Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs
 

Proceedings of the Subcommittee on
Veterans Affairs

Issue No. 6 - Evidence - March 8, 2017


OTTAWA, Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs of the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence met at 12:04 noon today to study the creation of a defined, professional and consistent system for veterans as they leave the Canadian Armed Forces.

Senator Jean-Guy Dagenais (Deputy Chair) in the chair.

[Translation]

The Deputy Chair: Welcome to this meeting of the Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs. Today our subcommittee is holding its first meeting in its study regarding issues relating to creating a defined, professional and consistent system for veterans as they leave the Canadian Armed Forces.

We are pleased to welcome as our first witness Gary Walbourne, National Defence and Canadian Armed Forces Ombudsman. Mr. Walbourne has had a distinguished career in the public service of Canada to date. In 2011, he joined the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman as Executive Director Operations and Deputy Ombudsman. In March 2014, he was named to a five-year term as National Defence and Canadian Armed Forces Ombudsman.

Mr. Walbourne, you may make your opening statement and then the senators will have questions for you. I will ask the senators to kindly introduce themselves, starting on my right.

[English]

Senator Wallin: Senator Wallin from Saskatchewan.

Senator Boniface: Senator Gwen Boniface from Ontario.

Senator Meredith: Senator Don Meredith from Ontario.

[Translation]

The Deputy Chair: I am Senator Jean-Guy Dagenais, and I will serve as Deputy Chair of the Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs today.

[English]

Gary Walbourne, Ombudsman, National Defence and Canadian Forces Ombudsman: Good afternoon to you all and thank you for the opportunity to be here this afternoon to discuss the transition from military to civilian life.

As I previously indicated in testimony given before other parliamentary committees, over half the complaints that my office deals with on an annual basis are related to end-of-career issues. While each case is unique, my office also tracks trends and I launch systemic investigations accordingly.

As you are aware, two of my latest reports to the Minister of National Defence contained simple, evidence-based recommendations that I believe can ease the administrative and procedural burdens that face our ill and injured men and women in uniform. My recommendations are straightforward and easily implementable.

They are, first, that the Surgeon General be assigned the responsibility for determining whether or not an individual's illness or injury is attributable to their service and that Veterans Affairs Canada accept that determination to activate their benefit suite for the releasing member. We have estimated that this would cut wait times at Veterans Affairs Canada by 50 per cent.

Second, that the member not be released from the Canadian Forces until all benefits and services from all sources, including Veterans Affairs, are in place. This includes their Canadian Forces pension.

Third, that a concierge service be put in place, staffed by members of the Canadian Armed Forces, to help the members navigate the complex release process.

Finally, that one easy, navigable, common Web portal be created containing all relevant information on the benefits and services from Veterans Affairs and the Canadian Armed Forces.

Senators, you would think that this blueprint would be accepted and implemented as quickly as possible. It has not.

Unfortunately, I received two nebulous responses from the Minister of National Defence, indicating that some of my recommendations "had merit'' but provided no definitive indication that any of these would be put in place.

We have also heard from General Vance, Chief of the Defence Staff, that the Canadian Armed Forces were going to hold medically releasing members until everything was in place and that a concierge service is forthcoming. This is encouraging but in reality we are not there yet. We know also that it is fully within the minister and/or Chief of the Defence Staff's authority to hold the member until these benefits are activated, but members are still being released before that time.

Ladies and gentlemen, some of the struggles of releasing members of the Canadian Armed Forces have been brought to the attention of the public. There is no way to sugarcoat them. They are stories of financial hardship, emotional stress and senseless frustration. We have members of the Canadian Armed Forces who have served this country for decades, with multiple deployments and citations under their belts, and who face the threat of eviction or are evicted from their homes and face financial ruin while awaiting their severance pay, first pension cheque or benefits adjudication. This is completely avoidable.

It appears that administratively burdensome processes are developed to try to answer narrowly defined questions. More distressing is that the desired outcomes remain unspecified.

I served for almost four years as Deputy Ombudsman at Veterans Affairs Canada. These are issues that were being discussed in 2011 and they are still being discussed today. It is easy to blame a previous administration's "inaction'' as the root cause of all the woes facing a governmental department. However, while administrations change, bureaucracies seldom do. There have been more reviews than there need to have been. The answers lie before us, but someone has to think and act boldly and creatively, and the buck stops at the top.

Through a combination of information gathered from the Department of National Defence through my office's daily interactions with them and the number of working group that we sit on as observers, we have a pretty good idea of where both departments are going with their proposed "fixes'' to the system. To me, it appears that the bureaucracy will grow.

What I have called for is a fundamental change to the existing system — stripping out the complexity and building a service model that is based on sound logic. What I am seeing is the existing deck chairs on the Titanic being rearranged for aesthetics or so-called "optimization.''

In the fall of 2016, in my testimony before two parliamentary committees, I told members of both chambers that I did not think that hiring more people was the answer to fixing this complex transition model. Getting this right will require hard work, but what is needed the most is recognition that the system as it currently exists is fundamentally flawed and does not need patchwork but rather a fundamental shift in not only what but, as importantly, how it meets the need.

You know, senators, one of the more enjoyably absurd moments that I experienced over this past year was reading a particular slide deck prepared by Veterans Affairs and National Defence where they listed the ombudsman's office as a "low influence, low interest'' party to all of this "closing the seam'' work. If somehow the departments are contending that this office of last resort, which people call when the system fails them, does not have a real stake in the outcome of their new transition model, then I openly question their ability to understand the bigger picture.

My business is to investigate and seek remedy to individual cases, and if enough of the same cases exist, I investigate why systemically they happen. I then tell the minister, the head of the organization, what he can do to fix things, not on a one-off but on an ongoing basis. Senators, my mandate cannot get any clearer. I am uniquely positioned to offer advice, yet it appears to fall on deaf ears.

Let me give you a couple of examples of what I am seeing on the ground.

First, the amount of people and working groups currently feeding into this review is dizzying. Second, there are multiple initiatives that appear to be disconnected. Initiatives such as "Convergence,'' "the Journey'' and "Care, Compassion and Respect 2020'' reinforce this intrinsic preference to "review'' rather than "act.''

In fact, senators, with all due respect, I fear that your attempts to review the issue of transition have been born out of your inability, as lawmakers, to get clear information about what is going on behind closed doors. This must be frustrating.

Allow me to provide you an example of what I am talking about. I took the time to review the latest testimony provided by VAC and CAF officials to the other chamber's Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs. I found it confusing and in some cases dichotomous.

As I previously mentioned, I received a nebulous response from the Minister of National Defence on my recommendations to have the Surgeon General determine attribution of service. In his reply, the minister indicated that the Canadian Armed Forces had no "extant policy authority'' in which to make this a reality. In fact, he does. He is the minister. Additionally, as I mention in my report, the Canadian Armed Forces already determine the attribution of service for a number of different categories of personnel, including reservists. So they already do it.

Now, in committee last week the following was stated:

The decision to transition out or to remain in the forces is an administrative decision that's made by the director, military career administration, [DMCA] and it's based on whether the medical employment limitation meets the universality of service or not.

What the Surgeon General has said before committee is that they set the medical limitations and make suggestions to DMCA, but they are not comfortable going any further in their responsibilities.

So DMCA makes its determination based on the medical employment limitations, as specified by the information provided by the Surgeon General, which contains whether or not the injury was sustained in service. That, by another name, is attribution of service — a rose by any other name. So a small change in accountability, if ordered by the minister, could be swiftly implemented.

Currently, of all the veterans under the care of Veterans Affairs Canada, only 25 per cent of them are identified at release. Understanding that a number of these individuals will late manifest, especially if they have an operational stress injury, I believe that number should and could be higher.

Assigning a single point of accountability or determining whether an illness or injury was service-related for a medically releasing member ensures there is no one left in the dark about what their benefits and services may be when they set foot on "Civy Street.'' Holding that member in the Armed Forces until these benefits and services are in place eliminates the pain and anguish associated with not knowing or being in control of their own post-military destiny.

Senators, if your committee is going to commence yet another review on the subject of transition and care for the ill and injured, I encourage you to leave the confines of the Ottawa bubble and hit the street. Visit Integrated Personnel Support Units and talk to the members and their families on the ground. What you will hear will be quite different from the bureaucratic talking points delivered to you here at committee. My organization has been on the ground since 1998, and we witness this disconnect daily.

The sole purpose of our work in this process is to ensure that the releasing member is fully prepared to take their first steps into civilian life. We are not here to empower the core public service, nor are we here to boost the egos of people in positions of power. We serve the members, so let's make sure we build a system that empowers them. Right now, we are not living up to our end of the bargain. If we do make those changes, then we can start to change the narrative.

Thank you and I stand ready for your questions.

The Deputy Chair: Thank you, Mr. Walbourne, for your presentation. Before going to senators' questions, I have a short question for you.

[Translation]

In your opinion, Mr. Walbourne, are all these incomprehensible delays due to a lack of funds or the potential costs?

[English]

Mr. Walbourne: I believe that's part of the equation, having the right resources on the ground to take on some of these tasks that we are talking about. The Chief of the Defence Staff has started to develop what is called "the Journey,'' which will professionalize the transition process. That will take a period of time. I think the horizon on that proposal is five years. It will take time to build the resources and make sure they have budgeted and requested the funds accordingly. There will be a financial tale to this, yes.

Senator Wallin: I want to say thank you. You have come here so many times to this committee to make the same case. I appreciate that you are becoming less diplomatic with time and are really laying it on the line about what needs to be done.

We have a minister who is a former CF member; our Chief of the Defence Staff is a soldier's soldier. There is a commitment to veterans and to the health of veterans. To Senator Dagenais' point about money and the timing of the transfer of money for these issues, what else is there that could possibly be stopping what is so abundantly obvious and clear in terms of the four points that you have laid out? What could possibly be the resistance to that?

Mr. Walbourne: Senator, I wish I had a good answer to that because I have the same question for myself every day.

These transition issues we hear about — these catastrophic stories we read about in the news — I think we can avoid those and I think that's where we need to start. As for the development of professionalization of the transition model, that will take time. We need to give both departments some time, step back a little and let them implement what they said they've designed. My concern will be letting the member go before those things are in place. I think we can make that move today.

There will be a cost to get this transition model right. There is no doubt about that. What does the cost look like? We have done some rough estimates, and I will give you some quick examples.

We talked about the Canadian Forces member being the concierge to help the members. We need to develop a case ratio of what that looks like. We've done some rough numbers, and it is about $10 million of personnel resources to stand up that type of an entity. We have the integrated support units across the country, so we have the footprint. It is a matter of putting the right resources in there.

I understand the fiscal restraints we all find ourselves under, but my job is not to talk about money. My job is to talk about making sure that we get this transition process correct. I can do the costings if that is tasked upon me, but I believe that is a departmental responsibility. We have to make sure this transition is what we call it, "seamless'' and there is no one slipping through that crack.

Senator Wallin: With the joint personnel units, is funding an issue there? We have travelled to some of those in the past. Some of the issues were resource-based, it seems; some of the other issues were the take up on the part of the client base because of proximity, because they were on the base and there were still some issues surrounding people wanting to go forward and say, "Look, I am dealing with PTSD.'' Where are you finding the problem there?

Mr. Walbourne: When I speak to the people who manage the IPSCs and the members who are attached to those units, it comes down to personnel as a big part of it. We still have not met that 457 number that has been touted for years. We're about 10 or 15 per cent below that number, and that has a direct impact on what the IPSC can deliver on the ground.

One of the issues we are coming against when we look for mental health workers is the wage rates offered by the Government of Canada versus what is available at the provincial or the private sector level, which puts us at a disadvantage. It is something that has been known for a few years. We have to review that quickly and become competitive if we want to hire the right resources. I know everyone is jockeying for these resources, but I believe if we could get staffing at the IPSCs to 100 per cent, that would go a long way.

Senator Meredith: Thank you for your presentation, for being direct about the frustrations that you are facing and for being unequivocal about it at this point, because we are talking about our veterans — those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for this country. The way we are treating them is deplorable, in my opinion.

You talked about the number of complaints. Can you tell us how many complaints come to your desk? You gave us a recommendation with respect to us hitting the ground. I have gone to Military Family Resource Centres and have spoken to some veterans there. I have heard their frustrations and seen the lack of resources that they get. It is mind boggling. Tell us about those types of complaints that come to you, how they are executed with respect to the departments that you refer these matters to and what kind of follow up you are given.

Mr. Walbourne: As for complaints — and it's not a bragging point; it's kind of chafing to have to say this — my complaints are up this year over last year, and last year it was up over the previous year. I think an ombudsman should be working himself out of a job. My goal is to get to get to zero complaints.

Specifically to your question, as I said, we will do about 2,000 individual investigations on behalf of members this year. Half of those have to do with end of career. We have had a large uptake this year because of the delay in receiving pensions. That has generated about 350 cases for us this year. Those are the types of complaints we are getting. They can range to anything from someone who can't get access to health care right up to the point where they have no income. It can run the gamut of anything that could happen at the end of one's career.

Senator Meredith: In terms of us doing this review and seeing what we can do, what other recommendations or areas would you advise that we should be pressing as a committee? We are all concerned about our veterans. We are all concerned about their health and their safety. We see the challenges and will be looking at their amortization of payments, benefits, and so on and how best to ensure they are successful in life in their transition from military to civilian life. What would you recommend?

Mr. Walbourne: If I could have one recommendation implemented, I would say hold the member until everything is in place, that is, until we have a clear date for when the pension or the benefit or the service will be delivered. Until we have that locked down, I think we will continue to have these conversations about those who slip through the cracks.

The key thing we have to do is tell the military members, "We have your back. You're not going anywhere until you are prepared to go.'' I think that is fundamental. If we did that, we would not be talking about people who are released without their pensions or who are released and couldn't get access to a benefit or a service. I think it is the fundamental thing to do. I think it stops this conversation. It will drive another one to get efficient and effective at doing this transitional process, but the first thing we should do is stand up to the responsibility. If we had some role in putting you in a position where your life looks different when you leave the military, then we have to step in and make sure we're made that as smooth as possible.

Senator Boniface: I am relatively new to this issue per se. If you went back 10 years, what improvements have you seen in terms of transition, or have you seen any?

Mr. Walbourne: It reminds me — and you often hear this terminology — of shaving the ice cube. I think we have done that. I think Veterans Affairs Canada has done some good things and I think the Department of National Defence has done good things. They are small, incremental steps. For example, the process of applying for hearing loss benefits is much more efficient and effective at Veterans Affairs than it ever was before. That type of innovation and new delivery model is encouraging, but it happens rarely. I have seen some incremental changes along the way.

I also believe the demands of the modern transitioning member are different than they were for those from Korea, the First World War and the Second World War. I do believe the expectations are higher.

I keep going back to bureaucracy, but what I see is we keep doing more of the same with more people. That's a concern. I think we are at a point in time, with the information we have, that we can make a fundamental shift. It would be a fundamental shift if we released the member with the determination of whether the illness or injury was caused by service. If they left with that, I think it starts a whole different conversation because the conversation won't be about, "Are you entitled?'' It will be about, "What is the impact to your quality of life and what do we, as a government, owe as an obligation to meet that?''

I have seen some incremental change, but nothing that has been so alert that everyone has paid attention to it.

Senator Wallin: There is a question you have alluded to and we have heard in testimony before, with what seems obvious to you and to the rest of us, which is that the CF should hold the members until issues are resolved and then hand that man or woman over to the jurisdiction of Veterans Affairs. What is the control issue there? What is the tug of war about?

Mr. Walbourne: I am impartial. I have nothing to win or lose in this. I want to make it clear that I am a one-term mandate guy. I have a five-year mandate. That is my role. If you turn these posts into occupations, then you have lost sight. I'm impartial. I have nothing to win or lose.

I don't know what the struggle is. Your adjective "frustrated'' is a good one — I am frustrated a little. I don't see the logic of why we are not moving forward on some of these things. Is it a tug of war, is it an ego, is it this is my area, stay off it, it is a turf war? What is it? I am not quite sure.

I believe both Veterans Affairs Canada and the Department of National Defence do have the best goals in sight, but it is how they go about doing things. To hire more people to do more of what we have done — Einstein said that was a definition of insanity. I love that quote.

I can sit here and wax eloquently all day and give you the political answers, but I don't think we will get to the core of the issues that way. I think my job is to speak bluntly.

I have spent 25 years in the private sector delivering service delivery for international organizations, and I have been inside the government for 20 years. I look at how you balance innovation and service delivery with the policies and regulations that are wrapped around government. There is an opportunity here, but we are not taking advantage of it. I wish I could say what the one issue was that was blocking us from doing this. I think it's a multitude of issues.

Senator Wallin: On the idea of the concierge service, I think you suggested that should probably be in the hands of DND, that they should manage the transition, and that VAC should be the delivery mechanism. Is that a fair way to characterize it?

Mr. Walbourne: Yes, that's an excellent way to characterize it. I think the Department of National Defence, working with their transitioning members, needs to define what the desired outcomes are. Then you say, to Veterans Affairs Canada or to whomever the service delivery may be, "Design your program to get me to the outcomes.'' If we do it the other way around, we will be having this conversation in another year from now.

Senator Wallin: You have seen this from both sides, from the VAC side and from this side as well. What happens, then, when somebody lands in the VAC jurisdiction? We have been told — and I don't know with the new programs whether this is still as bad as it was — that they have to start again. They may need to find doctors to rediagnose them. Are we still at that stage?

Mr. Walbourne: I think we will always be at that stage as long as we are talking about the attribution of service because the attribution of service is the trigger that opens up the benefits and services that are available. When a file lands at Veterans Affairs Canada, the first thing they have to do is adjudicate the illness or injury is attributable to service. They have a 16-week time frame for that. I think it is redundant.

Senator Wallin: Why can't Veterans Affairs take DND's word for it? I don't mean some bureaucratic DND. I mean if a person has been through the medical system, they have been diagnosed. The illness or injury is clearly a result of service. So that's been established, and, therefore, the member is being released. Is there something in the legislation or is there something anywhere that means they can't take DND's word for it, which includes the words of a bunch of medical professionals as well?

Mr. Walbourne: As I said in my opening statement, the response I received from the minister was that the department had no extant authority to do so. But, when I look at what we do inside the organization, we currently do attribution of service for reservists so that they can have access to an insurance program. We do it for commemorative purposes or if there's a board of inquiry. So we are currently doing it, and the minister has the ability to do that. Why one will not accept the evidence of another, I wish I had an answer.

Senator Wallin: There's no technical or legal reason, as you see it?

Mr. Walbourne: Not that I see. I would even go as far as to say that, if there is a technical reason, then let's overcome it. Let's change the process.

[Translation]

The Deputy Chair: Before I turn it over to Senator Meredith, I have a related question further to Senator Wallin's comments. I would like more information about the medical exams. How many of the cases that you have raised are the result of conflicting diagnoses? I know there can be problems at times regarding a service member's diagnosis. How important are the physicians' diagnoses?

[English]

Mr. Walbourne: When the decision is made to release a member, it's done against the universality of service principle. If you breach U. of S., you're going to be released from the Canadian Armed Forces.

What I've been explaining all along is that the Canadian Armed Forces do tremendous work with an ill or injured soldier while they are in their care. Some of these transitions can take an extended period of time. Medical care is provided. Diagnosis, prognosis and all of those things are done while they are in the care of the Canadian Armed Forces. To breach U. of S., we need to know when, where and how a soldier became ill or injured. We know that before we make the determination. I don't know what the problem is on the other side.

On the second part of your question, my statistics will be a little old, but I do remember that, when first engaging with Veterans Affairs Canada — and this is a few years old — about 70 per cent of all applications were accepted at first engagement over that 16 week engagement. Those that were not were sent on for a second review or ended up in another bureaucratic process. I do believe my numbers are close. About 90 per cent of those that went on with their first no got turned over in favour of the member again.

I don't know how the system works today; my stats are a little old. But it seems that first engagement is getting better. But there is still that question. We will sometimes have a member go to another physician and get another medical opinion based on the requirements of Veterans Affairs. I think it's already been done. I don't know why we're doing this or putting the member back through this cycle yet again, and this is where we run into some problems.

[Translation]

The Deputy Chair: In my former career, we dealt with police officers who had to get a diagnosis for the CSST. There were often three physicians involved: the employer's physician, the CSST physician, and the officer's personal physician. We wondered whose diagnosis was correct. From what I understand, there are often conflicting diagnoses to determine the soldier's fate, which may reduce the amount of benefits or costs. Sometimes the various physicians disagree with each other. I am sure you understand what I am saying.

[English]

Mr. Walbourne: I hear what you're saying — any employer in Canada will ask for that medical opinion — but I want to back it up a little bit. We're talking about a unique group of people who have found themselves ill or injured in service to this country. They are loyalty, dedication, commitment. This is what they are. Will we find maligners in any system? Sure, you will. If we build systems to catch those who are trying to jockey or play the system, then we've lost sight of what we're trying to accomplish.

If we've made a diagnosis to end your career — this is not, "You're going to be off for a few weeks'' — if I'm going to end your career and give you a release message, what other medical review do I need? I may need some medical advice and guidance and maybe a review to determine the impact on quality of life, but I think the opening of the suite of benefits and services should be automatic with this diagnosis coming from the Canadian Armed Forces.

[Translation]

The Deputy Chair: Thank you, Mr. Walbourne. Senator Meredith now has the floor.

[English]

Senator Meredith: Thank you for your comments thus far. Just as a follow-up to what Senator Dagenais has raised with you with respect to medical releases, let's take it one step further. You saw the tragic thing that happened with the Desmond family during the holidays. Again, we're looking at medical professionals following treatment of a particular veteran, which ended, obviously, in the tragic event of him taking his life and his family members with him. That's troubling. No veteran or family should ever go through that situation again.

I'd like you to comment on the medical advice and diagnosis that needs to be followed up in collaboration with hospitals within the jurisdiction of that particular veteran. That's number one, and I've got a couple of other questions for you.

Mr. Walbourne: Again, I want to make this very clear: Though I've been accused of it, I do not talk about particular cases. But I will talk about the transition process.

When we talk about a concierge service, I'm talking about someone who is a uniformed member who is going to take that member through every step of the process to get them to where they want to be. When the member leaves, the connection doesn't leave. I'm saying that that connection, that one person to reach out to, stays in place.

There were a lot of different stories wrapped around this tragedy you spoke about. I think it's Veterans Affairs Canada that has good relationships with these local hospitals and is living and working in the regions, good people who have done the outreach and have made their positions.

I want to talk to the concierge service because it can't end when the member takes off the uniform. Members need to have someone they can reach back to, a comrade that they have been through it with, who knows where they are, and, if there is a crisis or something acute happens, they can reach back and have that touchpoint. It's not just to the end of career and cut it off. I think there has to be a tail to this. It needs to go forward.

Senator Meredith: With respect to a recommendation by your office in 2016 regarding a web portal that will encapsulate all the services that are available to veterans, what is your take? You mentioned, again, just in terms of your career, are we at this point right now to reduce bureaucracy with respect to how services are delivered to our veterans? Do we need to look outside, where there is a sense of transparency and accountability of those particularly outside agencies that will be more effective in delivering services to our veterans? We talk about a portal and we talk about the amalgamation of services, but what about those veterans who are not connected in some way that can gain access to these services? It's high time that we look at an outside agency, corporate Canada, that can effectively deliver the service, obviously with oversight.

Mr. Walbourne: That's a potential solution. I'll talk a little bit about the portal I mentioned.

Our office has gone into partnership with the Department of National Defence, and we've started the joint project. We've already done the statement of work, and the request for proposals has been posted. Our office is going to take the lead because we have the ability to move a little quicker. The costing on all of this, we haven't gotten there yet. We're waiting for the returns on the request for proposals that has been posted. We have a lead on this, and we'll move forward.

On the second part of your question on looking outside, I think we have to look outside. I think the innovation is happening outside. I think the opportunity is happening outside. We've just recently, at my office, introduced LiveChat. LiveChat has been around for 15 years. So there are things that can be done. The next evolution for us is that we are going to expand on LiveChat and allow the member to book their appointment when they want to be spoken to, at their location.

There are innovative ways and ideas that we can bring to bear, but I believe many of the solutions we are looking for are available in technology and in other entities that are going as good a job. We need to copycat at much as we can. If there is something working, we need to take advantage of it.

Senator Lang: I apologize for being late, and I welcome our witness.

I noticed in your opening statement, Mr. Walbourne, that you referred to something I want to quote:

. . . one of the more enjoyably absurd moments that I experienced over this past year was reading a particular slide deck prepared by Veterans Affairs and National Defence where they listed my office as a "low influence, low interest'' party to all of this "closing the seam'' work.

I just want to say that I for one don't agree with that. I think your office brings a great deal to the table, and you have had an influence over the last number of years that cannot necessarily be measured in dollars but can be measured in changes that have taken effect. It's very difficult to change government at any time. I want to say I appreciate your commitment to the position that you hold and the people who work for you.

I just want to go back to your recommendations that Senator Meredith referred to and the question about the implementation of a concierge service to be put in place, staffed by members of the Canadian Armed Forces, to help members navigate the complex release process. That's one. The second one was the portal.

You mentioned that you didn't have any costs for one of the recommendations. Surely we've got some projections of what this would cost. Second, if we're doing this for the concierge service that's going to have this mandate, what does it take away from the current mandate of Veterans Affairs Canada in respect of what they're supposed to be doing with respect to those veterans who are looking at release? There are a number of questions there.

Mr. Walbourne: I'll try to answer them all, sir. Let's talk about the last part of that question. I think it's the most important piece.

We talk about responsibility and accountability. What's happened over the years is that Veterans Affairs Canada reaches further into the department or the department allows them in further. We've gotten to a point where it's not really clear who's doing what to whom at what point in time, and who's responsible for it.

One of the issues that I've been pushing and promoting is that while you wear the uniform, you are a member of the Canadian Armed Forces and you are the responsibility of the Canadian Armed Forces. I mentioned in a previous question that we need to work with our transitioning members to define what the desired outcomes are. We need to tell all service providers to develop their service delivery models to meet those desired outcomes. That's the responsibility piece. We get into a bit of overlap about who does what and people slip through the cracks, and "It wasn't my responsibility; it was yours.'' That's part of the issue. Let's clearly delineate the lines of responsibility.

Regarding the portal piece, we're working on that, as I said. We're getting great support from the department. Everyone is behind getting it done. That will happen over time. I figure within the next 12 to 18 months, we will have a template of what's that's going to look like and be able to get it out to the road.

That's where I come down on those two.

As far as the concierge service goes, as I said, you cannot have a concierge for three weeks and it's over. It's got to be something that continues. There's continuity and the ability to reach back.

As for costings, as I mentioned earlier, I can go do costings and have rough estimates, but I do believe it's a departmental responsibility to determine what this type of service will look like.

Senator Lang: I'd like to follow up on that, and perhaps you can come back to us. It seems to me that if the concierge service is implemented, quite frankly, it seems to be a logical approach to a very real problem that has been facing veterans for many years. What is it replacing currently at Veterans Affairs Canada that's supposed to be doing that? I'd like that identified for the committee, but I won't ask you to deal with that today.

What I would like to discuss, as we've discussed every time you've appeared here, is the question of this collage of programs that are available to the veterans under various objectives. We asked if there could be a consolidation done in a simpler manner so that the veterans get the full benefit of the monies that the taxpayers have put forward to them and a much clearer picture of what they are eligible for.

You and the department had made a commitment, I believe, that they were reviewing these programs and looking at coming up with at least a reply or a response as to what could or could not be consolidated to help and assist with the veterans. To date, my understanding is that we've got six advisory committees within the department that have been struck, but I don't see anything in substantive terms that would bring some real logical change to what the veteran faces at the present time.

Mr. Walbourne: It's a little difficult to respond to because when you ask if we introduce a concierge service, what will VAC not have to do? It goes back to who engages when — at what point in time? If you take on this transition study and you go around the IPSCs, you're going to hear some wonderful stories where an individual did a great job for some people. But you will find other places where there is no connectivity — no person to reach out to.

I don't know if we're taking anything away. I think what we're doing would be regularizing. As the Chief of the Defence Staff said, he wants to professionalize the transition process. I'm hoping the concierge service will be part of that, and that's where we need to start.

Your question raises a whole other raft of issues for me. Is this the issue that's going on? If I do this, you lose that? How do we compensate? Are those the conversations going on behind closed doors? I don't know. As everyone has said, I've talked about this ad nauseam, but here we are yet again talking about it.

It's not about who does what. Let's define the program we want. Let's design it and say this is what the model looks like. Let's everyone get behind this. I think we're close.

Senator Boniface: I was interested on a specific you outlined with respect to the concierge service. You said they needed to be — and this is my term — uniform members. Do you mean that in terms of in lieu of using civilian members? Where I come from, I'm wondering whether part of what the needs are is people who are specialized and trained to work on these types of transition issues. I just want to be clear on what you're defining.

Mr. Walbourne: When I talking about a concierge, this is not a mental health professional or social worker. This is someone who knows the life that this transitioning member has led, who understands the acronyms and can talk the talk. This is someone who ensures the member is getting to their next appointment, has full exposure to what's available, is helping them get their résumé done — whatever pieces are needed. That's the role of the concierge. It doesn't have to be a professional in any area of expertise. It's just someone who has walked and lived the life of the transitioning member. It goes a long way.

When I have my town halls, we get a lot of, "People don't understand what I do. They don't understand the life I lead. It's hard to talk to them.'' That's part of the equation. If we're going to build something that will help the transitioning member, put them in an environment that's comfortable, especially someone with an operational stress injury. Some things can go unsaid between serving members that would have to be well explained to us civilians.

That's what I'm talking about when I talk about a concierge system: It's a buddy system, and it's someone who's got your back all throughout the process.

Senator Boniface: I'm particularly struck, maybe naively so, that if this is obviously an important issue, why are the efforts so bogged down trying to get to the end? If I look at it from a recruiting perspective, part of the attraction to entities like the military is that they are what I call a "birth to death'' sort of arrangement as an employer. It would seem to me that the harm that comes to reputation in the way you treat people in transition will double back and hit you on the recruiting front. Would that be a reasonable assumption?

Mr. Walbourne: Yes, I believe that's a reasonable assumption. Unfortunately, as an ombudsman, I only get to talk about the things that don't work that well, but every time I have an opportunity, I do want to say some things.

The Canadian Armed Forces is a unique place. There's nothing like it. I've always said we need to have your back from cradle to grave. With General Vance's statement that he's going to professionalize transition, I think we're going to get there.

But let's not overlook the wonderful men and women who serve in the Canadian Armed Forces. Let's not overlook the chain of command whose desire is there to get the right things in place for their members. It's bureaucracy and probably some dollars, as was mentioned earlier, but don't ever discount the desire to make sure that they've got your back from start to finish. It's there. I see it in the Chief of the Defence Staff's eyes when I talk to him. I get that type of feeling.

I believe we're trying to get ourselves out of this mix, but we sometimes only see the negative about the Canadian Armed Forces and rarely see the positive about the folks on the ground for the fires and the floods and who do all these things. Sometimes we overlook that, and that's a mistake on our part. I think every opportunity I have to say something positive about the organization, I need to say that. There is more good going on. We have a small group of people, about 1,500, medically releasing a year. This is not millions of people. This is easy to fix, but it's going to take desire and leadership to do so.

Senator Boniface: To follow up on that, you hit my point right on the head because I would agree with you that when the job needs to be done, people in the Canadian Armed Forces, operationally speaking, will get the job done. That's my gap: When this job needs to get done, why doesn't it take the same fortitude that it takes on the ground?

Mr. Walbourne: I think we can take some of it back very quickly to who's responsible for what at what point in time? If you talk to the two entities, you will find they have a different concept of responsibility and when it engages and when it doesn't. I'll go back and say it again, if you haven't heard it: Design your outcomes and have your service delivery people design their programs and processes to meet those desired outcomes.

Senator Meredith: Just to follow up on that same point, you talked about six years later discussing some of those same issues today. What are some of the wins that you've been able to advance through your office with respect to support of our veterans? You talk about the answers lying before us and the buck stopping at the top, so talk to me about the incremental advances that have been made. We always talk about the negatives and that there are about 1,500 cases that come before you in terms of issues, but let's talk about some of the wins and how we move forward.

Mr. Walbourne: I think I'll give praise to the Chief of the Defence Staff and his chain of command. They are taking some moves inside to try to ease the transition process. I know they're looking at the releases and how they're happening.

The transfer of pensions from the department over to Public Services and Procurement Canada is going to stand us very well. I think that was a smart move on behalf of the department. PSPC are professionals and this is what they do. They'll do a better job. That's a small win.

The Chief of the Defence Staff is focused on this and he is, not to use a coined phrase, seized of this transition. I think the small things he is doing within the organization are going to prepare us for this five-year-journey model that's being built.

We are re-checking the release of the member and checking to see that pensions and things are in place. There are some things going on on the ground that are starting to see some small positive outcomes. I just think we need to do something larger than that to make it the same for everyone. They are not one-offs. We're not searching for people who are slipping through the cracks, but we're avoiding them getting to that position.

The Deputy Chair: If we don't have any further questions, I would like to say thank you again for your presentation, Mr. Walbourne. We will consider your comments for our final report. Thank you again.

Mr. Walbourne: Thank you very much.

The Deputy Chair: Honourable senators, we will have our next meeting on March 29, in three weeks. For your information, our witnesses will be Mr. Guy Parent, Veterans Ombudsman, and Sharon Squire, Deputy Ombudsman.

(The committee adjourned.)