsuit was first filed in October 2012, and involves six veterans, all of whom served and were injured in Afghanistan.
It claims the New Veterans Charter and the changes it brings to compensation for veterans violates the Constitution and the Charter of Rights. One of its main arguments is that there is a "social contract" between the government and Canadian Forces veterans.
In 2005, the government changed the way it calculates compensation and disability benefits for those injured in battle. Under the New Veterans Charter soldiers are now given a lump-sum payment in lieu of a lifetime pension. Veterans argue that means injured soldiers will receive much less over their lifetimes.
What's not included in the new charter is a promise or obligation that the government ensure veterans are given adequate recognition and benefits.
The lawsuit argues this social covenant was first promised to Canadians who served in the military during the First World War and has been continually promised since then through policy, political speeches and veterans' legislation, until now.
Veterans not 'deprived,' lawyers argue
In its legal response, filed in the B.C. Supreme Court in January, government lawyers said no such contract exists.
"At no time in Canada's history has any alleged 'social contract' or 'social covenant' having the attributes pleaded by the plaintiffs been given effect in any statute, regulation or as a constitutional principle written or unwritten."
Government lawyers also argued the new charter does not violate the Charter of Rights or the Constitution and the veterans involved have not been "deprived" of anything.
The New Veterans Charter is currently undergoing a review. One of the recommendations from Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent is that a social contract or obligation to veterans be part of the reformed charter.
"So it's clearly at least stated with the context of the legislation that there is an obligation and it doesn't matter whether it's legislated or moral or how you describe it, but there is an obligation for every citizen of Canada," he said.
The veterans affairs minister may be open to that idea and reiterated his commitment to improving the charter today.
"I have asked the Parliamentary review to include consultations with Canadians, Veterans and experts on exactly what our shared duty, responsibility, mandate, obligation, commitment or contract is with Canadian Veterans and how that should be stated in the New Veterans Charter," Fantino said.
NDP Veterans Affairs critic Peter Stoffer said the minister's statement today is a "significant shift" in the government's position when it comes to veterans benefits, but he questions why government lawyers are still arguing there is no social contract with soldiers.
"It's disturbing to hear the lawyers for the government argue that there isn't one," he said.
Stoffer said he would like the government to admit there is a social obligation to veterans. Then, he said, there can be a debate around what kind of benefits need to be offered.