As they approach the ballot box, Canada's veterans are urged to read the fine political print

After many of them shifted their support in 2015 from the Conservatives to the Liberals, veterans are being encouraged during the current election campaign to take a closer, more critical look at the details of the parties' election pitches.

Pensions are a major concern for veterans' community

Disabled veterans are watching the fine print in election promises, advocates say (CBC)

Canada's veterans, many of whom shifted their support in 2015 from the Conservatives to the Liberals, are being encouraged during this election campaign to take a closer, more critical look at the details of the parties' election pitches.

Advocates who represent them say veterans have learned the value of the old maxim: Read the fine print.

The Liberal pledge in 2015 to give veterans the "option" of a lifetime pension for injuries sustained in the line of duty was a key element of the party's efforts to capture their votes, the advocates say.

Rightly or wrongly, that promise left many former soldiers with the impression that there would be a wholesale return to pensions-for-life — and those allowances would be equal to what was paid out under the old Pension Act.

Since then, there has been an extraordinary and divisive debate about the Liberal government's pension-for-life plan, implemented last spring. Among the skeptics is the Parliamentary Budget Office, which said the program will be slightly more generous than the one it replaces, but not a match for the pre-2006 system.

That's why the details are so important to veterans now, said veterans advocate Aaron Bedard.

Aaron Bedard, shown in a file photo, is a military veteran who advocates on behalf of fellow vets (Paula Gale/CBC)

"There were just some fine details that people were willing to overlook [in 2015] for the sake of change," said Bedard, who was at the heart of a now-defunct class lawsuit over the disability pension system.

Bedard said that, in 2015, there was "nowhere else" for veterans disillusioned by the Conservatives to turn, apart from the Liberal Party.

The NDP and the Green Party will no doubt take umbrage at that claim, but Bedard said that, in the four years since, those parties haven't spent much time meeting with his group of former soldiers and advocates to understand their concerns.

However, the NDP, the People's Party of Canada and the Green Party seem to be the ones most interested in upending the status quo on veterans. All thee parties are calling for a review of veterans' services and benefits.

The Green Party platform specifically proposes "a national re-examination of veterans' issues" as well as a restoration of the pre-2006 benefit payment regime.

The People's Party of Canada proposes a "line-by-line review" of the existing veterans charter. It is also pitching a wholesale return to the previous pension-for-life system.

Conservatives promise changes

The Conservative platform, meanwhile, promises to create "a reliable, dependable pension system" that is fair to the most disabled veterans.

Defining "fair" should be a simple task, said one advocate.

Brian Forbes, chair of the National Council of Veterans Associations, said the disparity between the benefits paid to older and younger veterans is a key ballot box issue for his community.

"What we are looking for from these political parties is for someone to stand up and say, 'Look, we should not have two or three layers of pension benefits,'" said Forbes. "We should have one model for all disabled veterans."

Forbes pointed to the cases of two former soldiers, both double amputees — one wounded before the 2006 introduction of the New Veterans Charter (NVC) and one injured afterward. He said their compensation packages do "not resemble one another."

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau holds up the party's platform book Sept. 29 in Mississauga, Ont. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

And many veterans still feel lingering resentment over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's comment during a 2017 town hall. Defending his government's handling of the class-action lawsuit by veterans, Trudeau said former soldiers were "asking for more than we are able to give right now."

"The outrage from that comment is still palpable," said Forbes. "There are veterans who've never forgotten that exchange."

For their part, the Liberals say they want to move beyond the pension-for-life debate and focus on wellness and care. They're proposing swifter and broader access to mental health services.

The party promises that each veteran would be eligible for $3,000 in free counselling services before they file a disability claim under a re-elected Liberal government.

The Liberals also say they would also simplify and shorten the benefits process to include "automatic approval for the most common disability applications, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and arthritis, among others."

Guy Gallant, a spokesman for the Liberals, said medical conditions that already have high approval rates (80 per cent or more) would be eligible for fast-track approval of benefits.

The Parliamentary Budget Office, in its recent analysis, warned that "the perception of automatic approval may increase take-up or application rates" for those programs. That could lead to bigger budgets for those programs.

The Liberal government appears to have laid the groundwork already by redesigning the post-traumatic stress disorder questionnaire filled out by medical professionals.

As CBC News reported last spring, the new form is shorter and more general, which troubles some psychologists. The  new, more generic application gives the bureaucracy more latitude to reject or approve the claim; when the new form was introduced, officials insisted they wanted to see swifter endorsements.

Federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, right, talks with veterans while making a campaign stop in Canoe Cove, P.E.I. on Sunday, Sept. 22. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

As of last November, the backlog of disability applications had grown to 40,000 — something both the New Democrats and Conservatives vow to fix. The Tories commit to doing it within 24 months.

The Liberals have acknowledged the problem, but defend their record.

"We have worked hard to ensure veterans and their families get the services they need and benefits they deserve," said Gallant.

The Liberals also promise to "move forward with a new rapid-response service staffed by social workers, case management counsellors and peer support workers."

They say their mission would be to "proactively reach out to every Canadian veteran to make sure that they know about the help that is available, and how to access it."

The party is vague on what that policy would entail. "This will likely involve the hiring of several hundred social workers, case management counsellors and peer support workers," said Gallant.

Promise more housing

There is a separate Liberal proposal for "building new, purpose-built accessible and affordable housing units, with a full range of health, social and employment support for veterans who need extra help."

It would be a $15 million per year commitment.

Jim Lowther is president of VETS Canada, an organization that works to get homeless veterans off the streets. He said he is intrigued but added the Liberals will have to realize that they cannot create "barracks-style" housing for former soldiers.

"As long as it is community housing," he said. "One of the things we've learned over the years is that veterans don't want to live together. A lot of veterans who are homeless have been out for 10 years and don't ... want to go back to a barracks setting."

Lowther said he believes a stipend to help veterans having trouble paying rent might be just as effective as investing in bricks and mortar. It would, he said, prevent veterans from becoming homeless in the first place.

No matter which party is elected, Lowther said, the next government is going to have to wrap its head around a different definition of veteran homelessness.

Work on homelessness

"People think of a guy holding a cup. That's not what it is like," he said. "That might be one per cent of what it actually is. Most [homeless] veterans are couch surfing and doing other things."

It has been tough, many veterans advocates say, to get all the parties to make the kind of sophisticated distinctions that Lowther talks about.

Which is why Forbes argues that, as veterans are making up their minds in the current election campaign, they should be asking all parties the same question: "What do you mean when you say you were going to take care of us?"


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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