Vets watchdog troubled by 'lack of trust' in his office, asks for mandate review

The new veterans ombudsman is calling for an independent review of his mandate after getting an earful from former soldiers who've lost confidence in his office. Craig Dalton said a review could look at having the ombudsman report directly to Parliament, rather than the veterans minister.

Craig Dalton says it may be time to let him report directly to Parliament

Canada's veterans ombudsman, retired colonel Craig Dalton, says he worries his office has lost the trust of some segments of the veterans community. He's asking the government to review his mandate. (CBC News/Murray Brewster)

Craig Dalton, Canada's new veterans ombudsman, says he fears his office has lost the trust and respect of some former soldiers and their families.

He's calling for an independent review of his mandate — one that would include the possibility of having him report independently and directly to Parliament, instead of the veterans minister.

Since being appointed last November, Dalton has criss-crossed the country for meetings with veterans groups, advocates and individual former soldiers. In many cases, he said, he's gotten an earful from those with complaints who told him they felt it was a waste of time to step forward.

"I am concerned with what has been reflected to me around lack of trust in our office, questioning what value we offer to veterans, noting that we're not independent enough to generate confidence in veterans," Dalton told CBC News. "That's something that is important and we need to look at it."

Dalton said the two previous ombudsmen, Pat Stogran and Guy Parent, did great work — but there's a growing belief out there among veterans that the ombudsman's office doesn't have the jurisdiction or the independence to deal with the most pressing personal and systemic issues facing former military and RCMP members.

A bid for independence

"If veterans are not coming to us because they don't believe we're independent and they don't believe we can support them, then I think looking at other reporting relationships for an ombuds office is certainly a component of the review I'd like to see included," said Dalton.

"Having our office report to the legislature is certainly something I think is worth looking at."

Dalton said he's not prepared at this time to recommend that the veterans ombudsman become a full-fledged officer of Parliament, similar to the auditor general and the parliamentary budget officer.

But he is calling on the Liberal government to conduct an independent assessment of what the ombudsman should be doing.

Veterans Minister Lawrence MacAulay said he thinks a review is a good idea, but is withholding judgment on whether the watchdog should report directly to Parliament.

"Anything we can do to improve what we do for veterans, I'm for," he said Wednesday. "To change the direction of how government is run, I just wouldn't want to respond off the cuff."

Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

MacAulay didn't say whether the government is prepared to order a mandate review before the next election, or whether he shared Dalton's assessment that some in the veterans community have lost faith in their ombudsman.

Set up 12 years ago by the former Conservative government, the office of the veterans ombudsman was given a mandate to, among other things, review and address complaints against Veterans Affairs and identify emerging issues that negatively affect those who've served.

Dalton said he believes that mandate is too narrow. Broadening it is something a mandate review should consider, alongside direct input from former soldiers, he said.

"Veterans expect us to help them and respond to their complaints, regardless of which program and which [Veterans Affairs Canada] service it related to," he said.

A history of pushing back

Under Stogran, the ombudsman's office fought a number of pitched battles with an entrenched veterans bureaucracy which was reluctant at the height of the Afghan war to revise newly-enacted services and benefits to meet the growing demands of the wounded.

The skirmishes spilled into the public sphere when Stogran — a former colonel who led Canada's first battle group in Kandahar — accused federal officials of "nickel and diming" veterans.

The ombudsman's office led by Parent produced a number of well-researched analytical reports that described in precise detail the shortcomings of the new 'veterans charter' package of benefits.

He also uncovered a $165 million accounting error by Veterans Affairs which, over several years, had short-changed 272,000 mostly elderly veterans who were receiving disability benefits and awards.

The ombudsman's office was limited in how far it could go in investigating how that enormous gaffe happened.

Back in 2007, veterans advocate Sean Bruyea recommended the ombudsman's office report to Parliament, rather than the minister. He said he's pleased with Dalton's call for a review.

"It's the right thing to do," he said. "The office was designed, created and populated by the very bureaucrats it was meant to oversee."

Former soldiers and parliamentarians, he said, deserve to have independent oversight of the department because "veterans have been banging their heads against the bureaucracy for two decades." Imposing accountability for government decisions, he said, is the least the federal government can do to restore faith in the system.

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Murray Brewster

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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