Disabled veterans will do Canada proud at Invictus despite the government, not because of it

Through no fault of their own, the very public show of individual strength and perseverance among Canadian Invictus athletes will give the very mistaken impression that all is well among those who have returned from war. It isn't.

These games will give the impression that all is well among our disabled veterans. It's not

The assumption among many civilians is that veterans like me should be entirely behind these games. Well, that's not entirely the case. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Later this month, Toronto will play host to the Invictus Games, an adaptive sports competition involving disabled military veterans from around the world.

These games, started by Prince Harry in 2014, are meant to showcase the indomitable spirit of military veterans who are rising above their service-related disabilities. They are a gathering of the empowered, showing this country and the world how a select few of our veterans are able to "soldier on" and remain strong in spite of their conditions. 

The name is inspired by the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley, which ends with the lines: 

I am the master of my fate

I am the captain of my soul

The assumption among many civilians is that veterans like me should be entirely behind these games. Well, that's not entirely the case.

A showcase of strength and resiliency

I have no doubt that the men and women who participate in these games will be a great source of pride for their respective nations. Good for them! 

The flipside of that, however, is that this showcase of perseverance will inadvertently give the impression that each and every disabled veteran likewise has the personal strength and fortitude to rise about his or her service-related disabilities. That is simply not the case. 

The issue is particularly sensitive in Canada —this year's Invictus host — where successive governments have spent the last 12 years trying to divest or delay their legal and financial responsibilities to care for today's younger disabled veterans.

By cheering, supporting and parading these select disabled veteran models of strength and success, the government might as well be proclaiming its strategy and commitment to Canada's disabled veterans has also been a success. 

It was in May of 2005, just as Canada's combat mission in Afghanistan was really ramping up, that Paul Martin's Liberal government passed the so-called New Veterans Charter. The Act had the support of all three political parties and, among other changes, eliminated lifelong disability pensions and support, and swapped them for one-time lump sum payments or "awards." 

Lump sum payments significantly diminish the taxpayer's liability in the long-term, which is why governments prefer this route.  Nonetheless lump sum payments place the onus of investing and otherwise maximizing the long-term benefit of the monetary award in the hands of the sick disabled veteran, who may not necessarily have the advanced financial skills required. Pensions, on the other hand, provide a greater assurance of financial stability and consistency, which is important to make it through the peaks and valleys of recovery and post-service life.

Budget cuts and empty promises

The Conservative government under Stephen Harper not only implemented the Liberal legislation — even as scores of Canadian wounded continued coming home — but also cut budgets and services to veterans and their families. 

So it was most refreshing to our demoralized community that, in the last election campaign, the Trudeau Liberals promised not only to bring back disability pensions, but also promised that no veteran would have to fight Veterans Affairs to get the compensation they deserve. As an added bonus, Trudeau also vowed that veterans would get up to four years of free university tuition.

But apart from the re-opening of a few veteran affairs offices, there has been no movement on any of the Liberal promises two years into their mandate. 

It is to this political backdrop that our Canadian Invictus athletes are competing. Through no fault of their own, their very public show of individual strength and perseverance will give the very mistaken impression that all is well among those who have returned from war.

Prince Harry, Justin Trudeau launch 2017 Invictus Games in Toronto

6 years ago
Duration 2:02
Olympic-style sports event for wounded veterans takes place September 2017 in Toronto.

This is not the case, as disabled veterans and their families know all too well. But with such steadfast examples of power-over-PTSD on display at Invictus, why should there be more funding for veteran services? Is a return to lifelong disability pensions really necessary when Herculean displays of teamwork and testosterone are shown by our limbless combat vets?

No doubt the entire Canadian Invictus contingent is well aware of the fact that way too many of their fellow disabled veterans are languishing physically, mentally and financially. Certainly the very real stories of our Invictus athletes' personal struggles will bring tears to the eyes of listeners and attending celebrities, as they have done in previous games. 

But then what? Will Invictus spectators flock to their respective member of Parliament, demanding that the current government bring back disability pensions, ensure disabled veterans don't have to fight to get benefits to which they are entitled and demand that the Liberals fulfill their promise of free university education for all veterans?

Permit me here to assume the answer: no. More than likely, the fate of the vast majority of this country's younger disabled veterans will continue much as it has for just over a decade. 

Go Canada.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Robert Smol holds a Master of Arts in War Studies from the Royal Military College and served more than 20 years in the Canadian Armed Forces, retiring as a Captain in the Intelligence Branch. He is currently studying law in Toronto.


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