Ombudsman's report, critics pressure Conservatives to fix veterans charter

OTTAWA – The Conservative government, which long claimed its support of Canada’s military as a point of pride, faced mounting political pressure Monday to close lingering gaps in its long-championed veterans legislation.

A leaked copy of a veterans ombudsman’s report — slated for release Tuesday but obtained over the weekend by The Canadian Press — confirms there are major problems with a system that was meant to care for and compensate former soldiers for injuries they sustained overseas, the New Democrats say.

The ombudsman’s office carried out a detailed comparison of benefits and entitlements between those under the new veterans charter and those from the old pension-for-life system, which had been used since the end of the First World War.

Hundreds of the most severely disabled soldiers will take a financial hit after they turn 65 when some charter benefits end, concludes the report by veterans ombudsman Guy Parent.

Those affected do not have military pensions and face the possibility of spending their final years in poverty, it notes.

The report also says the rates of compensation for pain and suffering are inadequate, and don’t even meet the level of what is handed out by Canadian courts in personal injury cases.

The Conservatives overhauled the veterans charter in 2011 following complaints that it was nowhere near as generous as the old system. Those enhancements, which included more money to replace lost income, will be the subject of a review by a parliamentary committee this fall.

But the concerns and gaps regarding elderly veterans and lump-sum compensation payments have been around for a long time — and the government had the chance to deal with the problems two years ago, said NDP defence critic Jack Harris.

“It should have and could have been done before,” Harris said.

“The fact that this is still an issue is simply mean-spirited, especially since this government is fond of describing soldiers as this country’s greatest citizens.”

Former defence minister Peter MacKay often invoked the phrase in speeches.

Last week, Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino said the government would support the House of Commons veterans committee in its examination of the effect the government’s changes have had.

But there has already been “review after review after review,” Harris said, and veterans now expect action.

It remains unclear just how Tuesday’s report will impact an ongoing lawsuit by former service members who took part in the mission in Afghanistan.

The younger veterans are arguing that the new charter discriminates against them and provides less than to them than soldiers who served in the Second World War, Korea and on peacekeeping operations.

An actuarial study accompanying Parent’s report shows that under the new system, injured soldiers get more money up front in terms of loss of income support.

But compensation for non-economic loss — primarily the lump-sum payment for wounds — pales in comparison to the old pension system, the study shows.

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