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Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs


Proceedings of the Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs

Issue 2 - Evidence - October 19, 2011

OTTAWA, Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs of the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence met this day at 12:06 p.m. to study the services and benefits provided to members of the Canadian Forces; to veterans; to members and former members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and their families.

Senator Roméo Antonius Dallaire (Chair) in the chair.


The Chair: Good afternoon, everyone. We apologize for starting late. The caucus meetings end at noon, which is when we are supposed to start our meeting. However, the members of the committee do their best to be on time, and I thank them for that.

Mr. Parent, I see that you are going to make a presentation. To the extent possible, without trying to rush you, we need to have enough time for the members of the committee to be able to ask their questions.

But before giving you the floor, let me congratulate you on your appointment as the veterans ombudsman. This meeting is important to us as it will allow us to understand your philosophy and your work plan.

Without further delay, the floor is yours, Mr. Parent.


Guy Parent, Veterans Ombudsman, Office of the Veterans Ombudsman: Thank you, Mr. Chair and honourable senators.


It is a pleasure, a privilege and an honour to be here today and to be able to give you a short overview of my role and approach as the veterans ombudsman. I will also be able to give you an idea of the work that we have accomplished so far and the work that we are hoping to accomplish in the coming months.


I would like to start by introducing my team: Gary Walbourne, Director General of Operations, and Deputy Ombudsman; and Diane Guilmet-Harris, my legal adviser here in Ottawa.

I was asked to do a short presentation on the role of the office and I wish, with your concurrence, Mr. Chair, to speak to the slides for maybe eight to ten minutes. Then, we are here to answer any of your questions.


We will be sure to do so in the language of Shakespeare or that of Molière.


The slides are there mainly to provide detailed information that you may want to use to ask questions of our office at a later date or today during the meeting. I will go through them very briefly. A lot of the things on them are known. In fact, some of the people around the table were at the presentation I made to the Finance Committee, and they got the same kind of approach.

The office was created in 2007 with a lot of other programs that came in at the same time, such as the New Veterans Charter, the charter of rights for veterans. These events were new to the veterans' community. They were changes in concept and oversight brought about by creating an ombudsman's office.

I work as an independent officer reporting directly to the minister and have a dual role in that respect. I represent all the veterans of Canada, including RCMP veterans, which is a fact that is not sometimes known. I found out in my latest outreach campaign that people did not realize RCMP members are also veterans of Canada. They are also my responsibility if they have any difficulties with benefits administered by Veterans Affairs Canada.

Secondly, I am also a special adviser to the Minister of Veterans Affairs Canada, which allows me access to him in order to apprise him of issues I see in the veterans' community. My source for that information comes from the veterans themselves, veterans' advocacy groups and anyone who has an interest in veterans. This is my role.

My mandate is no different than a typical ombudsman. Our bread and butter is handling personal complaints that veterans bring to us. Later, I will mention the quantity and the types of complaints that we receive. At the front end, we provide a service that informs, assists and guides our veterans through the VAC process, which is sometimes complicated. If someone is physically or mentally injured, it is even more of a task.

Secondly, we resolve their complaints when we can, with the cooperation of VAC. This is in order to get them better access to benefits or to benefits, period, in the form of a disability pension.

My limitations of authority are few, but like any ombudsman I do not have the power to order anything. I have the power of influence and recommendation. It is important to ensure that the recommendations I make are fact-based, evidence-based, and that I retain the credibility of the people to whom I submit the reports.

We have a limitation with regard to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board. As a quasi-judicial tribunal, we cannot question its decisions. Their decisions are functus officio. However, we do have a mandate to look at systemic issues related to the board and procedural fairness. That gives us an avenue to look at some of the board processes to ensure that natural justice has been served.

As far as limitations are concerned, I should also add that we are an office of last resort. This means that all other appeal mechanisms within the system must be used before we can intervene. However, under compelling circumstances, my mandate allows me to intervene at any time for a veteran and his family. If there is an undue threat to a veteran or his family in terms of wellness or financial impact, then we can certainly intervene at an earlier stage. A good example would be an elderly veteran who is applying for benefits. The process can take up to 22 weeks sometimes. Obviously that is a long time to wait for someone who is old and in need. In this case we could intervene in the process.

Often, just the fact that we make a phone call and ask how the process is going speeds things up. There is intrinsic value in making your presence known and saying you are interested. People act without you acting at all, but the fact that you have expressed an interest gets the machine moving a lot faster than it normally does.

At this point in time, there is just one slide that would I like to draw your attention to, which is called the ``constituency of the office.'' That is slide 4 in the package. The reason the slide is important is because it might answer some of the questions you may have later. I am referring to the fact that the constituency of the office includes all veterans, not just clients of VAC. Although we intervene on behalf of VAC clients, we represent all veterans. It is important for people to realize the population out there that are potential clients of VAC. I should have mentioned earlier that my theme for five years is ``One Veteran.'' The One Veteran to me is very important because the status that you had before you were injured should not take into consideration the impact that the injury has on yourself and your family. Whether you are regular force or reserve, a veteran of the Korean War, World War II, the Cold War, Bosnia or a peacekeeper is immaterial because the program is based on needs. It should be that one veteran who suffers the same injury should be getting the same benefits. That is the theme of One Veteran for five years.

I will draw your attention to the left side of the slide, which has the big bubbles. This is the Canadian Forces veterans' community. There are over 700,000 people within that community. There are also Canadian Forces members now serving who are also drawing some benefits from VAC. For people who were not aware of this, a serving member can now draw pension benefits from VAC, while still serving, providing the injury does not interfere with the universality of service process.

What you see in the middle of those two bubbles are VAC clients who belong to both sides; uniform members and retired members. Our concern is when VAC says that the veteran client population is dwindling. That is one perspective. If you look at the bubble on the left, out of those 700,000, some Canadian Forces veterans are suffering in silence. Some of them might not even know they are suffering and might only experience symptoms in years to come. When they do, they will transfer from that big bubble into the clients of Veterans Affairs bubble. The population will be increasing on that side.

If you go to the right side of the same slide — where we look at the World War II and Korea veterans — there are still some people who are not clients of VAC but are still coming forward for pensions and disability access. There are still people transferring to the white area that are clients of VAC. They will be declining. The rate right now is about 1,400 a month. We lose veterans from the Second World War and Korea, but in fact they are not going as fast as the VAC had indicated. I am glad, because the veterans of World War II are actually staying there and living longer than we had expected, which is good.

The same principle applies to the RCMP. You have serving veterans and RCMP veterans, and in the middle are the clients of VAC. Again, people are suffering in silence, returning from international missions and will eventually transition to clients of Veterans Affairs.

We do not believe that the population is dwindling for VAC. I think it will be increasing. One of the concerns is this: Is VAC ready for the possible surge of injuries resulting from recent conflicts? That is an important part of it.

That is why this constituency slide is important. That is the type of tool we use to project or ensure that the department understands our perspective. Their presumptions sometimes might need to be looked at from a different angle.

Our office structure is straightforward. It is an operational organization that has three mechanisms: communications, early intervention, and research and investigation.

The area of communications is very important to us for two reasons. One of the biggest weaknesses we see now between VAC and its clients is the ability to communicate. There are a lot of people who are entitled to benefits and have no idea. If VAC was better in their communications, these people could be reached. That is an important aspect of it. We really emphasize our communications, and this is the link between us and our clients.

As part of my first year as the ombudsman, I have dedicated my efforts to two areas: first, restructuring the office and re-establishing liaison with veterans groups, Veterans Affairs Canada and veterans themselves; and, second, restructuring the organization itself and our advisory committee. We have a new concept in the advisory committee, which is made up of representatives from the veterans' community and three health care professionals. Together they advise me on the impact of improvements to the system proposed by Veterans Affairs Canada, or new trends that are coming out around the country and elsewhere that could help the veterans' community. These people work together, veterans knowing how they are affected and health care professionals who can look at what the new concepts are in aging — new concepts in pensions and disability benefits and that sort of thing.

The bottom slide on page 4 is our flow of operation. That is there to give you an idea of the amount of things that we see in the office. From November 2007 to now we have received upwards of 25,000 complaints. That number includes all contacts, including email, telephone and letters; we get very few people walking into our offices.

This resulted in our opening 6,000 cases that we handled at the front line, where our officers were involved with Veterans Affairs Canada officers in trying to come to solutions to address the complaints of some of the veterans and, in certain cases, some of the veterans' families as well. This is both the RCMP and the Canadian Forces members.

Some cases are fairly similar, while others are very complex. The ones that are complex might flow to our research and investigation side because they need more interaction with Veterans Affairs Canada at a different level. They might need more research, and therefore it is a research and investigation case, where the simple ones stay in the early intervention area.

We have a tracking system within the office that helps us detect trends. From the personal complaints, we are able to tell which are systemic issues and where the weaknesses or inconsistencies are in Veterans Affairs Canada. For example, regional inconsistencies are unfair in themselves. The fact that a veteran chooses to live in one part of the country rather than another should not affect the quality or the quantity of benefits he or she can access. That is a very important aspect of it.

If you have any questions later on, we would be happy to forward any documentation that the committee may seek at a later date.

The service standards of the office are really a benchmarking process. As you know, the office has been in operation for about three years. We have reached a point of full stabilization. All the positions have been filled on full-time basis, so we now have a very effective machine to handle complaints, both personal and systemic. We will be able to confirm that we are setting the right bars for our service standards, with the idea that it is always a bar that you keep raising if you can. That is very important.

The office client profile slide is basically the status of the people who actually complain. That one is very important in the top seven issues. It is very descriptive of the issues we see as far as the 5,000-some complaints that we have handled and the 28,000 contacts we received. That has not changed since 2007. It pretty well remains the same.

The highest category by far is health care benefits, although it is almost in line with access to pensions and awards. The latter might be at the adjudication level, or possibly a departmental review, but it is people who are having problems accessing benefits.

The third one has to do with issues external to Veterans Affairs Canada. Very often we are confused with my esteemed colleague, Pierre Daigle, who is the DND ombudsman. Often, cases we get at our office are actually the jurisdiction of the DND ombudsman. There are cases where we both look after soldiers in uniform. If their complaint is related to their organization, the DNDCF, then the DND ombudsman is responsible. If it relates to disability benefits they receive from Veterans Affairs Canada, then I and my team are responsible.

The last two slides show you the systemic issues that we are currently working on. I have committed to do three systemic reviews a year and to produce three systemic reports. We are on the way to doing that before the end of this year.

You have here the priorities we are looking at for the very near future. Work is ongoing now under the Veterans Independence Program, or VIP — long-term care, mental health and families. The other ones are slowly coming to the surface.

The last slides relate to funding. We have limited funding that we try to use as wisely as we can. I have a wonderful team, and we work with the idea that our main responsibility is to ensure fairness in the treatment of our veterans.

Thank you, Mr. Chair.


The Chair: Thank you, Mr. Parent. You are talking about a calendar year, not fiscal, correct?

Mr. Parent: No, it is a fiscal year.

The Chair: So your results reflect the fiscal year, in line with your budget.

Mr. Parent: That is right.

The Chair: That is important.


Senator Plett: Thank you to all three of you for coming out today. I have a few questions and maybe a few comments.

One is around a comment early in your presentation about veterans suffering in silence, that you believe some of these funding cuts may affect that. In fact, Veterans Affairs Canada says that they will not, that this is basically attrition. I do not know if that is the right word to use for people passing away, but that is one of the big things that Veterans Affairs Canada has said. You have alluded to that and suggested that it might not be correct.

What facts do you have around the comment that veterans are suffering in silence, are not availing themselves of the program, and that this is a problem?

Mr. Parent: That is a good question. If you look at the traditional veterans of the Second World War and Korea, they are people who have come back from the war and had their normal life with their families. All of a sudden, they are by themselves, retired, and then realize some of the things they have been living with for years might have been due to their service.

I am sure if you talk to any of the Legion pension officers, they would tell you that a lot of people who are suffering from injuries resulting from conflicts and even peacekeeping missions are out there and do not say anything. There are many reasons for that. It may be the fact that military people are quite proud; the culture does not allow people to come forward. I should say ``did not allow''; I think we have made great strides in coming forward and addressing that issue. Now these people, if not comfortable, at least will admit to having injuries and requesting treatment and benefits. That is one of the things that I can see.

Also, a lot of people suffer in silence because they do not know there is anything available to them. That is why I said that Veterans Affairs Canada is not very proactive in their communications. We hear that from people in all of our outreach. Yesterday, I mentioned some of the programs related to the New Veterans Charter at an outreach session in Gagetown, New Brunswick. Some people were not even aware that these programs existed. A veteran talked about someone who was unaware that benefits related to his suffering were available. I led them by the hand to access those benefits. We know that people out there are suffering and saying nothing.

Senator Plett: I do not dispute that there are people out there suffering in silence, whether they are veterans or civilians. Certainly, some of the more senior people are probably the ones who might be the most prone to doing that. I want to talk further about VAC not being proactive in making people aware of the programs.

I had the pleasure of travelling to Edmonton, Alberta, a year or so ago where we met with veterans, some who were injured and some who were healthy. I had my eyes opened. At meals, senators would split up and sit at a table with veterans and have very open conversations. When I looked at veterans who were 23 and 24 years old, it opened my eyes to the realization that veterans today are different from what they were.

I asked whether they were aware of the programs available to them. Almost to the person, they said that they were aware of them. I asked whether they were availing themselves of the program. The answer almost invariably was, no. They said that when they have time off they would rather go to the bar and do something else. They did not want to go to all kinds of meetings. They said that once they were injured and in need of a program, they would find out what was available.

I do not want to debate with you, sir, but I am not sure that Veterans Affairs Canada is not putting it out there. If people do not want to find out what is available, you cannot make them do it. You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. We have a bit of the same problem here.

Mr. Parent: That is a very good point. I agree that people have to come forward. Certainly, that is the first step. I have said to many veterans groups that the Lord helps those who help themselves. You have to come forward and self- identify.

I talked about communications. For instance, if you are living in a military area, there is a lot more information available than there is in an isolated community. A reservist who has left the unit in one city to live elsewhere might not have any idea where to go or what is available.

During my last visit to Atlantic Canada and Quebec City, I was impressed to see that they have joint personnel support units made up of both National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada personnel. Communications there are flowing fairly well. However, those who are isolated outside the general veteran military population have a problem.

Senator Plett: I have been told clearly that we are not cutting programs; it is through attrition. You are saying that it is not so. Maybe you did not say that, but that is what I understood.

Mr. Parent: I do not recall.

Senator Plett: I apologize. I understood you to say that people would be hurt by the fact that we have $222 million or $226 million in costs.

Mr. Parent: To clarify, I was trying to identify the fact that it does not make sense when the cuts are based on a dwindling population. It does not matter where the cuts will be if you use a dwindling population as an excuse because it is growing on one side, although it may not be dwindling as fast as we expected on the other side. If the reduction is based on a dwindling population, it is not correct.

Senator Plett: There is a clear disagreement between you and Veterans Affairs Canada, who says that the population is dwindling while you say it is not dwindling.

Mr. Parent: We say it is dwindling on one side and growing on the other side, so it could be staying the same, which means the same budget and the same programs. Any negative influence on those programs would affect the veterans' community at large.

Senator Plett: I will leave it for now.


Senator Nolin: Thank you very much for accepting our invitation, Chief Warrant Officer Parent. Since you will bear that title for life, we might as well use it. I would also like to thank your colleagues.

Mr. Parent: I am proud of it.

Senator Nolin: I would like to go back to the limitations of your mandate. You have mentioned them in your presentation. The order-in-council that established the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman does not allow you to review tribunal decisions individually. But it allows you to look at whether there is a systemic issue.

Mr. Parent: An issue of procedural fairness.

Senator Nolin: Exactly. And my understanding is that you have hired a law firm to look at decisions more thoroughly. Would you recommend that the decisions of the tribunal become public as they are made? That is my first question.

Mr. Parent: Yes, certainly. We have been trying for a few months now to convince the tribunal to publish its decisions, which is quite in keeping with what other quasi-judicial tribunals are doing in Canada.

Senator Nolin: I assume you also recommend that we take every step to protect the income information of individuals who appear before the tribunal.

Mr. Parent: Yes.

Senator Nolin: Since all the other tribunals dealing with people's individual rights protect that information.

Mr. Parent: Precisely. That would facilitate the process a great deal. Before going to the appeal tribunal, people could look at its decisions on the website. They would get an idea about their chances of winning and about the precedents for the rulings. That would already be an improvement.

Senator Nolin: Ms. Harris, could you give us some information about the mandate you gave to this office of lawyers? I understand that it went to the firm Borden Ladner. Have you already had any answers?

Diane Guilmet-Harris, Legal Counsel, Office of the Veterans Ombudsman: Yes. The mandate was given to Borden Ladner in August, and then all the VRAB decisions were reviewed.

Senator Nolin: Could you please say what the acronym represents for the people listening?

Ms. Guilmet-Harris: It stands for the Veterans Review and Appeal Board. All these board decisions that went before the Federal Court were reviewed. There were 151 decisions.

Then we matched the decisions made by the Federal Court. We went and found all the Veterans Review and Appeal Board decisions because when the Federal Court grants a request for judicial review, the decision is overturned and the case is sent before a new board.

For our statistics, we were interested in finding out what happens when the Federal Court allows a request for judicial review. Does the board respect the Federal Court's decision and grant benefits or is there another refusal?

Senator Nolin: Are you starting to get answers to these very important questions?

Ms. Guilmet-Harris: Yes. We had the first draft of the report last Friday, and we carried out a review of the executive committee this week. We had comments, we went back to Borden Ladner yesterday with the comments and the report is being finalized.

The next step in the process will involve providing a copy of a draft to the board, the department and the office of lawyers for their comments, within two weeks. We will evaluate the comments, then finalize the report.

As you know, in accordance with the order in council, we have to submit the report to the minister. Unless otherwise directed by the minister, we must wait 60 days to publish the report.

Senator Nolin: At the end of the 60 days, could you send it to us?

The Chair: The committee will make sure it requests access to the report.

Senator Nolin: My second question touches on amending the regulation you referred to. For the benefit of our listeners, could you explain or go back to your concerns about the distinction between the regular forces and the part- time reserve members? I would like to know whether the government explained to you why it wanted to make this distinction, which gave rise to your concerns.

First, could you explain your concerns about the fact that the new regulations do not protect full-time members and part-time members in the same way.

Mr. Parent: This is actually something that concerns us. We consider this provision unfair. I will go back to the term ``for five years'' that I used, regardless of the veteran, the reason, the service status, the place where the injury took place and the circumstances, these factors matter little when it comes to meeting needs.

As for improving the charter or making regulatory changes, we have tried to raise this point a number of times. I expressed my concern before a House committee or before the Senate Committee on National Finance. As part of the process to accept the changes, we also expressed our comments in the Gazette to indicate again that we disagreed. When the provisions were finally put in place, I again publicly stated that it was not fair.

The document that presents the changes contains a victim impact statement.

Senator Nolin: Yes.

Mr. Parent: In this impact statement, in this case for veterans, it was said that for a person to be successful and to be able to meet the needs of his or her family during the rehabilitation program, the minimum amount would be $40,000. So we are saying that $40,000 applies to a member of the regular forces, and that $27,000 applies to a reserve member.

Senator Nolin: We are talking about the part-time reserves.

Mr. Parent: Yes.

Senator Nolin: Classes B and C are treated as regular members.

Mr. Parent: I made the same point in a recent conversation with the chief of military personnel. When we take the example of two soldiers injured in service, both in the same vehicle, one is a reserve member and the other a member of the regular forces. These two soldiers suffer the same injury for life. What is the difference? The needs are the same.

Senator Nolin: Exactly.

Mr. Parent: For people who say it was a part-time soldier, we can respond that the duty and the mission might have been part-time, but the injury that the soldier suffered and that he or she will have for the rest of his or her life is not part-time. Disability is for life, whether the soldier is a member of the regular forces or of the reserves.

Senator Nolin: We are talking about a very recent regulation that was announced two weeks ago in early October.

Mr. Parent: So how can we encourage part-time reserve members to train less than 180 days? They will eventually be the ones to serve in Afghanistan and will make up 20 per cent of the troops.

Senator Nolin: We have no more specifics on these consequences or effects, except what accompanies the regulations?

Mr. Parent: No.

The Chair: One question remains. A person who is class B, a class B or class C reserve member who is injured will receive $40,000?

Mr. Parent: We are talking about 180 days or more.

The Chair: If he is class A, or class B but takes courses for three weeks, for example, he will receive $25,000.

Mr. Parent: But the impact on the family is the same.

The Chair: This is precisely the mentality that still exists: reserve members are second class. Because they are not permanent, they are second class. But in a theatre of operations, their blood is the same colour as the blood of the members of the regular forces.

Senator Day: Good afternoon, Mr. Parent, and welcome once again.

Mr. Parent: Thank you.

Senator Day: We last had the opportunity to speak at the Standing Senate Committee on National Finance.


I take it that it would be helpful if we looked at and clarified your budget and the number of employees you have so that we all understand what we are talking about here. Regarding the full budget, you have given the funding amount on page 6 of your presentation. You are showing $6.6 million.

Mr. Parent: I will ask my DG, who has his hands on the monies, to actually handle that question.

Senator Day: It is always nice to talk to the man who has his hands on the money.

Gary Walbourne, Director General, Operations, Office of the Veterans Ombudsman: The $6.6 million was originally established to set up the office of the commission. From the $6.6 million, there are some charges. First, about $800,000 goes to employees' benefits; another half a million goes to accommodations for the ombudsman's office, both in Ottawa and in Charlottetown; and about $1.3 million is paid to the Department of Veterans Affairs for support services. That can range from IT support systems to HR support. The operating budget for the office of the ombudsman is about $4 million. Approximately $2.8 million is for salary and wages; the balance is for operations and maintenance. We are currently staffed at 37 full-time equivalent employees. That is the breakdown on the budget.

Senator Day: This office has been going since 2007, 2008. Has there been any change in the $4 million since that time?

Mr. Walbourne: The operational allotment from the department has been approximately the same. Over the first two or three years of the operations of the office, some money has elapsed because of the inability to be staffed quickly enough or to set up accommodations or whatnot.

Senator Day: You are fully staffed now, I understand?

Mr. Walbourne: Yes.

Senator Day: You were fully staffed last year?

Mr. Walbourne: We were not quite fully staffed. We were shy about five full-time equivalents, and three of the other people there were either term or contract employees.

Senator Day: There have been two reviews. One is the strategic review and a 5 per cent reduction looking at what has been sometimes described as the low-hanging fruit for that first reduction about a year or so ago. That was reflected in the budget last year. Did you get any reduction in your operating budget? That is what we are talking about here.

Mr. Walbourne: No. There has been no operational downturn in our budget because of that.

Senator Day: There is another review ongoing, and that is the deficit reduction review. That is a proposal for either a 5 or 10 per cent reduction. Have you had any participation with Veterans Affairs Canada in relation to its submission or have you made a separate submission in that regard?

Mr. Walbourne: We have been asked to participate and have made a submission, but our submission went back through the department and was rolled up into their full submission.

Senator Day: It is part of Veterans Affairs' larger submission, and we have not heard the results of that. That is still in cabinet now, is that correct?

Mr. Walbourne: Yes.

Senator Day: I wanted to clarify that point.

Also on page 6, in the funding again, I think it would be helpful for colleagues to know and to understand about the internal services of $1.3 million. Does that money come to your office, the ombudsman's office, and is then paid back, or is this just a figure where they allocate what it cost them to provide those services to you?

Mr. Parent: In fact it is retained from our budget for the provision of those services. Sometimes that brings questions of independence from the department because that gives them some sort of control over the access to human resources and corporate services. We have asked about what we get for that, so currently we are engaged in discussions with the department in order to bring some transparency to that $1.3 million. What do we get for our money? Will it be adequate? Are we getting enough services for what we are paying? In that process, we currently have a memorandum of understanding that would clearly indicate levels of service that we identify and that we will be able to rate in the future to determine what we are getting and that the payment is adequate and fair.

Senator Day: In terms of your accommodation, Public Works and Government Services Canada has an allocation here as well. Does that mean that Public Works is providing you with accommodation, or are you part of Veterans Affairs?

Mr. Walbourne: Accommodations are provided directly to us from Public Works.

Senator Day: Is that separate from Veterans Affairs offices?

Mr. Walbourne: No, it is the same as Veterans Affairs offices. Physically, yes, we are separate.

Senator Day: Physically you are separated?

Mr. Walbourne: Yes.

Senator Day: The independence issue that you were just talking about is important because you, on behalf of veterans, are expected to review what Veterans Affairs has been doing or not doing. Is that correct?

Mr. Walbourne: Yes.

Senator Day: Now we have Veterans Affairs controlling, in part, the amount of your budget, and that is why you are working on this particular understanding.

Mr. Parent: Sometimes it is very difficult for veterans to understand that you can remain independent and still receive the provision of services from the department, but it is a fine line. It is something we are concerned about as well because we want to make sure that the services we receive are adequate.

Senator Day: We are concerned about it as well, and it is important that you do remain independent so you can perform the function that you are intended to perform. We will be watching that, just to let you know.

Mr. Parent: Thank you, senator.

Senator Day: The other point I have relates to the other document you have shown us, on page 6, where you talk about a five-year theme with three systemic reviews per year. What are you talking about there? I am interested in particular in the Veterans Independence Program. What role do you play that is separate from Veterans Affairs and from government agencies and also Agent Orange? Those are the two things I would like you to focus on. Tell me a little bit about what you might be doing in this systemic review. If you have time, funeral and burial programs would also be of interest to me.

Mr. Parent: It is work that is in progress right now. We have been working on it for a few months. With the Veterans Independence Program, the research has been done and we are at the report-writing stage. Maybe my legal adviser can talk a little bit more about the VIP program. We shy away from using the term ``investigation.'' In many ombudsmans' organizations, they use the term ``systemic investigation.'' That is sometimes perceived as we are looking to blame someone, but we are not. It is a review of the process to make sure it is fair to everyone and is easily accessible. We call it systemic review.

Senator Day: The Veterans Independence Program is a program to help veterans with respect to mowing lawns, for example, or helping them with snow removal and that kind of thing when they are not able to do it themselves. Is that right?

Mr. Parent: The intent of the program is to allow veterans and their families to remain in their homes for as long as possible, and it provides a suite of services. There are about eight services altogether. The two main services that are most often referred to are housekeeping and groundskeeping.

Senator Day: That program initially applied only to pensioned veterans, correct?

Mr. Parent: Yes.

Senator Day: Then there was the issue of the veterans' wives, wherein when the veteran died, it depended on whether they were on the program or not on the program. Then there was the issue of the new veterans. Are you involved in all of these issues? Are you trying to influence changes in the regulations?

Ms. Guilmet-Harris: Yes. One of the main issues under the Veterans Independence Program, tying in to the ombudsman theme of One Veteran, is the criteria of eligibility. As you know, if you do not fit into the class of eligibility, you do not get access to the system. Therefore, one of the first themes of the report is the criteria of eligibility.

The second theme is the issue that was raised at the last committee, the problem with sections 16 and 16.1, where the benefits were extended. It used to be when the veteran died, the benefits would die with the veteran. Then they modified the act wherein the benefits would go to the primary caregiver. It would work in that if they had both services while the veteran was alive, then those services would extend to the primary caregiver.

Then they enacted section 16.1, whereby if you used no services during the lifetime of the veteran, you now had access to grounds maintenance and housekeeping.

With respect to the issue that arises today, the interpretation of the department is such that if the veteran only had access to one of the services during his lifetime, the primary caregiver cannot have access to the second. That, in our opinion, is a policy decision that can be resolved by reconciling section 16.1, the French and the English side, which resolves the situation in order to give access to primary caregivers to the second service from which they do not have access currently.

The Chair: We are getting into the weeds of very significant material of which there are still some serious discrepancies in services that have been brought to our attention. I am wondering, in the interest of time and in order to allow us to cover more ground —


— concerning the list of priorities that you mentioned in slide 11 and that Senator Day raised, would it be possible to give us a document that would summarize where you are in this matter, to basically give us the information that you would have given to the committee if we had had more time? We would keep that document in our files.

Mr. Parent: Certainly. We can give you a document with the direction of the review and the things we need to look at and that concern us.

The Chair: That would be very much appreciated. Thank you.


Senator Frum: You mentioned in your presentation that your role as ombudsman of Veterans Affairs often gets confused with the Department of National Defence. I know that you actually have advocated for greater integration or complete integration of the two departments. Could you spend a minute discussing whether there would be, in your view, any advantage for veterans in such an integrated system or any economic benefits?

Mr. Parent: That is a good question. I am not sure where it will eventually go years down the road. I think for the time being there is a distinct responsibility on either side, but there is also a shared responsibility, as I have already mentioned.

One of the grey areas is in the transition process. I think there would be value added if maybe the DND ombudsman and our team worked together to see what the process is and the weaknesses therein. Right now, there are many things that concern both departments, things like tracking of reservists and regular force members or losing military identity but not gaining one for Veterans Affairs Canada. There are many issues there that need to be looked at. Of course, we are accumulating many of these areas of concern. We are identifying them through outreach programs, wherein I go talk to the community and the joint personnel support centres.

There are many issues where both departments have a responsibility, but right now what happens is if someone comes to us and needs information or has an issue with the type of release they received from the military — for instance, if they thought they should have been released under section 3(b), which is medical release, but they were not yet suffering from an injury — we do not deal with the release aspect; we refer those cases back to National Defence.

Another issue relates to service records. That is also not part of our jurisdiction, but by the same token, when the DND ombudsman receives a complaint about benefits that a soldier receives from Veterans Affairs, he transfers the file to us. A lot of this type of interaction is currently going on.

As to whether this would lead to further integration, I can certainly see some joint work in some of the aspects of the programs, especially on the transition side.

Senator Frum: Are there any advantages to having them separate?

Mr. Parent: Two voices, obviously. Maybe a smaller scope so that you can be more focused on some of the issues. Also, basically, we are two different types of ombudsman. The DND ombudsman is an organizational ombudsman. He deals internally, with people that belong to the department. I deal externally, with clients, as a classical ombudsman. There is a difference in roles.

Senator Frum: You mentioned the tour you are taking and the feedback you are getting. What would you say is the dominant theme you hear at your town hall meetings?

Mr. Parent: As I think we have mentioned already, the first is communications from VAC and with VAC. The other one is the complexity of the processes, the bureaucracy and the people. Even someone at the best of times, on the best days of their lives, has a hard time getting through some of these processes. Imagine someone doing so while suffering from an illness, visible or invisible. It is a real struggle. There are forms to fill out over and over again, six forms for the same incident. We have testimony from a double amputee who has other wounds and who had to fill out a form for each leg and one for his shrapnel wound, yet it was the same incident. Of course, Veterans Affairs Canada is moving forward and trying to improve the process. In those cases, my responsibility is to ensure they keep the momentum, that it does not go back to inertia.


The Chair: The chair would like two clarifications. The ombudsman of the armed forces has, and I quote in English:


. . . legislative power to force the government to provide requested information.


When you ask a specific question within the department, let us say section 3B in the building has to do something specific, does the answer come directly from that office or does it go through the hierarchy, and then perhaps the content has changed along the way, to finally get to you through the assistant deputy minister or the deputy minister? Do you get the answer directly? Do you have direct access to each office that is responsible for the matter?

Mr. Parent: That is a very good question, Mr. Chair. Originally, we had to go through several levels, and the information requested would be pretty watered down or withheld by certain entities. However, we have seen some improvements lately. We are currently working on the information. If you would like further clarification, Gary could perhaps explain that agreement with the department in terms of obtaining information. We could also just send you the details later on.

The Chair: The main thing — and your predecessor talked about this — is that it was difficult to obtain answers in due time, with the requested content, from the office with the first level of accountability. You could tell us whether the procedure, through an MOU, a reinterpretation of your responsibility towards ministers, provides you with the authority to request that information from officials. If you could provide us with that update, I think it would help us understand the extent of your responsibility.


For clarification, for my colleagues and myself, I would like to bring you back to slide number 4, which is the most revealing slide that I have been able to get from VAC over many years. When you mentioned 700,000, it is because you have the 593, the 66,000 and the 91 altogether, right, which are all potential clients in the 700,000?

Mr. Parent: The 593 and the 91 together is the total population. The smaller bubble is the Veterans Affairs clients from those two cohorts.

The Chair: Are they in those totals or are they separate?

Mr. Parent: Yes, they are in the totals.

The Chair: There has been discussion — and this is why I need the clarification for the committee — on who is a veteran. Formally, who is VAC considering a veteran? Under that, who do you consider a veteran in regard to meeting the criteria of a ``veteran'' as defined by DND? National Defence's definition is anyone who served one year in uniform and has not had a dishonourable discharge. Is that now a formal position that is taken by the department? Should it be? Where do you sit on that?

Mr. Parent: We go by the definition of the Bill of Rights. Anyone who served the country honourably, whether in the Canadian Forces or the RCMP, is a veteran of Canada.


There is a small issue on the francophone side. During a recent visit to Quebec City, I noticed that the French term ``ancien combattant'' is mostly used for people who fought in the two world wars and the Korean War. However, the English translation ``veteran,'' sometimes ``vétéran'' in French, implies no such meaning. In Quebec City, the term ``ancien combattant'' is clearly used for people who served during the wars, and ``vétéran'' is used for modern veterans.

The Chair: The term ``vétéran'' is legally established by the department.

Mr. Parent: Yes, and by the Veterans Charter.

The Chair: Yes, but the charter is not a legal document; it is something that was created internally.

Mr. Parent: It is a document signed by the prime minister at the time.

The Chair: We will discuss that legal component because this remains a point of contention in a number of cases.


Senator Plett: This may not be in your department. There was an incident in Winnipeg that I want to share with you, and I would like you to tell me what you would be able to do about it, or what you are doing about it.

There is a lady whose husband is one of these people that you suggested earlier suffer in silence. As a result, she was suffering. He is the vet. She was looking for help, but he was not asking for help. Consequently, she was not getting help.

She was very reluctant to share some of her problems with us, even off the record, because she said she was supposed to be quiet about it. Her husband was a very proud individual and did not want to talk about his problems.

Is your office involved in these types of situations? What is the official view of the ombudsman? You just finished telling us who is the vet, and, obviously, this lady is not the vet. What recourse does she have in a situation like this?

Mr. Parent: I will start by saying we answer all calls. It does not matter where or who they come from.

The Chair: That covers all the bases, doesn't it?

Mr. Parent: Our first approach is one of compassion. We would guide the people to where they can get the help. In this particular case, there would be two different approaches, depending on whether the person was serving or not serving. If the person was serving, obviously right now the Joint Personnel Support Units are the units who look after injured personnel. Just recently, in Gagetown, I was told by the commanding officer that in the great majority of the cases they get, especially related to PTSD, it is actually spouses who approach them first. They have people there who then make the connections to the husband.

If people are non-serving, if they are veterans, there is also the OSIS program. It has counsellors. They are either people who have suffered and have now reached a balanced approach to life and can help other people, or they are spouses of injured soldiers and have suffered through that. It is a confidential system that people can access to get help and guidance.

Senator Plett: Is there a rule that the veteran needs to sign off on it before your office or VAC pays to help her? She told us she cannot go for help without his signature.

Mr. Parent: I believe Veterans Affairs needs a signed consent from the actual member receiving benefits. We will help the individual access the program.

Senator Plett: I think there is something we need to look at there.

The Chair: I would like to ask a supplementary to Senator Plett's question, which opened up the whole arena of families.

The new charter talks about taking care of the individuals, although not specifically families. We see spouses being trained and educated. The spouses and families become part of the overall mandate. If the spouse of a veteran comes forward and articulates that she has a veteran who does not want to get support, they can readily find out whether the spouse is a veteran. They can initiate a process of bringing forward the veteran without the veteran necessarily having to formally agree.

Mr. Parent: In the past, we have actually advised to get in contact with VAC area counsellors or with OSIS people. We link them to the family so they can go and talk to them and convince them to access benefits. They are often successful in doing that.

If you have seen our list of concerns, families are very high. We are looking at that in the near future. There is very little available to families in VAC programs and benefits. One of the biggest components is what a family is nowadays. What is a modern family? DND just recognized that young soldiers have parents. I was a young soldier, as you were, and we had parents. They finally realized they are family. I think Veterans Affairs needs to go that route and ensure they treat a veteran and his family as one component, not a support system.

Senator Plett: At the very end of your presentation, you alluded to the fact that no matter where one lives in the country, the services should be the same. Are they not?

Mr. Parent: There are inconsistencies. I think we all realize there are inconsistencies in our provincial health care system. They are not certainly the same all across Canada. Obviously this affects the veterans because the veterans receive a combination of VAC health care and provincial health care. There are inconsistencies being looked at. To us, that is unfair. We talked about the Veterans Independence Program with respect to groundskeeping and house cleaning. Again, there is a variety of costs. If you have a limited cost for the program, then you have limited access to the program. There are inconsistencies there as well. We are working on those aspects with VAC.

The Chair: The story is only amplified by the reservists getting different quality of care, even within a province.

Senator Day: This is a point of clarification to slide 4. You talked about your constituency being 700,000, but that is only the Canadian Forces veterans, as I understand it.

Mr. Parent: Yes.

Senator Day: That big circle and the smaller one to the right are the serving Canadian Forces personnel. In effect, your constituency has more than 22,000 from the RCMP.

Mr. Parent: On that slide, 35,000.

Senator Day: Your constituency is larger than the 700,000 that you talked about.

Mr. Parent: Yes, it is close to 1 million.

Senator Day: The other question I had — and would have led to in my earlier line of questioning in terms of your systemic review — is what, if any, input did you have to Bill C-55 and the amendments made there to the New Veterans Charter?

Mr. Parent: We presented our concerns throughout the process of introducing Bill C-55. I appeared before the house standing committee during the review process as well.

Senator Day: I am interested in your input. What input did you have to what became Bill C-55, not from reviewing it after you saw it in bill form?

Mr. Parent: One of the issues we were looking at was in relation to lump sum payments. A lot of the complaints we got were indicating that people were not satisfied with the lump sum payment itself and the flexibility of the payment. Our approach was that it should be a choice regarding what fits the veteran and his family's needs at the time. We wanted to see more flexibility, which I am glad to see is there now. It is a start. They might eventually get paid over 27 years on a monthly basis, with interest, I am not sure. At least that flexibility is in there now, which is important.

The earnings loss/basic salary was another thing that we influenced with the Legion and other organizations.

The last one was that we wanted the living charter to be resuscitated. I remember sitting in front of the house standing committee. Five years before you do anything to that type of an act is unfair. Therefore, they introduced a two-year review that will take place within the next 20 months or so.


The Chair: We have one minute left.

Senator Nolin: Mr. Chair, my question is for you. After hearing the Chief Warrant Officer's testimony, I want to make sure that the committee is in contact with the minister's office. The reason would be to obtain, in due course and as quickly as possible, the document, the study that will be sent to the minister's office by the ombudsman on the examination of Veterans Review and Appeal Board cases subject to judicial review in the Federal Court. I have a feeling that examination will reveal some very interesting information.

The Chair: I assume that he is allowed to send us information directly, but owing to the nature of his role, I will personally write to the minister to ensure that this information is sent to us without an intervener.

Senator Nolin: The infamous 60-day waiting period will prevent us from obtaining the document. If we could get it before then.

Mr. Parent: That is how long the process could take, but the minister will not necessarily ask for 60 days.

The Chair: The minister appears to be flexible.

Senator Nolin: Just informing him of our interest in having the document is a step in the right direction, I think.


Senator Day: This research is being done by an independent body. Why do we have to wait and talk to the minister?

Ms. Guilmet-Harris: They are under contract with the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman. The report will belong to the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman.

Senator Day: If we ask you for a copy of it, you can make it available to us.

Ms. Guilmet-Harris: No, we still have the gag order because of the order-in-council. If we get dispensation from the minister and he waives the 60 days, then we can publish.


The Chair: And we would ensure that the report is the required report and is not influenced by the administrative process.

Mr. Parent, you have been wonderful. I want to thank you and your team. I also want to thank the committee members; this has been quite an interesting meeting, and it will not be the last.

Senator Nolin: We will see each other again once this document has come in.

The Chair: The meeting is adjourned.

(The committee adjourned.)

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