'The system is broken': Watchdog rips into endless grind of studies on veterans issues

The federal government is very good at ordering studies into veterans' services. Its critics say it's a lot less able when it comes to following through.

'We know what needs to be done,' says Gary Walbourne. 'We just need to do it.'

Trevor Sanderson was camping this week beneath the walkway connecting the East and West Memorial Buildings on Wellington Street in Ottawa, ahead of Thursday's protest for better services for veterans. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

There's an old joke in Ottawa about crisis management.

One bureaucrat asks another: How do you make bad news go away?

The answer: Order a study.

Over the past few years, both the House of Commons defence and veterans committees have between them conducted 14 different studies on how to improve services, benefits and the lives of ex-soldiers, sailors and aircrew.

Collectively, the all-party MPs committees have made a jaw-dropping 190 recommendations for improvements to those systems and services at both National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada.

That total does not include reams of separate recommendations from the military ombudsman and the veterans ombudsman, who have built their own virtual cottage industry out of drafting reports.

The question preoccupying the veterans committee these days is: How can the federal government give soldiers a smoother transition from uniforms to civilian jobs?

Gary Walbourne, the Canadian Forces ombudsman, almost seemed to wonder aloud why he'd been called to testify before MPs on Tuesday — and why the committee is still asking that question.

"We do not need another study into transition," he said. "We know what needs to be done. We just need to do it."

His exasperation was, at times, evident — and seemed to be shared by MPs both sides of the political aisle.

Shared angst

"No one will disagree with your essential point that we keep having reviews and nothing gets done," Liberal backbencher Bob Bratina said.

Canadian Forces ombudsman Gary Walbourne at a Senate veterans affairs committee hearing in Ottawa on May 4. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Conservative MP Cathay Wagantall said Tuesday that one of the first questions she'd asked upon joining the committee was: Why are we studying this again?

"I share your angst in regard to the fact so many studies have been done," she told Walbourne.

Asked at a recent town hall appearance why his government is still fighting veterans challenging Ottawa's pension policy in court, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that the veterans are "asking for more than we are able to give right now" — a reply that probably generated more heat than light.

But the chief source of frustration for many veterans lies in the bureaucracy, not the courts — in the seemingly endless grind of reviews and examinations of what seem to be common-sense ideas which too often end up going nowhere.

Failed system

That hazy sense that nothing ever changes — or at least that nothing ever changes fast enough — is what's driving the ex-soldiers now camped out in protest in the parliamentary precinct in Ottawa.

Trevor Sanderson and Dick Groot plan to stay until Thursday, when a larger veterans protest is expected to arrive.

Sanderson and Groot say they feel disrespected by Trudeau, but the root of their frustration is what they see as the federal government's inability to deal with their benefit claims.

"When I did go to the system, everything went crazy," Groot told CBC News earlier this week. "It failed utterly."

Canadian soldiers patrol southwest of Kandahar, Afghanistan, Monday, June 7, 2010. (Anja Niedringhaus/Canadian Press)

One of the problems ex-soldiers like Groot face is the fact that Veterans Affairs Canada must weigh in with its own separate medical opinion on injuries that have been diagnosed by military doctors and attributed to their time in uniform.

Walbourne has recommended more than once that the military medical opinion be the first and last word in such cases — something defence and veterans officials have neither ruled in nor ruled out.

"I do not have a clear, concise response as to why it cannot be implemented," he told the committee.

"I keep hearing legislation would have to change. I don't think so. I think we have an opportunity there that we don't have to do that, but if we do, then OK, let's do it."

Enormous backlog

The Canadian Press reported last fall that the number of veterans waiting to find out if they qualify for disability benefits has topped 29,000 — a 50 per cent increase since March of last year.

Testifying last week before the same committee Walbourne spoke to on Tuesday, a senior veterans official was only able to offer vague assurances that claims would be processed within the mandated 16-week response window.

The official, Elizabeth Douglas, said the problem did not fall within her authority.

"However, again, we do recognize that there have been delays with the service standards, and there is work under way to ensure that is corrected," she said.

Walbourne said he's been talking about issues related to transition for almost eight years — first as the deputy veterans ombudsman, now as the military ombudsman.

"It is my humble opinion that asking the government why accepted recommendations have not been implemented will bring timelier, more concrete results than doing an additional study," he said.

"The current system is broken … I ask that we stop defending positions on the subject of transition that are indefensible."


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.


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