Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs
 

Proceedings of the Subcommittee on
Veterans Affairs

Issue No. 4 - Evidence - April 13, 2016


OTTAWA, Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs of the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence met this day at 12:13 p.m. to continue its study on 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 Joseph A. Day (Chair) in the chair.

[Translation]

The Chair: Honourable senators, today, we are continuing our study on 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.

[English]

From the Department of Veterans Affairs, we're very pleased to welcome, in his first official visit with this subcommittee on Veterans Affairs, the newly appointed Minister of Veterans Affairs and — this is important to remember — the Associate Minister of National Defence. Along with the minister is the Deputy Minister, who has been before us on a number of occasions and is always welcome back, retired General Walt Natynczyk.

Thank you both for being here today. We look forward to learning more about your activities and what you have learned in your few months in the position, Mr. Minister. Your presentation and answers to our questions will be very valuable to us as we reflect on the services and benefits provided to veterans and their families.

We did an interim report on operational stress injury before the last election, and that forms the basis for our continued interest in this particular area from the point of view of veterans, still-serving members of the force who will retire and become subject to the legislation for veterans, as well as veterans and their families of the RCMP.

We will be interested in hearing from you as well on any challenges that you've found in your position, in particular with respect to your mandate letter, and if there is any area where you feel that this small subcommittee may be able to help.

Sir, the floor is yours.

Hon. Kent Hehr, P.C., M.P., Minister of Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence: Thank you very much, and it's a real thrill for me to be here today, and congratulations on being appointed to this committee. Most of you are well aware of veterans' issues and the work the Department of Veterans Affairs carries out. I appreciate your dedication.

I'm keen to hear how service-related injuries impact first responders, municipal police and RCMP, and how we might be able to apply that knowledge to veterans.

It's an honour and privilege to be named Minister of Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence and to work alongside members of our Canadian Armed Forces, the RCMP, veterans and their families.

I understand the challenges a person faces when tragedy strikes, and when injury and illness take their toll. I, myself, would not be here today without the support of others as well as help from various government initiatives. I enjoy peace, tranquility and freedom every day because of the sacrifices made by veterans, and I hope to make a difference in their lives.

With the cooperation of the Minister of National Defence we will reduce complexity, close the seam and rationalize benefits for veterans and their families. Our mission is to improve our support and services and to always focus on care, compassion, and respect.

The Prime Minister has given me an ambitious mandate to provide financial security and independence, education and employment, opportunities and better mental and physical rehabilitation for Canada's veterans. My mandate letter provides a good road map, and we are listening to veterans' associations and other stakeholders who will help ensure we meet the needs of veterans.

We are serious about consulting with veterans and veterans' stakeholders. We don't tell veterans what they need; we ask them what they need. To that end, six stakeholder advisory groups are being stood up and meetings with various groups will be held over the next while. These advisory groups are one of the mechanisms we use for stakeholders to give me their advice and suggestions.

To better support veterans where they live, Budget 2016 proposes to reopen and staff offices in Charlottetown, Sydney, Corner Brook, Windsor, Thunder Bay, Saskatoon, Brandon, Prince George and Kelowna. We will open an additional office in Surrey and expand outreach to veterans in the North by working with local partners.

We will hire additional case managers to reduce the veteran-to-case-manager ratio to approximately 25 to 1. Case managers represent the first line of intervention to help with the rehabilitation process and to coordinate referrals to health care providers. Reducing the client-to-case-manager ratio will help veterans make successful transitions to civilian life.

I would just like to mention that while face-to-face interactions are great, it's clear that veterans also want to do business and interact with us on their terms. We have seen a rapid increase in the number of people who have registered to use our secure online access tool, My VAC Account. There are now more than 32,000 registrants; a tenfold increase since 2012.

We are making significant investments to ensure the financial security and independence of disabled veterans and their families as they make the transition to civilian life. This includes increasing the value of the Disability Award for injuries and illness caused by service to a maximum of $360,000; indexing this amount to inflation and paying it retroactively to all veterans who have received this award since 2006. The average retroactive payment is projected to be about $9,000 per person. We will be increasing the Earnings Loss Benefit to replace 90 per cent of an eligible veterans' military salary. For example, a veteran who was a corporal in 1996 could receive $2,000 more each year because of this proposed enhancement. We are expanding access to the Permanent Impairment Allowance to better support veterans with career-limiting service-related injuries and renaming it the "Career Impact Allowance'' to reflect the intent of the program.

We will conduct a veteran financial benefit review to simplify benefits and to determine where the gaps remain and which programs are less than fully effective to meet the needs of veterans and their families. This review is essential to determine the context for the next phase of financial benefits, including the option of a pension for life. The veterans' association, at the last stakeholder summit, told us to take the time to get it right. This is what we intend to do.

Similarly, we need to take action beyond financial benefits. This includes veteran education and career transition initiatives, spousal training, mental health and suicide prevention, amongst others. Commemorating the service and sacrifices of Canada's veterans and those who paid the ultimate price is a key pillar of Veterans Affairs Canada's mandate. We will remember the service and sacrifice of those who have served by providing easier access to the Funeral and Burial Assistance program for a dignified burial.

Budget 2016 will expand program eligibility to more families of lower income veterans. We will do this by increasing the estate exemption from approximately $12,000 to approximately $35,000 and apply an annual cost of living adjustment moving forward.

We will continue the Community War Memorial Program by merging it with the Commemorative Partnership Program and by making the overall application process easier. Canadians and community groups will be able to access funding for commemorative activities.

Although there is still much more to be done, I am proud of what has been accomplished to date, and our work on improving benefits and services for veterans and their families has only just begun.

On the mental health front, the Prime Minister has committed to doing better in this area. Mental health has always been a challenge, but it has been long overlooked in military culture. The combat mission in Afghanistan took a toll on our troops. Over a quarter of the troops who deployed now receive some sort of benefit from Veterans Affairs. The public discourse on mental health encouraged many more veterans from numerous peacekeeping missions to come forward, and we are seeing veterans from as far back as the Second World War in our offices with previously undisclosed mental health injuries.

We have the medical research, and now is the time to do something about it. We will create two new centres of excellence, one of which will specialize in mental health. We understand the links between mental or physical injury, financial instability, unemployment and the challenges that face men and women transitioning out of the forces that can lead to homelessness. We have created a priority secretariat that will examine three priority areas, one of which is addressing veteran homelessness through more support for homeless and those at risk of becoming homeless.

Through the secretariat Veterans Affairs is developing a homelessness strategy, in collaboration with partners and stakeholders, that will identify ways to improve existing policies and programs. We will tie our efforts to the whole-of- government approach to ensuring that all Canadians, including veterans, have better access to affordable housing.

Thank you again for your tireless efforts on behalf of veterans. I ask for your collaboration and support so that we may advance realistic and prompt action on our mandate. It is imperative that we meet the needs of veterans in the most effective and efficient manner possible, all the while doing it with care, compassion and respect.

The Chair: Thank you very much, Minister Hehr. We appreciate your comments. As is our practice, we normally now would go into a dialogue, question and answer, with honourable senators.

I will begin with the deputy chair of the committee, from the province of Quebec, Senator Dagenais.

[Translation]

Senator Dagenais: Thank you, Minister, for being with us today. My first question pertains to disability awards and the re-establishment of lifelong pensions. You are talking about increasing the value of the disability award to a maximum of $360,000. Did I understand that correctly? What rationale did you use in arriving at that amount?

[English]

Mr. Hehr: Well, over the course of time Veterans Affairs had set and established that at a much lower rate for our veterans. These are for people who have had pain and suffering associated with the disability they suffered while in active service. We looked at former ombudsman's reports and recommendations going forward, and they recommended that we increase that Disability Award.

I will also point out that the Canadian public can receive awards in the amount of approximately $363,000 through the courts. We wondered why a man or woman who has served in our military would not have the same sort of compensation available to them.

That's how we landed on that number. We felt it reflected what was happening out in Canadian society, as well as what our men and women who suffer illness and injury through their service were entitled to. We also note that even when they tie into this Disability Award they are still eligible for the range of services that Veterans Affairs Canada provides, whether that be through employment, education or assistance through other issues. So there's a suite of benefits that goes along with that understanding of the Disability Award compensation, and that's how we landed on that number. We thought it was the right thing to do and recognized it more appropriately with what was happening out in Canadian society.

[Translation]

Senator Dagenais: Now, I'd like to discuss the re-establishment of lifelong pensions. As I understand it, it would be an option. Could you explain, for us, what the conditions governing those lifelong pensions are and how all of that will fit into the current disability award regime?

[English]

Mr. Hehr: My mandate is to re-establish lifelong pensions as an option for injured veterans and to increase the value of the Disability Award, which we have just done, while ensuring that every injured veteran has access to financial advice and support so they can determine the form of compensation that works best for them and their families. The government has made it a priority for us to re-establish this. We remain committed to our mandate letter from the Prime Minister.

We met with our stakeholder groups on approximately December 4, shortly after I became the Minister of Veterans Affairs. We went through the gaps that had emerged since the introduction of the New Veterans Charter in 2005. Some veterans preferred the option of having a lifelong pension. With the increase of our Disability Award and how we roll that out going forward, in consultation with our stakeholders and an understanding of what we're trying to achieve, we're giving those members the option to return to either the lifetime pension or financial security that fits their family in that regard. That's how we're going to go forward.

We're sitting down very shortly with that stakeholder group to work through that process at the time.

General Natynczyk, may want to add something.

General (Ret'd) W. J. Natynczyk, Deputy Minister, Veterans Affairs Canada: Sir, I think you've got it.

Senator Lang: Welcome, Mr. Minister. I appreciate your enthusiasm for your position. It certainly is very evident, and it is nice to see.

I would like to go into two areas that you spoke of. You talked about expanding outreach to veterans in the North by working with local partners. As a senator from the Yukon, obviously that would be of interest to me. Perhaps you can expand on exactly what that will entail.

Mr. Hehr: When we looked at the cohort of veterans who were coming back and needing services, we made a commitment during the last election to reopen the nine offices that were closed during the last administration. When we looked at where veterans were not getting services and where more people returning from service were living, we identified the Surrey region and noted that there was very little contact with Veterans Affairs in the North. We have men and women who have served in that capacity in our northern territories and regions, and they deserve our help, support and our outreach.

Working through that, we have identified that as an area, going forward, where our department can do better. I know we've established some parameters around that, but I'll let General Natynczyk fill out any details.

Gen. Natynczyk: Can I just add, sir, that what we realize is that there are some veterans who are scattered all across the North and their linkage back to Veterans Affairs was either down through Vancouver, Edmonton or the Winnipeg and Montreal offices. We are proposing to government — because we still have not gone through Treasury Board — the idea of a mobile team that would be able to go up into the North and leverage partnerships with the Legions and other associations up there, like the Rangers, so that we can connect with those veterans.

We recently had a senior executive on a trip up to Northwest Territories in the area of Tuktoyaktuk and Inuvik who found veterans from the Bosnian and Afghan campaigns who were up there in these small communities. These are communities of 200 people and less, and there we have veterans. We need to be able to provide contact up there, recognizing, as the minister said in his preamble, that we still have online services with My VAC Account, where we have had a huge uptake in the last few years, but sometimes people need that personal touch.

Mr. Hehr: I think I would be remiss if I did not note, too, that historically First Nations, the Métis Nation and Inuit have all been active participants in military service at generally higher rates than rank-and-file Canadian populations. It makes sense that we're doing a better job reaching out to those members who have served and continue to serve.

Senator Lang: Let me be more specific, if I could, so I have a clear understanding here. Do I take it there would be what you call a mobile team that would go to the North on a regular basis to meet with those veterans that are in need of service?

Also, you referred to the Legions as a local partner. What exactly would your expectations of those organizations be in representing some of the responsibilities of Veterans Affairs?

Gen. Natynczyk: I think it's premature to be too definitive because we still have to go through Treasury Board to lay things out. We recognize that there isn't a huge critical mass, but we have veterans all over the North, and the idea of a mobile office is one of the concepts.

Senator Lang: I want to go to the point about creating two new centres of excellence in veterans care, which includes the specialization in mental health and post-traumatic stress disorder and related issues for both veterans and first responders.

Is this being done in concert with a provincial jurisdiction, or is this going to be a stand-alone type of centre? The reason I ask this is because the provinces are responsible for mental health care in this country, and I'm concerned that we're duplicating, in some respects, some responsibilities but, at the same time, if there is a partnership then you might get a much better centre.

Mr. Hehr: You bring up an excellent point. We have identified this in our mandate letter. We have a lot of research going on at universities throughout this country on PTSD, and in fact have organizations that are already doing that hard work. We have a lot of the science behind what is happening. We have 25 per cent of our members returning from the Afghan theatre with mental health issues, so this is an imperative need.

We are looking at different ways to do this, whether we're going to incorporate some uses of not only the research but the treatment of PTSD. We understand that we have to connect with our provincial partners to ensure our veterans are getting into the health care systems in their home provinces, should that be where the best treatment is available. We're currently working through all of those issues to try and provide our veterans with the services they need, when they need them and where they live.

For the centre of excellence, we're taking in and looking at a whole host of initiatives to maximize this not only for veterans, because my mandate letter includes first responders as well. How do we maximize the use and capabilities of that? Looking at tying those best practices into the work of our provincial partners is going to be imperative to the work we do going forward.

Senator White: Thanks to both of you for being here. Congratulations, minister, on your appointment, and it's always great to see you, general.

For the purposes of full disclosure I want to acknowledge that I am a veteran of the RCMP, and some of my questions will resolve around the RCMP and municipal policing. I've had this discussion with both of you previously, but I think it's important to bring it up again.

The discussion I have had with the Minister of Public Safety as well is the lack of direct access for RCMP veterans to Veterans Affairs that the military has. I think, as an example, of the ability for RCMP veterans to access some segments of Veterans Affairs because they possibly haven't gone through the disability process that I know military veterans still have immediate access to. I recognize, deputy minister, that each time I ask this you always say they'll never be turned away and I appreciate that, but my perspective is that they should not have to hope that they will never be turned away. It should be automatic.

The second piece for me is the fact that in theatre, in Afghanistan and other locations, up to half of the people operating under the direction of the RCMP in those locations, under UN CIVPOL, are not RCMP officers but are municipal and provincial police officers who have no access to Veterans Affairs. If it's anticipated that 25 per cent of them are going to come back with some mental health issues — and it might be a similar number — they actually have to end up on whatever program the municipality or the province provides. I would like to see, at some point, a review to include municipal police officers operating — as a reservist was for the military — as a form of reservist for the RCMP overseas so they would at least get the same benefits and access that RCMP members receive.

Mr. Hehr: At our stakeholder meeting on December 4 we had representatives from the RCMP who expressed similar views to yours: They would like to see a closer connection to Veterans Affairs, the services we provide and the like.

For more detail on what we're working on, or the rules of engagement as they exist right now, general, perhaps you could fill in the gaps.

Gen. Natynczyk: Thanks very much, senator, for the question. Just to reinforce what the minister said, we have involved the RCMP veterans' associations at all the stakeholder meetings that we have had.

What is challenging in dealing with the RCMP is that our provision of services to the RCMP is through an MOU and not through legislation. We have a memorandum of understanding where Veterans Affairs is a service provider to the RCMP to the degree that the RCMP wish. We flow through all the services that the RCMP requests, and the RCMP decided not to move to the New Veterans Charter. So the RCMP are on the Pension Act, not the New Veterans Charter.

I am aware that they are looking at Budget 2016 and all that has occurred with it, but I'll leave that to the RCMP leadership.

As I mentioned to you before, if RCMP members, for instance, show up to the Operational Stress Injury Social Support network, for which they have not yet signed on to, we will embrace them. I have attended OSISS groups when RCMP are in attendance, and I have said to the folks in the chain of command to welcome them and we'll provide that support, but it's whatever the RCMP wish.

Beyond that, our mandate really is on those veterans and on your former colleagues.

Senator White: I understand, and I appreciate that.

It's always a difficult discussion, because I know I'm talking to the wrong end of the horse at times, here. The good end, I mean. I do believe the membership and the retirees are being left out.

As an example, the RCMP, in the last couple of years, have actually walked away from the direct medical benefits that members receive and have gone into provincial mandates. So I think it's going to get worse, not better, and, on top of that, we'll be walking into workers' compensation programs within each of the provinces. So we are actually going to treat RCMP members differently in every province in this country while they are on the job. I'm afraid that it will end up meaning treating them differently when they are off the job as well.

I appreciate the concern. Minister, I appreciate you letting me bend your ear one day about this already. It is key for us that we make it a permanent position of our government that we actually treat RCMP veterans the same way we treat military veterans. I hope we always have a deputy minister who is willing to take care of them. I appreciate you being here.

The Chair: And their families.

Senator White: Absolutely.

Senator Mitchell: Thank you, minister. Speaking of Alberta, it's great to have you representing it in the cabinet. Thanks for being here with us. I'm going to refer to a news report I saw just recently about Corporal Franklin mentioning that, despite the fact he has had two legs amputated that aren't coming back he has to prove, I think every year, in writing, that he is still disabled. I know you're undertaking some steps to streamline processes, but are you making progress there?

Mr. Hehr: I sense that we are. The former administration streamlined some of the forms and paperwork that go out, because it has to be crafted. We have many veterans with many different, unique situations.

I will also say that I think it's important that we, as a department, reach out to veterans through communication, whether that be through some form of written correspondence or what we call filling out paperwork and the like, to understand the changing needs and to confirm certain things are happening in their lives. I think it is striking that balance between too much communication and too little. If we don't reach out to people through this type of mechanism, they say, "Veterans Affairs has forgotten about me.''

You've been in this business a long time, senator, and a certain amount of paperwork is necessary. For instance, I fill out every year, for the Government of Alberta, that I'm still a C5 quadriplegic. As a result of my having that paperwork filled out, I generally have a meeting. They inquire about my situation, whether they are providing the services that I need in a timely fashion, and going from that end. So there will always be a certain amount of communication. We are going to continue to try to do that better, respectful of what veterans need and how much that communication is. But there is always going to be that ebb and flow.

We want to keep those lines of communication open, even if some of those questions may be a bit redundant. I get the frustration myself, having to fill out paperwork from time to time and on an ongoing basis.

Senator Mitchell: The question of legislation verses MOU with respect to the RCMP, I'd like pursue a little bit further.

Under the memorandum of understanding, does the RCMP budget cover the services that Veterans Affairs provides for RCMP members? Is it a budgetary issue for them? Second, would you know if have they consulted with their personnel as to whether or not they think they should be excluded from the New Veterans Charter or whether, in fact, their veterans would like that as well? What is their policy? Maybe it's not a question you can answer. Third, would legislation make it better? Would you prefer to have legislation?

Mr. Hehr: I sense that the general handled that last question. I've heard many RCMP officers who have indicated a desire to become more a part of Veterans Affairs. So we see that many of the RCMP wish for that desire. But, again, this is something that they have to decide — where they want to go and how that works on various issues.

As the general indicated, right now we manage their contract, but that's more on a flow-through basis. We provide the services that they need through that mechanism, and that's the way we've gone about it so far.

I'd ask the general to maybe prognosticate a bit more on the future of what is going to happen, if that's what you're asking. I'm not certain where the RCMP is on this or the discussions they've had with various departments.

Gen. Natynczyk: Sir, I can't add very much more. We are there to provide support, the support that they request. Our officials have been talking to the RCMP so they have as much information, as soon as possible, on all the initiatives coming through Budget 2016 so that a decision can be made by their leadership, but really I would not want to presume where their stance is with regard to legislation.

Senator Mitchell: I'm interested in the comparison between the lifelong pension value and the lump-sum value. Maybe I have these figures not entirely correct.

I think the 100 per cent lump-sum pension would be $310,000. If you invested that today, you would be lucky to get 3 per cent. You would be lucky to get 2 per cent. Let's say you get 3 per cent; it's $9,000 a year. If you took the maximum pension, which is about $1,800 a month, that's getting to be $21,000 a year. You mentioned that there is counselling. Hopefully, that kind of comparison is made.

How is the judgment made between the value of the maximum lump sum and the value of the monthly pension? Because you're going to get a lot more money monthly from the pension than you would from a lump sum, unless you go into the capital and run through it pretty quickly.

Mr. Hehr: We provide that financial counselling service to all members who are taking a lump sum at this time, and we make it available. We're encouraging more members to make sure they have an understanding that this money is not inexhaustible, that it has an ability to make their lives better, both in the short and the long run.

We have seen issues come up from time to time where that money doesn't go always as far as they are hoping it will. That's why we're exploring the way to get that option of a lifetime pension, how we get that best recognition to our military men and women and how to best implement that.

We will be working with our stakeholders on this. This is one of those issues that our veterans have called for. Despite delivering what I thought was a pretty significant budget, knocking off 6 of my 15 mandate letters, they continue to let me know, in no uncertain terms, that we need to do more. Understand that we are going to keep on working through this.

Gen. Natynczyk: Just to say, sir, that with regard to the pension that still exists and that we are paying out, what people don't realize is that that monthly pension actually has two key components in it. One is a recognition of pain and suffering. The other is an economic benefit. They are put together in one amount that the veteran gets each month, for those who are under the Pension Act.

Under the current New Veterans Charter, you have a Disability Award, which is a non-economic recognition of pain and suffering. Then, for those veterans who require it, especially going through vocational rehab, you have an Earnings Loss Benefit that provides them with financial security until they get their independence again. Also, there is the idea of the Career Impact Allowance, which recognizes that they have lost potential over their career. So, when we look at the amounts of the Pension Act, we have to keep in mind that that actually is a combination of two amounts; a non-economic and an economic.

Senator Mitchell: Okay, I see what you're seeing. Whereas the grant is just the one.

Gen. Natynczyk: Right. We're going very deliberately. That's why the veterans' association said to take the time to get it right, because in the past we have rushed through some of the legislation and they want to be very deliberate on this. That's what the minister is doing.

Senator Kenny: Thank you, chair. Good to see you here, minister, and general.

I'm particularly interested in the systems of feedback you have for satisfaction amongst veterans. Do you have a systematic way of measuring satisfaction? Do you have a way of publicizing the results so that Canadians know how veterans are feeling about the policies that you're implementing?

Mr. Hehr: That's a good question. It's my understanding that we are actively seeking input from veterans and their stakeholders through some of the work I am doing right now, in the establishment of six groups to advise our policy going forward.

It's also my understanding, until the general corrects me on this, that we are looking towards doing more surveys with our veterans to understand how our services are working, where they are in their lives, where we can be more supportive and how to get the family involved in our whole motto of treating the veterans and their families with care, compassion and respect.

We are looking forward to hearing from people who are on our services, who are going to be on our services, to get a real handle on what they need. I think some of the work I'll be doing as Associate Minister of National Defence, with the Minister of National Defence, is closing the seam and understanding better what our military men and women leaving the Canadian Armed Forces want with their lives. Showing them how they can tie into financial benefits, educational and career training options is very important. I think it's an important thing we need to do in our department, to hear directly from people who use our services and to understand whether we are serving their needs.

Senator Kenny: It's not that I'm not impressed with what you're doing. What I'm concerned about is having, let's say, four times a year with a cheque that goes out, a survey that asks, "Okay, how are we doing?'' and asking about it in different ways, and then publishing the results and making sure the public knows about it. It will have a positive impact on how things are going, depending on the answers you get back.

I think it would be a very positive step for you to set aside some funds so that you and your colleagues have a clear understanding of what the reactions of veterans are, as opposed to sitting down with working groups. That's important for developing things, but in terms of keeping a measure of the pulse on an ongoing basis, I'm really asking about something more systematic and perhaps a little larger than you're describing.

Gen. Natynczyk: Thanks for the question. You're absolutely spot-on. The minister has actually authorized restarting the veterans' satisfaction surveys that used to occur years ago. We will restart that now. We're working with Stats Canada to come up with the right kind of questionnaires and to have them go out on a regular basis.

Senator Kenny: I'm not talking about a percentage. I'm talking about asking them all.

Gen. Natynczyk: Going out to all veterans, absolutely. It's a veterans' satisfaction survey, on an ongoing basis, as services are delivered.

Senator Wallin: I don't want to get too far into the weeds here, but what we have heard in testimony from the ombudsman and through other anecdotal evidence are two concerns really. One is the timeline for assessment and transition, and that that's sometimes a product of no access to proper medical care for mental health or physical health issues. That becomes a problem. Is there anywhere in this new system where that timeline is going to be narrowed or shortened?

Second, the other issue — this is one I'm a little concerned about asking about — is the career impact allowance, or the assessment of what you are worth over your lifetime. If you're a general and you're injured at the end of your career, we know where you are in the system, what your income potential was and where you are. If you're six months into the CF and you lose two legs, we don't know whether you would have been good, bad, successful or gone up the ranks or not. How do you start to build in those assessments? Is there a formula or is this subjective?

Mr. Hehr: I'll deal with your first question. We have read those ombudsman reports and those recommendations that were given. We had identified areas where our veterans weren't getting timely service in terms of having their claims processed and getting their needs met. I think Budget 2016 goes a long way to addressing those concerns with the reopening of those points of contact: the nine offices, as well as the new one in Surrey and our outreach up North.

We have also started the process of hiring more staff. Under the previous administration 800 front-line workers were taken off their duties. That was an assessment that we went back and looked at. Our veterans weren't getting the supports they needed. We have rehired 183 people to date, including 72 case managers as well as other service coordinators who are working to ensure veterans and their families are getting the care they need when they need it.

That will go a long way to addressing some of the backlogs that were emerging. We sense we have gotten to a place where we have cleared up those backlogs. We'll continue to monitor this to ensure we have the appropriate level of staff.

I can also say that through my work with Minister Sajjan that it is also important to assess, when a person is leaving our Canadian Armed Forces, how we will transition them to Veterans Affairs. That has been identified as a problem by the ombudsman for National Defence on both sides.

I have been to our stress injury clinics and our IPSCs out in Vancouver, Hamilton and other places. They said, "Look, sometimes we have a member who knows for two years that they are going to be leaving the service and yet we don't have the capacity to meet with them until 15 days before they transition.'' It's very important to look at how we get their financial benefits set up for the day they leave the CAF, how we get the educational component and their return to work, if they are able to, in civilian life. That has been identified in the ombudsman's reports, and that's why I think it was very wise of the Prime Minister to identify this as an issue and give it to both Minister Sajjan and me to get to work on.

Senator Wallin: The Americans do it, so it's clearly doable.

Do you want to try to tackle the assessment question a little bit?

Gen. Natynczyk: I can tackle a few things, if you like.

Mr. Hehr: Then I'll go back to the earning loss benefit.

Gen. Natynczyk: On the transition, as the minister said, the key there is starting as early as possible once the Canadian Armed Forces determine that a person will have to leave the forces because of universality of service. We are working very closely with the Chief of the Defence Staff, Deputy Minister and minister-to-minister on how we can begin as early as possible, recognizing that the other entity out there is SISIP. We're working the SISIP dimension as well, the idea being to ensure that, when an individual turns in his or her ID card, as much work as possible was done while they were still receiving their salary with the Canadian Armed Forces. I think that is absolutely key.

As the minister indicated, we have hired additional adjudicators, and we have also changed the evidence model in terms of adjudication. When it's a straightforward musculoskeletal injury — especially if you consider an infantryman with ankle, knee, hip or back issues — an artilleryman with a hearing issue or an individual who has been on tough to deployments and has a mental health injury, we have expedited those adjudications significantly, in addition to hiring additional adjudicators.

Mr. Hehr: Your question was very good in terms of how we're going to support veterans who have become disabled while serving in our Armed Forces. It's very important to us to ensure they are getting their financial security taken care of, because without that financial security it's very difficult to move on with rebuilding the life of the member and their family.

That's why I think it was important that we moved the earning loss benefit from 75 per cent of a pre-release salary to 90 per cent. This seemed to make sense from our end. Why should an injured member be penalized in such a dramatic fashion when we recognize that 90 per cent is more appropriate and what other compensation systems are utilizing?

In terms of where we've gone to in the ELB change, the ELB was basically designed to take care of a member's basic needs. By moving it to where we are, to a private level from a corporal, we needed a corporal level before that to ensure their basic needs were taken care of. Now, with our introduction of moving it to 90 per cent, this ensures that all members, regardless of rank, will be able to have their basic needs met.

For instance, even at the lowest rank, they will be receiving up to $2,000 more per year in their pockets, for them and their families.

It was a good change, one that is going to ensure that their families have more financial security and are able to build their lives from it. I think that is some of the messaging from our department that didn't get out there quite as well, and we have to ensure that veterans know that no one is being penalized under this new system. They will all have better financial security for them and their families and to build their lives.

Gen. Natynczyk: Can I just add that it's interesting, when you look back to Bill C-55, it set a floor in terms of the financial support at about $40,000. In Budget 2015, we used the rank mechanism to bump up the privates who were below that floor to north of that floor. So they received, through the budget last year, in the zone just below 90 per cent of their pre-release salary.

Budget 2016 moved the entire rank structure to 90 per cent of their pre-release and all of them, using all of their ranks, are north of $40,000.

Senator Wallin: There is no way, really, to capture — I guess it's wishful thinking — the potential that you never know could have been there.

Gen. Natynczyk: Can I just say that that's where the Permanent Impairment Allowance, now to be renamed the "Career Impact Allowance,'' is. In Budget 2015, last year, we increased the number of people inside the PIA, to be renamed CIA, by using an additional factor of limitations on mobility. Budget 2016 allowed us to move more veterans into the upper levels and stages of the "Career Impact Allowance.'' That's precisely the purpose of that benefit, to recognize that a young private or corporal could have gone on to be a sergeant or major, and so on, over his or her career.

Senator Wallin: Very helpful, yes.

Mr. Hehr: That was a consistent complaint from ombudsmen and auditors general, that we weren't doing a good job of properly assessing what the disability level was. In fact, 92 per cent of the people who were previously identified were going into that bottom rung. The additional resources we put into the Permanent Impairment Allowance, or now "Career Impact Allowance,'' will allow us to get more people in the appropriate place to recognize that transition and where they would have been through their military service.

Senator Wallin: Most helpful. Thank you very much.

The Chair: Minister, my understanding is that your government is proceeding with the decision to divest Ste. Anne's Hospital in Montreal to the provincial government, and then you will be paying an amount to the provincial government to operate the veterans' hospital that has been there and done a great job for veterans. That institution, generally, was doing a very good job with respect to post-traumatic stress, and the research that was going on there was applicable to veterans and also others across Canada and around the world.

Can you tell us what is happening with respect to the research aspect and confirm for us that the veterans' hospital will be transferred to the provincial government?

Mr. Hehr: Thank you for the question. It was really a long negotiation process between us and the Government of Quebec that really came to fruition here with the transfer that happened, I believe, within the last couple of weeks, April 1. The veterans who are currently there will have a seamless transition. The same care they received when we were in charge of the hospital will be handled by the provincial government. We have ensured that.

Also, I think this is a good news day for the Canadian public in general, in that we were seeing many of our soldiers who were eligible for services at Ste. Anne's, who were Second World War and Korean veterans, sadly starting to move on. So maximizing that space — Ste. Anne's has had a long history, a proud history — to allow more people to have access to the health care services they need is good for the province of Quebec and good for the Canadian health care system.

I also know, because we went to Ste. Anne's to meet with the veterans and staff there, the good work they have done on post-traumatic stress. They have beds there for 10 people to get intensive therapy, one-on-one work, with our support system at Ste. Anne's. That will a model that we will continue to look at and continue to address in what we're going to do at our centre of excellence.

We see that as something that has worked for a great many people from coast to coast, where it also allows for their families to come in and take part in this therapy. So we're going to try to ensure that this continues in our work, going forward, on PTSD.

I will allow the general to add to that.

Gen. Natynczyk: Senator, thanks for the question. There are three separate issues. As the minister indicated, Ste. Anne's Hospital transfer, it's amazing when you consider it's 99 years old this year, centennial next year. We have just south of 300 veterans there, and it was a seamless transfer. We are still working with the Province of Quebec, and they've just had to hire about 250 new employees. We have had a lot of employees retire, but the vast majority of them, about 75 per cent, either accepted offers with the province or have come back on a casual basis with the province to be there for the veterans. So that was great news.

Part of the research you talk about is the partnership between that hospital and McGill University. McGill University has a research effort in terms of gerontology, and that's where most of the research at Ste. Anne's Hospital is happening. It is my understanding that Quebec really does appreciate and value that partnership, and that research will continue on with McGill. Also, McGill is a part of the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research, and so a lot of work will be done there as well.

The third component is the operational stress clinic injury clinic. The one at Ste. Anne's, similar to the ones across the country — and the minister runs 11 clinics across the country — is run by the province in that location. What is unique about Ste. Anne's is that it has two components. One is a day clinic, and one is a residential one, as the minister indicated, with 10 beds. Our MOU, our transfer agreement with the province, allows that OSI clinic to continue, both in residential and in day visits.

The Chair: Our committee has visited that establishment in the past, and we found that it was very encouraging to see the work that was going on. At our next visit we can anticipate that we'll still be encouraged, and we'll still see the good work going on that has gone on in the past.

Thank you. Now, there is one other area I wanted to ask you about. This is somewhat technical, and if you don't have an answer I'd certainly understand because I didn't give you notice of this.

Last year there a piece of legislation was passed with respect to the Public Service Employment Act to bring the definition of the term veteran up to date in that act to cover any veteran of the Armed Forces who had served for at least three years and been honourably discharged, and would be in a position to apply for priority hiring within the federal government.

Unfortunately, the definition of survivor of a veteran was not changed, so the only survivors eligible to apply for a job within the public service are survivors of Second World War veterans. We brought this to the attention of the government last year, when the legislation was going through, but that amendment was rejected.

Has that been brought to your attention, and would you consider looking at that?

Mr. Hehr: There are a couple of things there. We are actively working on ensuring that our men and women who have served get opportunities to take part in the public service, and a lot of that was highlighted through that private member's bill. We're continuing to work through that.

We are also trying to expand opportunities through the Community Benefits Agreement that we're going to be doing in our infrastructure rollout with Minister Sohi on this to ensure that people are getting opportunities to work in that capacity. We are continuing to do our work with other partners like Helmets to Hardhats and other organizations, in seeing that our men and women get opportunities to build their lives. In terms of the specific question you ask, I may have to kick that to the general and see if he can add anything to that particular amendment.

Gen. Natynczyk: Really, I can't. It's the first time I'm hearing of it, sir.

The Chair: I thought that may be the case. I will undertake to send along some information on that. I think it was really an oversight rather than an attempt to exclude families from this benefit that had been included in the past. I'll do that, Mr. Minister and Mr. Deputy Minister.

We have about five minutes left in the time that we had allocated. I have three senators who have indicated they would like to participate in the second round. Our second round of questioning is for those follow-up questions that senators didn't have an opportunity to ask or thought about after they had their opportunity earlier on. They're short, snappy questions, and I think we can get through the three senators in five minutes.

[Translation]

Senator Dagenais: Minister, General, you are both aware of the suicides among members of the armed forces and veterans. I'd like to know where things stand with the suicide prevention strategy being developed for members of the military and veterans.

[English]

Mr. Hehr: It is tragic when any person takes their life or contemplates taking their life. A lot of the hard work I will be doing with Minister Sajjan over the coming year will be to put together a comprehensive strategy to try and reduce this unfortunate occurrence that happens. We have to look at all angles of this with care, compassion and respect, and understanding that men and women who served in our military deserve our support. We're looking at best practices on how we can reduce the stigma on mental health and ensuring they get the help when they need it.

We provide pretty good services in terms of mental health supports and have a 24-hour hotline for people in emergency situations or entirely stressful situations. We have to continue to reduce the stigma and continue to do better, and that is a lot of what we'll be going forward with in the coming year.

I remind you that I've only been minister for 163 days, and we're drinking from the fire hose, trying to guzzle down as much as we can. This is definitely something we are working on.

[Translation]

Senator Dagenais: I can certainly appreciate the issue you have to deal with, having had very close colleagues take their lives when I was a Sûreté du Québec police officer. Sometimes, you don't even know about it. I certainly do appreciate your answer and the work you are doing. Thank you very much, Minister.

[English]

Senator Lang: I was just thinking back through the history of our committee over the course of the hearings, and I believe the general was involved in some of those discussions. That question was with regard to the number of programs that have been instituted over the years for the purposes of meeting the requirements for veterans, and the time to review these programs to see if some of them could be amalgamated so that veterans would get more benefit from them than having them divided into these various silos.

Where are we with that review? Is there a review under way and, if there is, when can we expect some results?

Mr. Hehr: We are going forward with a comprehensive review of our financial services. Obviously there are no two veterans who are exactly alike, hence probably the multitude of services that Veterans Affairs provides.

As I said in my introductory statements, we are going to be looking at that to see which ones are providing value and support and where we need to augment them or blend them together. That's what our department is doing, and we'll continue that work going forward.

Obviously, my stakeholder groups are going to be important in this, and a lot of this discussion will happen when we look at the different aspects of family support, mental health support and return to work, and even in our pension discussions, looking at that suite of benefits and what that entails going forward.

Senator Lang: We spoke a little bit earlier about expanding the outreach to veterans in the North, and you said that it was under review and there are certain options being considered. Would you undertake, once decisions are taken and a clear, definitive path and direction has been agreed upon, to inform this committee so we have that information?

Mr. Hehr: That seems like an eminently reasonable suggestion that we can comply with.

Senator Mitchell: I'm thinking of the Boyle Street Community Centre in Edmonton. It is a drop-in services centre for the homeless, many of whom are, unfortunately, veterans. They are currently planning to build a new facility with social housing for these homeless people.

You mentioned that you're working on homelessness for veterans. Are you contemplating grants for capital building infrastructure and, if so, when and how would it be accessed by a group like Boyle Street?

Mr. Hehr: That is a good question. Veterans Affairs Canada, prior to this time, has never had it in our mandate. Over the course of the last 35 years, homelessness has been an issue not only in the veteran population but in the Canadian population writ large, and we're going about this. We have hired a secretariat to look at three elements of the programming we're doing. One of them is how best to ensure that we are tapping veterans who are homeless — or at risk of being homeless — into our whole-of-government approach, or looking at other options in the community.

We have some very successful models out there in veterans' transitional housing like Cockrell House out in Victoria. We have done these pilot projects that have proven successful. The Housing First model is successful and how we ensure we tie our veterans into these models and what we're doing at Veterans Affairs.

We are currently doing the work, even though it's not in our mandate letter. We take this very seriously and we'll be looking at all models out there and trying to incorporate those best practices in our whole-of-government approach.

The Chair: Mr. Minister and Mr. Deputy Minister, thank you very much for being here. We want you to know that the Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs is very anxious to work with you. If you think there is any area where you think we could be supportive, we would be pleased to hear from you in that regard.

Perhaps annually we could get together just to talk about progress and items that come up.

Mr. Hehr: I thank you very much for your time and your contributions. I look forward to us working together to better the lives of the men and women who have served this great nation.

(The committee adjourned.)