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Proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on
Social Affairs, Science and Technology

Issue 1 - Evidence - November 20, 2013


OTTAWA, Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology is meeting today at 4:15 p.m. to study the subject-matter of those elements contained in Divisions 5, 10 and 11 of Part 3 of Bill C-4, A second Act to implement certain provisions of the budget tabled in Parliament on March 21, 2013 and other measures.

Senator Art Eggleton (Deputy-Chair) is in the chair.

[Translation]

The Deputy Chair: I would like to welcome you to the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology.

[English]

I'm Art Eggleton, deputy chair of the committee, sitting in today in place of Senator Ogilvie, who will be back with us again tomorrow.

At this meeting, we are dealing with Bill C-4, A second Act to implement certain provisions of the budget tabled in Parliament on March 21, 2013, and other measures. There was a budget bill in the spring to help implement those measures, but more measures are now coming before us in the Senate. The bill has been divided into several different parts, so the different committees of the Senate are looking at different provisions in Bill C-4.

We have at the committee three provisions in what is known in the terminology of the budget bill as Division 5. Division 5 deals with measures relating to the Canada Labour Code. We will be starting on that tomorrow. That deals with the terminology of ``danger'' in terms of workplace provisions of the Labour Code.

Today we are dealing with Division 10, which is related to the National Research Council. It essentially changes the composition of the council, reducing it from 18 to 10 members. There are also measures relating to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board Act under Division 11.

We will have three sessions at our meeting today. First, we will deal with the National Research Council, or NRC, Division 10 provision, and then the following two panels will deal with Division 11 relating to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board Act.

The first session will start right now. At the other end of the table from me is Patricia Mortimer, Executive Vice- President and Secretary General, National Research Council.

Before I get to her, I remember that it is time for members to introduce themselves.

Senator Seidman: Judith Seidman from Montreal, Quebec.

Senator Eaton: Nicky Eaton from Ontario.

Senator Stewart Olsen: Carolyn Stewart Olsen from New Brunswick.

Senator Enverga: Tobias Enverga from Ontario.

[Translation]

Senator Bellemare: Diane Bellemare from Montreal, Province of Quebec.

[English]

Senator Segal: Hugh Segal from Kingston—Frontenac— Leeds, the best part of Ontario.

Senator Cordy: I am Jane Cordy from Nova Scotia, which is the best part of Canada.

Senator Seth: Asha Seth from Toronto, Ontario.

The Deputy Chair: I should also mention I'm from Toronto. It's not a place that people know much about these days, at least not the city hall portion of it.

We have one other member who is taking his seat. He is here as a substitute, but he has particular interest in Division 11.

Senator Dallaire: Senator Dallaire from the Gulf.

The Deputy Chair: We will go to Patricia Mortimer on Division 10 of Bill C-4 with respect to the National Research Council. Please make your remarks and then we will go to questions.

Patricia Mortimer, Executive Vice-President and Secretary General, National Research Council Canada: I have a one- line remark to summarize that Bill C-4 amends the National Research Council in three ways in order to improve the accountability and strengthen the governance structure of NRC. Specifically, it's reducing the numbers of members of our council from 19 to 12. I'm sure you'll agree that 12 is a very effective number for a committee. It separates the role of the chair from the role of the President of NRC. If there is an acting president or chair for more than 90 days, it provides that there is a need to come back to the Governor-in-Council to confirm the appointment or reappoint someone.

That's it.

The Deputy Chair: Could I clarify? In our notes, it says you're going from 18 to 10. You just said 19 to 12.

Ms. Mortimer: We count the chair as a person — as a member — and the president is ex officio. So the council would be 10 members, plus the chair and president, 12. It's currently 18 plus the president, because we don't have a separate chair.

Senator Cordy: Eleven voting members, then.

Ms. Mortimer: I don't know. We have not determined whether we have the structure yet. It was previously 18 members and the President of NRC. It's now 10 members, a chair, and the President of NRC.

The Deputy Chair: The chair, the president and —

Ms. Mortimer: Ten other members.

The Deputy Chair: That's what you're proposing in the 12?

Ms. Mortimer: Yes.

The Deputy Chair: All right. Let me start off with questions from Senator Segal.

Senator Segal: Thank you for being with us and giving us your brief outline.

Governance, of course, is a challenge for any Crown corporation — any official body — and the country, as you know, is very large. There are disparities between the regions. The quality of research and business-related R&D in different parts of the country is different.

How is your governance improved by having fewer people on your board, which would mean by definition that either you would not have people from as many regions as you do now or you'd have people reflecting the views and their own expertise relative to a larger region perhaps and as the catchment area now represented by more?

Ms. Mortimer: We're confident we've looked at a potential matrix whereby we would have a sufficient regional, gender, linguistic and technology balance to give us the diversity of advice that we need and that larger is not necessarily better, but that 10 is sufficient to cover the country geographically.

Senator Segal: Will you have representation on your board from the scientists that actually work at the NRC?

Ms. Mortimer: The board is looking at providing strategic-level advice and guidance to the president. We would be looking for members who have senior experience in running complex organizations and in the commercialization of technologies. We're looking for senior business people and looking on the academic side for people who have run universities — that type of level. We are not looking for the rank-and-file researcher. Input at the research level — this is not the only body that provides us advice and guidance. Each of our research divisions will also have their own advisory body, at which we can get more subject-specific technical expertise from the Canadian S&T and business community.

Senator Segal: Has the transition from an organization that was traditionally and historically about pure research and now is about applied research — as I understand the transition that took place — changed the degree to which the projects you fund go through the normative peer review process? Because sometimes applied technology issues, for example, don't require or may not necessitate the traditional kind of elaborate peer review. I am interested because clearly somebody will be reporting to your board on that peer review process and the way in which you evaluate projects as part of a larger strategy. I wonder what your advice to us would be.

Ms. Mortimer: There are two aspects to it. First, NRC was set up to support industrial research in Canada, and it has over its history. There are periods where it has had more basic research components, but it's not a big departure, basically returning to our original mandate.

With respect to the choice of research, the research we are doing is going to have an impact on Canada and specifically on the economic well-being of the country. Therefore, every piece of research that we do goes through a rigorous review process. It is not a peer review process; it's a business planning process. They have to demonstrate that it not only has technical merit but that it is something that will have impact on Canada, where we have a competitive advantage, where we have a skill set we can apply. It involves market intelligence.

We have to demonstrate who in Canada is willing to work with us in terms of industry and technology — what we are trying to reach as an end point. It's not ``We're going to work in this area;'' it's ``We're going to work in this area to achieve this goal that will have this economic benefit.''

Only when we are satisfied this is well thought out and is going to have a meaningful result and impact for Canada will we make a decision to invest in that research. These are investment decisions we are making in research. That is the fundamental difference in how we are managing the research.

Within that, in order to get from point A to point B, there are many individual research projects. The researcher on the bench may not feel the difference — they are still doing research — but there is an overall plan to get to something that industry is looking for.

Senator Eaton: I think Senator Segal covered most of my questions. By way of clarification, what you'll do is go into universities and look for specific research. Will industry come to you, or will you go to industry? How will it work exactly?

Ms. Mortimer: We will be working with industry. I'll give you an example.

In the aerospace area, where we have been working for many years, we've worked with them on a road map that identifies the key technologies they need to develop to remain competitive. We identify with them the areas where we can have the best impact and then work with them toward improving or solving those problems. We are really looking at solving problems.

We're not going to do any research program unless there is somebody who says they want the results.

Senator Eaton: So people will come to you and you will judge the merit of what they're asking.

Ms. Mortimer: We will work with them. If people come to us with a small problem, we will be doing that. Do they have something they need tested? Yes, they can come to us if we have the capability.

We have larger programs that take months or even a year to develop jointly with industry where we are putting together a major program to have a significant impact. That is based on the fact that we work with industry all the time and we know where the starting point is in those discussions.

Senator Eaton: You're still ``bricks and mortar''; in other words, you still have scientists working in labs — you don't farm it all out?

Ms. Mortimer: It's in-house. We work jointly with the industry. We still have bricks and mortar. We have unique facilities and large facilities, which is one of the reasons that industry is coming to work with us — because we have capabilities that they don't have in-house.

Senator Eaton: Yes, I see them out by the airport.

Senator Seidman: We're reducing the number of members of the council from 18 to 10. They are appointed by the Governor-in-Council for three-year terms. Will anything change in the criteria used to appoint these members now that we've reduced them from 18 to 10?

Ms. Mortimer: We have prepared a profile of what we would feel is an ideal candidate to be a member of this council. We are hoping to actually have a more senior level. I'm trying to say ``improve the quality.'' I do not want to offend anyone who has been on the council, but we need every position that is on there to be somebody who brings something to the table, who will become fully engaged.

Part of the reason why 10 members is a nice size is that everybody will be fully engaged; we will not have to set up small subcommittees. Everybody will be fully engaged and fully understand. It does count on us having good-quality, senior people who understand the management of science. We're not looking for Nobel Prize winners. We're looking for people who have run research institutions and complex organizations and who understand the whole innovation and commercialization process, which is not straightforward.

Senator Seidman: And you're also adding a chair.

Ms. Mortimer: Yes, an external chair.

Senator Seidman: Could you please elaborate on the purpose of adding that chair?

Ms. Mortimer: Currently council is chaired by the president. The council provides advice and guidance to the president, who is the chair. As you can see, that would be very awkward. Without a separate chair, you don't have the challenge function, as much oversight and the independence of advice that you would get as if you had an external chair.

Senator Seidman: So the chair is separate from the council. Is the chair a non-voting member of council?

Ms. Mortimer: No, they would be a member of council. They would be a Governor-in-Council appointee who is a member of council.

Senator Seidman: How does it make the chair more independent than the president, which is what —

Ms. Mortimer: Well, it's the same relationship you get as with the chair of a board of a corporation and the CEO. The president runs the day-to-day operation and is accountable for the people and the infrastructure. The board is, in essence, an advisory board, but it is an independent board. At the moment, it's a little mixed.

Senator Seidman: That's very clear.

Ms. Mortimer: Already that model has been implemented at NSERC, where they have an independent chair.

Senator Seidman: Thank you very much.

[Translation]

Senator Bellemare: I will follow a similar line of questioning. The people who are appointed to this committee are not paid. Is this indeed the case?

Ms. Mortimer: Yes.

Senator Bellemare: That means that money would not be saved by reducing the number of members, because they are not paid.

[English]

Ms. Mortimer: There are travel expenses since we are doing it across the country. Saving money is a nice side effect, but I think having the smaller council for the effectiveness and efficiency of the operation is a larger driving force than the economies; but, yes, we would expect to save money with fewer members.

[Translation]

Senator Bellemare: You answered that there are advantages to the fact that you have separated the chair of the board and the CIO. Please elaborate, because I am not certain that I see any advantages. Also, will the chairperson be paid?

Ms. Mortimer: No.

Senator Bellemare: This is a person who is not paid and who will simply be the band leader, if you will, during meetings?

[English]

Ms. Mortimer: Well, they would be chairing the meetings, but they also would have a role in deciding the agenda of the meetings, when the meetings would be held and this type of thing. In essence, it's more the case that this makes the council itself independent from the operating arm of the organization so that the council with the separate chair can be seen as an entirely independent body that is providing independent, unbiased advice to the president. They will make recommendations to the president for, say, approving his budget or whether to approve the strategic directions. In the previous model, he was making recommendations to himself, which he usually agreed with.

[Translation]

Senator Bellemare: However, I understand that the board chair is appointed, and not elected. This person is appointed?

[English]

Ms. Mortimer: The chair of the counsel? Yes, he will also be appointed as a Governor-in-Council appointee.

Senator Seth: You have told us that there will be separate roles. There is a chairperson and also there is a president.

Ms. Mortimer: Yes.

Senator Seth: You said there would be a difference between the two different roles for the two posts and why it is required to have two instead of one person.

Ms. Mortimer: The role of president is like the deputy minister of a department. He's basically running the organization. He's appointed to that. It was through a competitive process. It's like the Deputy Minister of Natural Resources or the President of ACOA. The President of NRC is responsible for the day-to-day operations of an organization of 4,000 people and a budget of $700 million. That's his job.

The other people are Governor-in-Council appointees who have been appointed to provide advice and guidance to the President of the NRC to help bring that stakeholder perspective, the regions perspective and the business perspective to new ideas, as any independent advisory body would do. By having it totally independent, by having an independently appointed chair, we ensure that they are providing unbiased advice. We're looking to the business community and the academic community for advice on how we set our directions.

Senator Seth: I understand that council members have been reduced from 18 to 10. What do you think of that in terms of benefit and cost, financial or otherwise?

Ms. Mortimer: The cost obviously will be less, because although we do not remunerate them, we do pay travel and hospitality because they're giving of their time to assist us. There is the cost of producing materials and general support for council members. There is a modest saving, as I say, but really, the driving force in the reduction is to get a more manageable size of group, a group of this size where you can actually have a good discussion. We've all been in committees where you go around, and by the time the eighteenth person has said their point, there's no discussion time. We're hoping to have a more robust discussion and a more agile group to get them engaged in the business of NRC.

Senator Enverga: A lot of my questions were answered already.

In reducing the number of members, what will be the future? Will it be more efficient? Will more research be done? Can you let me know what the real advantage is of doing this, other than cost? Would you be able to invite more people as witnesses to your meetings?

Ms. Mortimer: I think what we would end up doing is with a smaller group you can also expose them to more of our operation. You can take a group of that size to visit the laboratories and the facilities.

Because we have a much larger group, we have a separate human resources committee and a separate finance committee. Those groups have to meet, and then they have to report. Now significant issues in those areas can be discussed by everyone. So you have a more efficient meeting schedule, and you have more flexibility in actually working with council members and exposing them to the programs of NRC.

Senator Enverga: I think that's good. Thank you for your recommendation.

Senator Cordy: I guess a question you couldn't answer is why this is in a budget bill, but I won't ask you that question.

The idea of separation of chair and president is excellent. It creates more independence and avoids possible conflicts within the meeting, so I think that's a great move.

The president and the chair are Governor-in-Council appointments, but the minister can appoint a president or a chair for 90 days. Is that just for expediency in the case of somebody leaving? What's the intent behind that?

Ms. Mortimer: It is for expediency. You do not want to leave either of the bodies without a head for any extended period of time, and it does take time to do Governor-in-Council appointments. You have to have the bus scenario. If the president is hit by a bus, the minister can immediately ask someone to act in their stead. A number of delegated signing authorities are associated with that position that needs to be dealt with immediately. You can't wait for an extended period.

The difference here is there's a limit to how long you can go on with the minister simply appointing someone, and I think that also returns the accountability to the Governor-in-Council for these positions.

[Translation]

Senator Chaput: Who determined that there was a need for this restructuring?

[English]

Ms. Mortimer: This is something that we have discussed internally. My position as secretary general makes me responsible for the governance systems, including the council. It is something that we support. As we took a looked at the transformation of NRC and the type of council members, we started with what kind of people and it led naturally to how many of these people we would want and the structure we would like with respect to independence. These are discussions we had internally, and I'm sure they were discussions that happened within the minister's office as well. We were of the same mind on this.

[Translation]

Senator Chaput: So this is a discussion that took place over several years?

[English]

Ms. Mortimer: Yes.

[Translation]

Senator Chaput: Is the focus still on applied research?

[English]

Ms. Mortimer: The role of NRC is to carry out research and development that solves problems of Canadian industry. That means that in order to do that you still need to do fundamental research. You need to solve problems. You're still doing research, but there's an end point, so this business of basic versus applied doesn't really fit. We are still doing fundamental research, but it's towards an end that we have already identified to solve a problem that industry has identified for us.

[Translation]

Senator Chaput: Could you give me some examples of this research which seeks to find the solution to a problem?

[English]

Ms. Mortimer: Okay. At the moment, we have 45 research programs ongoing. I will give you a few examples. We have one looking at trying to build mid-rise wood buildings, which is something that British Columbia is trying to do, but the technology in going above a floor level just using wood is quite onerous. That is something we're working on.

We've announced programs where we were looking at using algae for producing fuel, but frankly the price point didn't make that a good idea. We took that technology, which was in Nova Scotia, and added technology from Toronto to it on how to build a bioreactor. We're deploying it in Alberta to use the algae to capture the carbon from the oil sands and use it in a bioreactor that will provide a variety of value-added products. If it works, in the end you will have a new business that is making money from taking carbon out of the oil sands. So we were looking at that case, the problem of the carbon and some technologies that we had, and deployed a truly national program. Those are the sorts of things we're working on.

The Deputy Chair: Let me ask you finally about the separation of positions of chair and president. It's a normal thing in the business world in Canada nowadays to do that, so it seems quite reasonable to do it. But heading up the National Research Council I would think requires a person that's very specialized, has expertise in a certain area. What are the qualifications going to be for this chairperson? Would it be the same as it would be for any other council member, or would there be special qualifications for the person who is appointed chairman?

Ms. Mortimer: We would be looking for someone of national stature, but particularly someone who has experience in serving on or running boards. For our council members, we are appointing them because they bring particular expertise to the table or represent a certain sector; but for the chair, you're looking to them to manage and run meetings, and it's a difficult job, so we are looking for people with that expertise as well.

The Deputy Chair: Would it be somebody with a science background?

Ms. Mortimer: They could have a science or business background. They could have a business background in a technology-based business, which are people who have an engineering or science background. There are a lot of aspects that we need in support of our program. We need people with good, strong labour law or intellectual property law expertise. We can use people who have started up companies, but we also are interested in people who run multinationals. I think the additional thing for the chair is someone who has experience in serving on boards, running committees, and that's what we'd be looking for.

The Deputy Chair: Being bilingual would be a requirement as well?

Ms. Mortimer: That would be helpful but not necessary. We have simultaneous translation at all of our meetings.

The Deputy Chair: I think we've exhausted our time, so thank you very much for helping us today, Ms. Mortimer.

Next is panel two. We are switching the subject to Division 11, as it is known, a component of the budget bill, C-4. This deals with measures relating to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board Act.

Welcome to two witnesses who we will hear from in this connection. They're both from The Royal Canadian Legion Dominion Command. Gordon Moore is the Dominion President and Ms. Siew is Director of the Service Bureau. We will turn it over to you and then we'll have questions and answers.

Gordon Moore, Dominion President, The Royal Canadian Legion Dominion Command: It's a pleasure to appear in front of your committee. I'm pleased to be able to speak to you on behalf of our 320,000 members and their families. The Royal Canadian Legion is well situated to provide advice to improve the Veterans Review and Appeal Board.

The Royal Canadian Legion is the only veterans' service organization that assists veterans and their families with representation to the board. We have been assisting veterans since 1926 through our legislative mandate in both the Pension Act the New Veterans Charter. Our 23 professional service officers are located across the country and provide free assistance for veterans who are not satisfied with the decisions about their claims for disability benefits from Veterans Affairs Canada. Please note that you do not have to be a Legion member to avail yourself of our services.

Our national service officer network provides representation at all three levels of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board: review, appeal and reconsideration.

Through the legislation, the Legion has access to service health records, departmental files to provide comprehensive and independent representation at no cost. Last year our service officers represented 265 reviews, 85 appeals, and 15 requests for reconsideration.

The Legion believes that the Veterans Review and Appeal Board has a critical role in ensuring that all veterans and their families receive the benefits that they're entitled to as related to their injuries attributable to their service to Canada. However, the government has an obligation to ensure that veterans have access to a fair, transparent and timely adjudication process. Our veterans have been injured in service to our country, and they deserve to be treated fairly, with respect, and they must trust the process.

With regard to the issue before the Senate today, Bill C-4, Division 11, Part 3, to amend the Veterans Review and Appeal Board Act to reduce the permanent number of members of the board from 29 to 25, I believe we can speak confidently and with credibility. The Royal Canadian Legion has formally expressed its concern with the number of board members to the Minister of Veterans Affairs Canada on two occasions in the past year.

We are concerned with the lack of progress in making timely Governor-in-Council appointments to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board. To date, I remain very concerned that the lack of a full complement of members is affecting the scheduling of hearing dates and decision making for entitlement reviews, appeals and requests for reconsideration. As such, the board is relying on teleconferencing to hear cases as a solution to scheduling hearings and juggling board members' schedules.

While the board is established with a complement of 29 members and currently has only 23, the challenge of scheduling hearings in a timely manner is increasing the use of videoconferencing at the review level. At the board review hearings, veterans have the right to bring forward new evidence, to tell their story and be represented by lawyers of the Bureau of Pensions Advocates or Legion service officers.

This is the only time that a veteran can provide their case to the board. The board can look directly into the eyes the veteran and the veterans can look directly into the eyes of the board members at that time. These members are making a decision that will have a life-long impact on the quality of the life of our veterans, which is at the heart of the social contract between the government and the sacrifice our veterans made for this country.

Yes, there's a cost for hearings in person and time delays with scheduling. However, if these hearings reinforce the trust and transparency of the adjudication process, then let's ensure that the board has the resources to continue hearings across the country. This is the only opportunity to be face to face with an adjudicator to tell his or her story. Ladies and gentlemen, this is very important.

At the appeal level it becomes more difficult to schedule hearings as a hearing requires three different board members. At our hearings in Ottawa, we are seeing an increased use in teleconferencing. For example, in September, for just eight cases, one member of each case was connected by teleconference. This is because it's difficult to schedule board members.

At the reconsideration level, there are challenges to schedule the case as the case must be heard by the same three board members. This is causing significant delays — greater than a year — to have cases heard. What I mean by this is that the evidence is collected and analyzed, arguments are prepared and forwarded to the board to schedule the hearing, and then we wait and wait until the board members can reschedule.

Reconsiderations are not a priority. It is our position that this lack of a full complement of board members available to conduct these hearings is having a direct impact on the length of time it is taking veterans to receive fair consideration of their cases. In several cases that the Royal Canadian Legion is representing, the veterans have waited for more than one year to have their cases heard at the reconsideration level. This is unacceptable and is related to the number of board members.

On April 1, 2009, the board established a service standard to issue decisions within six weeks of the hearing. In most instances this service standard is being met — 87 per cent for review hearings and 89 per cent for review hearings, according to the department's public performance measures. However, there are no public service standards for scheduling hearings once the case is ready to be heard. An excess of one year is too long to wait for a hearing. The Legion recognizes that it is a challenge to schedule hearings as board members have to be available at locations across the country, in addition to training requirements, vacation and illness. However, rather than reduce the number of board members, the Royal Canadian Legion urges the government to take immediate action and make the necessary appointments to ensure the board is fully staffed with members who meet the VRAB's operational gender, diversity and geographic needs so that our veterans and their families are accorded timely hearings and decision making.

Our veterans have been injured in service to our country and deserve to be treated fairly, with respect, in a timely manner and they must trust the process.

The Deputy Chair: Thank you, Mr. Moore.

Ms. Siew, did you have any opening comments?

Andrea Siew, Director, Service Bureau, The Royal Canadian Legion Dominion Command: No I'm just available to answer additional questions.

The Deputy Chair: Colleagues, let me start with Senator Dallaire.

Senator Dallaire is also the Chair of the Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs of the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, but he is joining our committee today. Thank you for being here.

Senator Dallaire: Thank you, chair. I will do my best not to monopolize all the time, and hopefully there might be a second round of questions.

First of all, VRAB is supposed to have 29 members, which includes the adjudicator. It's now at 23. Have they been at that number for quite a while or have they been less than that on numerous occasions in the past?

Mr. Moore: That's the number that they've been sitting on now for well over a year.

Senator Dallaire: Previous to that?

Mr. Moore: Previous to that they were sitting at 25 or 26, and they haven't touched the ministers. Minister Blaney, when he was in office, did not at any point, other than this past June — appoint a vice-chair to the VRAB. Anyone whose contracts were up were supposed to have been replaced but were not, and this is the problem that we've got.

As I said in my address, the 23 cannot meet all the backlog that's sitting on the table at the present time.

When you have a veteran sitting for over a year and possibly up to 18 months, waiting to be able to have his or her case heard, they're suffering badly. If you know any of these veterans at all — and I urge you to meet some of them so that you understand the problems and the situations they're facing — we need to be able to make sure, as I said before, that it's a process they can trust. Right now they don't trust it.

Senator Dallaire: So you're telling me that the final appeal process that will give the ultimate credibility to an organization that is being fair is, in general, not trusted by your members of the Legion; is that correct?

Mr. Moore: It's the veterans who are not trusting the system.

Senator Dallaire: That's right. Okay.

Some of these files can be fairly thick. They've gone through a series of previous staffing, because now they're in their final review. The three members who are sitting there, how much time do they have to sit for each case when they do so?

Mr. Moore: I'll let Ms. Siew deal with that one.

Ms. Siew: It depends on the nature of the case. At the appeal level, we'll generally schedule half an hour. However, if the case goes long, the board takes the time it needs to hear the case. For an operational stress injury case, we schedule an hour. But we've never been rushed to hear a case.

Senator Dallaire: There's never been any rush to hear a case?

Ms. Siew: We hear cases at the Legion and across the country with our command service officers, and we have never been rushed to hear a case.

Senator Dallaire: In front of the board.

Ms. Siew: In front of the board. We can take as much time as we want to present our evidence, and they take as much time to ask us the questions. That's why it's so important not to have the teleconferencing or the videoconferencing because it reduces the ability to have the back and forth between the members, the advocates and the veteran. That compassion is not there.

Senator Dallaire: Well, I've been informed that in fact they barely even have half an hour. They do up to five cases a day. They've got to submit the reports nearly the same day, and they're going flat out with travelling time five days a week. The backlog is not decreasing but increasing; is that not correct?

Ms. Siew: Certainly at the reconsideration level there's no priority to hear the reconsiderations. We have had reconsiderations in the last year that have been outstanding for over a year. That's after all the work is prepared, it's forwarded to the VRAB and we're waiting to get a hearing date, and we've had to hurry them. The veteran gets quite upset.

Although they do hear five in a day, some hearings can be very quick, and the evidence can be presented quickly. If the argument is presented in advance with all the new evidence, the board member reviews all that in advance. They can just query it, and maybe they have made their decision. You have a quick discussion with the board member. It could be less than five minutes to hear the case because everything is there.

Senator Dallaire: Why are people happy not with that? You're telling me it's working so well.

Ms. Siew: It's a perception issue.

Senator Dallaire: It's a perception issue.

Ms. Siew: What we've presented is not necessarily that it's not working well.

Senator Dallaire: You are giving me that impression.

Ms. Siew: You had asked the question, sir, about the time it takes. We have not been rushed for any appeal that we have presented at the Legion, if we need an hour or two hours. I did a reconsideration last month and it went for two hours.

Senator Dallaire: You handle about 15 per cent of all the cases; is that not correct?

Ms. Siew: Yes.

Senator Dallaire: The other individuals have to work their own way up.

Ms. Siew: They work through the Bureau of Pensions Advocates.

Senator Dallaire: We're getting potentially more cases because with the New Veterans Charter the new veterans are bringing different dossiers. That was not necessarily the case with the old Pension Act; is that not correct?

Ms. Siew: The number of cases being presented to the board has in fact actually declined. However, what has improved in the board is the turnaround time in the time that they write their decisions. Ten years ago, when they had a high number of cases, it would take a year to get your decision once your case was heard. They've improved in that area, but they have also had a reduction in the number of cases. Are we going to go back that route when we see reconsiderations at over a year to have the case heard? They need the board members to keep the times they have and to reduce the delays in the reconsiderations.

Senator Seth: Senator Dallaire has already asked my first question. You have answered that there are currently 23 members of the VRAB and the five-year average is probably that. How much money would be saved by proposing a decrease in the number of permanent members?

Mr. Moore: I'm sorry, I'm having trouble hearing.

Senator Seth: Decreasing the number from 29 to 25, how much money would be saved? How much money are we talking?

Ms. Siew: We don't have that information. You would have to ask the VRAB for that, about how much money is involved in their budget.

The Deputy Chair: By the way, we're still trying to get the minister here, and if not, then we'll certainly have staff of the department here. They could answer your question.

Senator Seth: Thank you.

Senator Segal: Let me first of all thank you both for being here today to help us with this. I will say that in my part of Ontario, which is Kingston, Frontenac and Leeds, the Legion branch is doing an outstanding job. They are a huge part of the community, and we appreciate the work they do very much.

Can you help us with two specific aspects? I understand that rather than deal with the amount of members you would just like to see the existing membership at full complement so they could hold their hearings on a regular and timely basis; is that correct?

Mr. Moore: Exactly.

Senator Segal: Both of you are so aware of the dynamic in front of the hearings. Would it be better, in your judgment, if there were not three officers but two officers so they could have more hearings and do that on a more timely basis? If you could wave a magic wand not only to deal with this but to make the process more efficient so our veterans are getting answers on a timely basis and getting the information they need, what would you do based on your experience with this organization?

Ms. Siew: Our concern about the delays in terms of the number of hearings is to appoint; make the Governor-in- Council appointments, fill the complement to 29, and that will reduce the number of delays.

Senator Segal: I realize that every veteran has a different circumstance, and he or she will have had different circumstances relating to the level of support they need, but please give me a sense of who is your client group amongst our veterans now. Are they of a certain category in terms of age? Are they veterans of a particular conflict? Are they people from Bosnia or Afghanistan or Korea? We are getting into an age frame where there are some changes. I would be interested to understand who you see as your prime client base and helping them make their presentations before the committee.

Ms. Siew: Sixty-five per cent of our clients, the veterans that come to the Legion for assistance, are post-Korean War veterans. They are modern veterans and under the New Veterans Charter. We have seen a trend over the last five years from the traditional World War II/Korean vets to the more modern veterans.

We now have service officers who work at the Integrated Personnel Support Centres across the country, and we are also seeing more serving members coming to the Legion, particularly after first application. Veterans Affairs are on the base, but for a follow-on redress up through to appeal the serving members are coming to the Legion, and about 20 per cent of our clients at the appeal level are serving members.

Senator Segal: Standing back, if you can, maybe at a 10,000-foot height and looking at the process that you are part of and help our veterans through in such a constructive way, what would you say their level of satisfaction as individuals might be generically with the kinds of decisions being made by the review board? Would you say half feel it is pretty reasonable or 20 per cent think they are being treated well? Is it less or more? One of the critical questions is this: Is this board doing its job responsibly and actually standing up for the interests of the veterans, which is what I would think would be the purpose of this board? It does not have to be an exact number, but I would like your feel because you have more expertise on it.

Ms. Siew: I can only answer from my perspective of sitting in there and doing the hearings and preparing it, and I believe that it is a fair process for veterans. It is by right. There is no limitation on when they can apply to submit an appeal. We have cases coming forward 60 years after service, requesting an appeal. It's tremendous that that opportunity is available.

The board members come and they are prepared. They ask us questions and they're looking for the information to make a favourable decision. They truly are.

The process is fair. We try and communicate that to our veterans, but not every case is successful. The biggest issue is the benefit of the doubt and how that's interpreted, and the qualification of the evidence and the medical opinions.

Senator Segal: Which is why interpersonal, direct interaction with members of the appeal board is better than teleconferencing, because of the degree to which, when you're in the room, you can have a sense of what is going on a bit better than from a remote location.

Ms. Siew: Absolutely. If you are going to trust the process, it is about your life decision. It is going to give you treatment benefits and access to programs and services for the rest of your life. For some of our veterans, that is so important, and to have that decision made through a teleconference because of a budget cut?

Mr. Moore: I've done a number of teleconferences myself, and I've also done video conferences. I will let you know that the video conference is no way to go because you are not able to sit there eye-to-eye with the veteran and make that decision on the video conference or on the phone. If you get eye-to-eye with a veteran and he is pleading with you to make his life and his family's life a little bit better, then we have to do that.

I am very emotional when it comes to our veterans, and the bottom line is that I believe firmly and strongly that the Government of Canada, whoever it is, you have that covenant to make sure that each and every veteran is looked after, right through to the day that we give him a dignified funeral.

Thank you.

Senator Segal: Thank you both for the work you are doing on this. It is very important and we appreciate it.

The Deputy Chair: You've expressed a lot of concern about teleconferencing and the fact that it is increasing. Can you give an indication what percentage of these hearings are now done by teleconferencing?

Ms. Siew: I can't do that, but the board can. Last year, they reduced the number of sites across the country where they were doing hearings, so veterans are given the option to have it by teleconference to reduce the travel time and to schedule the hearing sooner.

The Deputy Chair: If they don't want that option, they can get it in person.

Ms. Siew: They can, but do they understand that decision? The veteran wants to have their case heard, and they want the decision. They have been going through this process. They are upset. Unless their counsel advises of the importance, there is a finite amount of opportunity to have your case heard. After appeal, it's not by right.

It's so important that they come forward with the best evidence and go forward so their case can be presented in the most effective manner.

Senator Stewart Olsen: Thank you for coming today. I fully support the Legion, its members and the reviews.

I am a bit concerned. I have some questions about the actual review board itself. Forgive my ignorance, but the members are paid, are they not?

Ms. Mortimer: Yes, they are.

Senator Stewart Olsen: Why is it a difficulty for them to schedule meetings?

Ms. Siew: At the review level there are two board members, and the hearings are held across the country so that veterans can go before the board and testify. At the appeal level it's three members. It's the last level by right and they are three different members. The hearings are heard in Charlottetown or in Ottawa at our location down by the Legion. Then at request for reconsideration, it's the same three members that heard the appeal.

So in order to do the review hearings across the country, board members have to travel. Some are in situ, but others have to travel across the country and then they have to schedule them to do the hearings. If we're doing 15 appeal hearings in Ottawa and they're all different cases, they have to have a mix of board members that have not heard any of those 15 cases, and the cases are coming from across the country.

Senator Stewart Olsen: I understand that, but I wonder why. I don't see that minus four members is really what you're getting to. What I seem to hear from you is there is maybe a lack of proper planning in meeting with people and in getting to them. For instance, just off hand I could say perhaps once a month they should be in a certain province or it could perhaps be done better, another relook. I'm actually a big supporter of the Legion.

We have rebuilt our Legion in Cape Tormentine. It is very small and has been rehabilitated, rebuilt and our membership is up. I hear from these veterans that you're hearing from. I know of people who have been in peacekeeping, and a veteran is a veteran. They have been injured doing their work in peacekeeping, lifting or whatever. For whatever reason, I know of these difficulties. I'm not sure that it's a lack of members or not a sufficient number of members. I'm wondering if it is not that they need to look at how the hearings are held, how they do this and rethink the whole thing because I agree with you; our veterans deserve every moment of our time. Whatever it takes, we need to give fair and honest open hearings, and I'm distressed when I hear that it takes this long a time. It distresses me a lot.

Mr. Moore: Because of the backlog — and I can't give you those numbers right now — a large number of veterans still have to be heard. When you're minus 6 people at the board level, that workload increases dramatically on the other 23. For them to go across the country, which they haven't been able to do, maybe they have to take a good look at how they schedule things. I firmly believe that we are able to get rid of the backlog and have the Minister of Veterans Affairs bring in six new board members in his budget.

By the time you go through the budget process, the Minister of Veterans Affairs turns around and makes the appointment, so now we are looking at six to seven months down the road. Each individual has to be trained on the processes to be a member of that board. You're looking at another five to six months of training right there, and you've wasted a whole year. That backlog is not improving at all. As a matter of fact, it is starting to get worse than what it is at the present time.

It is very important that these six members be appointed to the board as quickly as possible. Once the budget process is done, get them appointed, get them trained and get them working with their veterans to make sure they're looked after.

Senator Enverga: Thank you for your presentation. I am big supporter of our veterans, too.

Going to the line of questions from Senator Stewart Olsen, how do you select your three members for the board meeting? Do you select them randomly?

Ms. Siew: I'm sorry, but I don't understand the question.

Senator Enverga: The question is: How do you select the three who are supposed to be at the board meeting. Is it random?

Ms. Siew: We don't select — how do we select the board members?

Senator Enverga: How do you select?

Ms. Siew: We don't have any input on that. To hear the cases?

Senator Enverga: Yes, to hear the cases.

Ms. Siew: For the Veterans Review and Appeal Board, we submit the cases that have to be heard. They determine who heard it previously, and then they determine who will hear your case based on the availability of board members.

Senator Enverga: You have no control on who will look at a certain case.

Ms. Mortimer: No.

Senator Enverga: I was thinking that having teams of three to answer any questions would be more appropriate for this kind of proceeding so that it would be more efficient. Is there nothing like that?

Ms. Siew: No.

Senator Enverga: Would you recommend that?

Ms. Siew: At the review level, there are two board members who hear the case. For the final level by right, there are three members, and they are completely different members. That is probably the most important level because it is the last opportunity for the veteran by right to have his case heard. It's important that they be three completely different members and that three members are there to hear the case.

Senator Enverga: When you say three ``completely different members,'' what do you mean?

Ms. Siew: Different members from the previous two members that heard it at the review level.

Senator Enverga: Would you recommend that whoever selects it makes a selected team, like this is for Ontario, one for British Columbia? Would you prefer it that way, or how can you make everything efficient and faster at the same time?

Ms. Siew: The VRAB can speak more accurately on this.

At the review level there are board members that live across the country in specific locations, but they also have board members that travel to specific locations across the country. It is important that hearings be held across the country for veterans to go to the hearing and present their case. At the appeal level, cases are only heard in Ottawa and in Charlottetown by the Bureau of Pensions Advocates. They are only held in two locations.

Senator Enverga: Those board members do not live in the area?

Ms. Siew: There are some board members who live in Ottawa who will come, but if they have heard the case before, they can't sit in front of the case.

Senator Cordy: As others have said, thank you very much for being here. Being from Nova Scotia, the Legions are very much a part of every community. The members do a tremendous amount of volunteer work helping other veterans, so kudos to you and other members of the Legion.

You said in your presentation that you've expressed concern to the Minister of Veterans Affairs twice in the past year concerning the number of board members, yet we're seeing with this budget bill — it is unusual to see an issue dealing with veterans in a budget bill, but that's just the way it is — that contrary to your suggestions to the minister, it is reducing from 29 to 25 board members. With 29, we have 23 members in place. Are you concerned that the reduction to 25 may mean that only 18, 19 or 20 board members will be active?

Mr. Moore: That is a concern because at this point in time I can't tell you out of the 23 board members that are currently there, when their actual contract comes up, if are they going to be reappointed again by the minister or if are they going to be let go and all of a sudden they're not going to be replaced and we go from 23 to 20. That's going to make the situation that much worse.

I have to keep repeating, Mr. Chair, that the bottom line is if we can get the full 29 at the board level and have every case on the backlog at the present time looked after — then at any point in time the backlog is completely looked after — then the minister can reduce the board down to the 23 we currently have or the 25 that he wants to have. But he has to get the job done and get it done now.

Senator Cordy: When you shared your concerns with the minister, what was the minister's response concerning the number of board members?

Mr. Moore: He'd take it under advisement.

Senator Cordy: In both cases?

Mr. Moore: That's right.

Senator Cordy: I'm quite concerned about the teleconferencing that you suggested. I think you said in eight cases in one month at least one board member was there by teleconference. You expressed earlier the importance of face to face — the real people, the real connections. I think I agree with you: The board members I have known in the past have certainly been there to try and help veterans as much as they can, but I think the face to face — the real people — is extremely important for the veteran and for the board members.

I was in Cape Breton last week at a meeting with veterans, and they are quite concerned about the closure of the Veterans Affairs Canada office in their community. They were told by the department that they should use iPhones and apps for their iPhones. Some of the veterans I met were in wheelchairs and in their eighties, and I don't think any of them used an iPhone.

Are you concerned that the use of teleconferencing will get greater and greater?

Mr. Moore: Teleconferencing will definitely not help an 80 year old or 90 year old, or even a 23 year old who has OSI, operational stress injury.

Senator Cordy: Or post-traumatic stress.

Mr. Moore: They will not be able to sit on the phone for any length of time. They will not be willing to sit in front of a TV and have the videoconference either, because they will not be comfortable with that.

Senator Cordy: Are you concerned that this may be increasing in the future just as a cost measure?

Mr. Moore: That's exactly what we're afraid of.

As our younger veterans come forward, especially from Bosnia, right up to Afghanistan, that situation will get worse and worse. There is a prediction — the numbers came out last year — that within the next five to 10 years, up to 34 per cent of our young men and women veterans who served in Afghanistan will be suffering from PTSD. Will the support be there? Is VRAB going to be there to make sure they are being heard? I'll tell you that that is a very major concern right now.

Senator Chaput: If I understand correctly, one of the big problems is the backlog. If you could take care of the backlog, would a board of 25 people be sufficient to do the job? That's what I understood. Am I correct?

Mr. Moore: Yes, senator. The major backlog is at the reconsideration level, and that definitely has to be looked at. As Ms. Siew said, you need three different people at that point.

Senator Chaput: I understand.

Well, 25 is in this bill, and I don't think that will change now; the bill has not passed yet, but it's here in front of us. Have you considered another way to take care of the backlog? Have you had discussions with the minister for, I don't know, a special committee or a special group of people to take care of the backlog and then the board goes on with its work? Have you ever looked at something else?

Ms. Siew: The issue on the backlog was related to the lack of appointments — the declining numbers were down to 22 last year. They appointed a new member in July. He has yet to hear a case because he has to go through six months of training.

We had requests for reconsideration that were sitting in Charlottetown for 18 months waiting to be heard, and it was related to that. That's why we sent the two letters to the department to have the Governor-in-Council appointments made.

Senator Chaput: I understand. Thank you.

Senator Seidman: There is no question that the Legion does such wonderful work for the vets at the community level. I am aware of that and I commend you for it. There is also no question that all Canadians need to honour their vets and we need to give to them. I concur with that wholeheartedly.

My question is about the numbers. I know that — and I have the transcripts of testimony by John Larlee, Chair of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board, who testified before the Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs in the Senate at the end of 2011. He was asked questions about the backlog. That would have been the end of 2011, so almost two years ago. I do understand that.

He very convincingly said there was no backlog. It's a shame in a way that we don't have the testimony right now of the vet board itself, because I would like to ask them about that when they appear and hear those numbers.

If I look at the review decisions and appeal decisions that have come before the board since 2009, on an annual basis it's pretty steady. In fact, I think Ms. Siew said that the numbers are decreasing — the numbers for review.

Ms. Siew: The numbers of overall files going forward to the VRAB, or cases being heard, have actually decreased.

Senator Seidman: I'm just trying to reconcile some of this information.

Ms. Siew: We still have reconsiderations that are outstanding for over 18 months. They are increasing the use of technology at the review level, using videoconferencing. The last set of appeals we did in Ottawa was for eight cases only. Every one of them had one member linked in by teleconference.

So despite the number of cases being reduced and despite what they are saying about the number of cases being heard, teleconferencing, videoconferencing and waiting to have a case heard for over 18 months — one case is too many.

Senator Seidman: There is no question about that, and it is very alarming to hear that there is no published service standard for scheduling hearings once a case is ready to be heard. You're right that it is rather disturbing that someone would wait a year or more to have their case heard.

Again, I am trying to understand the numbers. We will obviously have to get down to the bottom of this, because if it's been said that there is no backlog and you are saying there is —

Mr. Moore: They said that two years ago. There is a backlog.

I met Mr. Larlee on October 26, I believe, for about two hours. At that meeting, he did tell us directly that there is a major backlog. The exact numbers I do not have — I wish I did — but Mr. Larlee would be able to answer those questions.

The Deputy Chair: That's at reconsideration, is it?

Ms. Siew: At the reconsideration level.

Senator Seidman: As opposed to the first phase, right. So there's the review and the appeal, and then the reconsideration.

The Deputy Chair: I've got two minutes left for the second round. Senator Dallaire, it's all yours.

Senator Dallaire: You're being very generous.

I will give you some data. In the last year they saw 4,908 decisions. When you count the number of people — let's say there were 24 functional adjudicators there. Divide that; it's about 600, because three of them have to be together, and then you have about 160 working days. It comes out that if everybody is working every day, you've got about four cases a day, every day. Now that's a little heavy. Don't tell me it's not heavy; it's a little heavy.

Out of the 24 or 23, how many are actually functional at any one time? Who are not sick, lame, or whatever, non- training and so on? Out of that, how many are really working?

Ms. Siew: That's the issue, sir.

Senator Dallaire: But what's the answer?

Ms. Siew: I don't know that; I can't answer that. They have to answer that, but they are on vacation, they're sick, they're training.

Senator Dallaire: So it's not 24 functional members. The number is quite a bit lower because there's a lot of training to prepare them for being able to do this job.

Mr. Moore: Exactly, and each case they look at depends on the size of the file. That file can be an inch and a half thick or two and a half feet thick. They have to go through all that documentation to understand it, so that takes two or three days.

The Deputy Chair: This will be the last question.

Senator Dallaire: They say it's 161 calendar days for the first, which is five months, and then they say that it's two and a half months for the final review. However, they're also saying that they are essentially getting decisions on about 85 per cent of the cases.

When you look at the total number of cases, that means about 735 a year are not getting a decision. It's being deferred, and that's cumulative. God knows how many are still sitting in the hopper waiting to go.

Where is the logic if you believe that every veteran counts? This is not building a truck that is 85 per cent operational. These are human beings who we want to help become 100 per cent operational. Where do you see the logic that if we're not achieving the aim right now — and the potential to increase is there because those Afghan veterans are barely going to start appearing — that you actually argue to reduce by four? You never really had more than 24 or 25 in the first place. Can you tell me what the logic is for that reduction?

Ms. Siew: We can't because we didn't put the proposal forward, but it is in the budget bill.

Senator Dallaire: Can you understand it?

Ms. Siew: No, we can't.

Senator Dallaire: That's quite interesting because neither can I.

The Deputy Chair: On that note, let me say thank you very much to both of you for appearing and for the views that you've expressed in answering our questions.

Senators, the third panel will also deal with the Veterans Review and Appeal Board Act, which is Division 11 of the budget bill.

We have two witnesses from the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman, including the ombudsman himself, Guy Parent, who I knew from my days as Minister of Defence when he was in the forces. Appearing as an individual today is Harold Leduc, a former member of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board. He can give us some insight into the issues that we've been discussing.

Let me start with the ombudsman. We'll have your opening remarks and then hear from Mr. Leduc, following which we will go to questions.

[Translation]

Guy Parent, Veterans Ombudsman, Office of the Veterans Ombudsman: Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.

[English]

Let me begin by thanking you for the good work that you do for the citizens of Canada, but particularly in this case for veterans and their families. In the interests of time I will keep my remarks short and to the point.

As indicated in my report entitled Veterans Right to Fair Adjudication, released in March, 2012, the Veterans Review and Appeal Board plays a critical role in Veterans Affairs Canada's adjudication process. In fact, since it was created in 1995, it has rendered in excess of 120,000 decisions.

[Translation]

Because the number of cases with favourable decisions has remained constant over the years, we know the importance of the role of the board in ensuring that Veterans are given access to benefits and programs often denied to them through Veterans Affairs Canada's adjudication process.

[English]

Also, the consistency of the number of cases appealed to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board — on average 4,800 per year between 2010 and 2013 — indicates that a more efficient process based on a liberal interpretation of veterans' circumstances by Veterans Affairs Canada adjudicators would in fact diminish the demands and workload on the board.

The reduction from 29 Veterans Review and Appeal Board members to 25, as proposed in the amendment to the subject act, is not what I would consider a change that would negatively affect the board's appeal and review process, as long as temporary members are allowed.

The board has been functioning with 25 members for the last few years, but as in most order-in-council appointments, the process is long and arduous. As a result, the board has often operated at a level below 25 members. In fact, at the moment, it is functioning with 22 members. In order to maximize the board's efficiency and provide the necessary training to new board members, efforts should be made to fill vacancies in a timely manner and maintain the operating level at 25 members.

[Translation]

In addition, as indicated in my report, an important aspect is the qualitative factor in appointing members to the board. It is critical that members appointed have the professional experience to deal with military and medical issues.

[English]

We will be pleased to provide the committee with copies of our follow-up report on the Veterans Review and Appeal Board when available. I believe we have distributed copies of our last report.

Mr. Chair, thank you very much.

Harold Leduc, former member of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board Canada, as an individual: Honourable senators, thank you very much for the opportunity to be here today. I was a former member of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board. I'm also a disabled veteran, so I can speak to both sides of this issue.

I would like to start by saying that my privacy was breached on the board. I'm not here to talk about that, but I think it's important to know that. My privacy was breached while I was on the board. The information about my military disability was used against me and I was forced off the board, before my time was up, on medical leave. I mention that here to set the context, because respect for veterans at the board is not as high as it should be.

With that, I would also like to speak to another issue. The board believes themselves an entity on their own. Although they have an arm's-length relationship with the minister for decision making, they have a closer relationship with the minister for administrative purposes, which includes behaviour of the board members.

When I first joined the board, I was appointed in November 2005. There were 16 members on the board. We did six cases a day, and we heard cases four days a week. We had a significant backlog at the time. I was reappointed in 2007, and we went on from that time to get rid of the backlog. The board ran blitzes to reduce the backlog, and we significantly reduced it by the thousands.

There's absolutely no excuse for any backlog today on the board. The board will tell you that the conditions and the cases are more difficult — not true. We may see more disabilities like gunshot wounds where we typically didn't see that before except for World War II and Korean veterans. We see that today with the Afghan veterans and some from the Balkans. There has been an increase in those kinds of disabilities.

In 2007, board members went from 16 to 30 in number — there was a spike in the number of appointed members. Of the people they appointed to the board, I think there were six lawyers. I cast no aspersions on anyone for their backgrounds, but the Veterans Review and Appeal Board is unique in Canada because it's the only board or tribunal that is non-adversarial. Lawyers aren't comfortable working in a non-adversarial process. What happened is they actually made the application of the process more difficult because they had a greater number of questions than were required.

From 2005, we were able to do six cases a day within the time frame. Most of the simpler cases took 10 to 20 minutes while the more difficult ones may have taken 30 minutes. They were all scheduled for 30 minutes. However, we went in there with the understanding that we, the board members and the advocates representing the veterans, were working for the veterans because that's what the legislation says. That's the way it was then.

After that spike in the numbers, board members changed the interpretation of the legislation by becoming more curious and extending their duties under the Inquiries Act rather than just clarifying information. They were cross- examining, which is inappropriate in a non-adversarial process. As that was going on, the hearings were taking longer, the decisions started getting longer, and there was a greater demand. In fact, I think it was in 2008 that we changed the decision format to make it pages long rather than the two pages we had before as a general format.

Along with that came a lot more interference from the staff. I think if there's ever going to be any reduction in the number of positions on the board it should be in the staff, especially at the legal unit. Two of the members of the legal unit actually breached my privacy, and there were no consequences for doing that, which is odd.

They started questioning our decisions and, as a joke, the members of the board used to say, ``We're wonderful at writing decisions that deny benefits, but we're very stupid when it comes to writing favourable decisions.'' The quality assurance people and the legal services unit put our decisions through such a meat grinder and came back with analyses for the reasons that we shouldn't grant the entitlements. That increased our workload.

Now, here we are every week on a different road in a different city. Later we reduced our case load to five decisions a day, but during that week we were also managing 40-some files from times past — reconsiderations we heard earlier. There's a problem with scheduling reconsiderations, as we heard. However, the problem is that we're spread out all over the country. For instance, if I'm out West, I might have to get up at six o'clock in the morning to attend a reconsideration. I might do the reconsideration at six o'clock in the morning and start my day at eight o'clock doing the regular schedule of work. Then there's work after the fact, because we have to call back to the head office and deal with the notes that we get constantly.

A question was raised earlier about the backlog. I also testified at another parliamentary committee. Quite frankly, the committee did not believe what the board presented or they would not have come up with the recommendations they came up with.

The Deputy Chair: Can I ask you to wrap it up soon?

Mr. Leduc: Yes, I'm going to.

Essentially, the board hasn't filled its full complement of members. They left four spaces empty. They used the money in the budget for those four members for regular operating costs, which is absolutely inappropriate. Had we had more members, we could have been out on the road hearing more cases. It's as simple as that. Also we could have had more time to deal with the inappropriate interference that is happening on a daily basis. Because of the short number of members, we don't have the time.

I'll stop there. I will probably do a better service by answering questions.

The Deputy Chair: Thank you very much for your comments.

Senator Dallaire: Welcome. I'm looking at both the conclusion and recommendations of your report, Mr. Parent, and I'm knowledgeable of your case, Mr. Leduc.

The statistics are rather interesting inasmuch as they say that the board issues favourable decisions in 50 per cent of the 3,600 finalized review cases, and in 29 per cent of the 1,072 finalized appeal cases. That is 29 per cent in favour of the individual. I go to your report where you say that in 60 per cent of board decisions reviewed by the Federal Court, because we can still go to Federal Court, the court ruled that the board has failed to do its duty in regard to fairness for the individual according to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board Act; and that the board continues to repeat the same errors over extended time periods.

We've had a board that is not necessarily favourable to the members. We've had an increase in the legal dimensions of this versus the information flow. We sense from what you're saying that the benefit of the doubt is no more in the case of the veterans but in the case of the organization. The 50/50 will fall for them.

Would there not be a much more deliberate process if you had more people going through the cases in a more reasonable amount of time? If I'm looking at these statistics and I'm saying it's not really the case of helping the veterans, would I not want to increase the number of adjudicators to give a fairer break and ensure that we are playing according to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board Act?

Mr. Parent: The issue that we actually found significant in our report is the fact that the Federal Court found that a lot of decisions were not based on fact and were not recognizing the medical evidence at its just value.

What's important there is if that wasn't recognized in the Federal Court and in the appeal and review process, and there was no added evidence or anything like that, well, that evidence was present at the initial adjudication, which was exactly my point in my opening remarks. The fact is that this evidence should have been recognized right from the start. Why is it that 50 per cent at the review and 30 per cent at the appeal — you know, the decision has changed because the adjudicator had the same decision in front of them most of the time. In odd cases there was some added evidence, but most of the time it was there from the start. Is it just a matter of not enough people on the board or just a matter of the adjudication process needing to be cleaned from the starting point?

We have very few complaints in the office against the board. Of course, we have no jurisdiction. I want to state the fact that I am not involved in the process of the board, so I can't answer any questions on that, but certainly that's our biggest concern right now, namely that the evidence that's there from the start is not being recognized.

Mr. Leduc: I would add to that by saying quite simply that there are people appointed to the board who simply do not agree with the generous provisions of the legislation or accept the benefit of the doubt clauses. It's as simple as that.

Senator Dallaire: I'm trying to get a feel for the number crunching of cases, of time to do each case, of members being qualified or not to handle these cases, of the training. Do we actually have a body that is sufficient to meet the requirement of this Veterans Review and Appeal Board, or are we low-balling it and in so doing maybe cases are not being assessed appropriately because there's not enough competency, or capability, or time, particularly, to do the proper assessment?

Mr. Parent: My point in my opening address was that if you set a level and you maintain it at that level, that's fine. However, I know that the appointment process is so arduous and takes so long that, for instance, very often positions on the board are vacant for months on end, fully knowing that some board members are either going to be retiring or not be renewed. They know that quite in advance, yet it takes months before people are actually appointed to vacant positions. I believe there is a four-month training cycle, if I remember correctly.

The important thing is not to set numbers but to make sure that those numbers are functional numbers and that the board always has 25 working members on the road. The minister has the capacity to appoint temporary members for a period of two years, so we have to make sure that this is not touched by any changes to the legislation.

Mr. Leduc: Yes. The more members there are, the less likely you're going to have negative decisions.

Not every case should be found favourable; I'm not saying that. But when there's a panel of review members, there are two. The way the law works is the one most favourable to the veteran is the decision of the board, so more members will help balance out the negative members that are there, per se.

I heard you ask this question earlier, and Mr. Parent touched on it. With leave, sickness and whatever, probably five members are not functional at any one time. So if there are only 23, you're down to a lower number.

Senator Dallaire: My very last point is why would the President of the VRAB not be standing on the minister's desk and screaming for a full complement of staff to achieve all the great words that we're saying and to make sure every veteran is taken care of? What is the background of the president for not wanting or not having succeeded in doing that and now even seeing that number reduced?

Mr. Parent: Mr. Chair, I believe that question could probably be answered by the president. I'd rather not venture to answer on that. Perhaps Mr. Leduc will.

Mr. Leduc: I will venture into those waters.

As I said earlier, they typically withheld four positions to use that funding for operating costs.

Senator Dallaire: So that's deliberate.

Mr. Leduc: I believe so. The chair was appointed directly outside of the board, with no public service experience at all.

Senator Dallaire: By cutting those positions, they're cutting O and M costs and saving money and meeting the budget reductions.

Mr. Leduc: Absolutely.

Senator Stewart Olsen: Good to see you again, Mr. Parent. Mr. Leduc, it's nice to meet you.

I'm not so much concerned about the number of board members as to actually looking at the number of backlogs, the number of cases that need to be reviewed, and perhaps taking a new look at how we can do this better.

I'm not sure sometimes that just putting more members on a board that hasn't been able to keep up with the workload — and I'm not sure why, but I think all of those things have to be looked at — is the solution. I'd rather see a different look at how we respond to these cases.

I liked what you said. You did blitzes and you worked through them because you knew you had that imperative, namely that we have veterans in need and they deserve their answers. I'd just like a brief comment and a new look and a different way of doing things.

Mr. Parent: Thank you for the question.

I think what is important here is — again I agree with you that it's not necessarily the quantity but the quality of process — the quality of the membership of the board.

I appreciate what Mr. Leduc was saying, that things slowed down when we brought in lawyers. Well, I don't think it's just a matter of big lawyers. It's a fact that big issues with decisions to be made during adjudication, decision or appeal have to do with the causality of injury to service. The people who can understand that are military people and people from a medical background. I believe if the majority of the board were from some of those backgrounds there would be a lot less asking, ``How does this work?'' I've been at some hearings, and a lot of questions were aimed at trying to understand the circumstances related to the cause. That would be my point on that.

Mr. Leduc: I could add to that, and I have a slightly different view.

The standard of review from the federal courts and established by the tribunals is fairness and reasonableness. It doesn't take an ex-service person to be fair or reasonable. It doesn't take an ex-lawyer or a lawyer.

With regard to profession, it's important to have military people on the board, ex-military people, ex-RCMP, a smattering of society. It all comes down to having people on the board that can make reasonable and fair decisions. That's the part that has the board not respecting the ombudsman's reports; not respecting federal reports. They're not fair and reasonable people.

Senator Segal: If I understand you correctly, a big reason for the backlog is either the incompetence of the members of the board or the undue interference of the staff of the board and the legal department of the board. I want to make sure because those are serious things important to have on the record, and I want to make sure that's precisely what you're saying.

Mr. Leduc: From my experience, not all — we can't paint everybody with a broad brush — but generally, yes. I don't know if it's the incompetence or the inappropriate interpretation of the legislation, but definitely interference from the staff; absolutely.

Senator Segal: Can I conclude from the way both of you have talked about the undue legalization of the process that to some extent our problem is that the legal staff are working with members of the board to encourage a kind of cross- examination approach, perhaps to protect the federal treasury from spending too much money, rather than the consensual approach of understanding a veteran's circumstance and trying to engage positively to assist that individual based on the substance of their appeal? Is that a fair rendition of where you're headed?

Mr. Leduc: I stopped one of the members of our legal unit from doing that. I used to get analysis from them that said if you grant this person, this Canadian Forces veteran this benefit, you will be giving them more than a World War II or Korea veteran. That's not the standard of review. Everybody is equal under the law, but that was the type of advice we'd get.

There was a case one time where it was taken out of our hands by the legal unit for a year and a half; completely out of our hands. I and a presiding member could do nothing to wrestle it back.

Senator Segal: Mr. Parent, I understand that you have no responsibility for the board; it's outside your frame of reference. In your judgment is it the legitimate expectation of veterans that this organization operate as a quasi-judicial interpretive board that makes appeal decisions when appeals are launched before it? Is that the operative frame of reference, or is it seen as something that is simply another extension of the department and whatever budgetary problems the department may have that quarter? Budget cuts may come from the centre. The board has to become an instrument in the implementation of those cuts, whatever the impact on a particular veteran appearing before them on a particular matter.

Mr. Parent: We found that some of the veterans in front of the board expressed that they felt they were treated like they were in a criminal court, not with respect and dignity and not as if they were there seeking an entitlement. Fortunately, the research we've done to date in preparing for the follow-up to our report indicates that that's changed a bit, so hopefully it is heading in the right direction, but I think it is an important aspect of it. It does not need to be changed to a court, not necessarily quasi-judicial. It is a decision board more than a justice-type board.

Senator Enverga: Mr. Parent, you said that the change would not have a negative effect as long as we allow temporary members of the board. Are they volunteers, by the way, or temporary workers getting paid?

Mr. Leduc: They are paid.

Senator Enverga: They are paid.

Senator Segal: Is it salary or per diem?

Mr. Leduc: It's salary.

Mr. Parent: It's a VAC appointment.

Senator Enverga: They support a regular member of the board except that they are temporary?

Mr. Parent: That's right, for two years I understand.

Mr. Leduc: Two years, and they have no voting rights.

Senator Enverga: Do they have the same qualifications and experience as the rest of the board? Would you say they are competent enough to handle this?

Mr. Parent: I'm not that familiar with the selection process, but they go through the same selection process as the others, I believe.

I think what is important there is that the act states that there are a certain number of full-time members and then the capacity for temporary numbers to be selected and nominated by the minister according to the workload of the board.

Senator Enverga: But that will not affect the quality of the proceedings?

Mr. Parent: I believe that in some cases ex-members are called in to be temporary members, but, again, I am not really in a position to give you details on that. You will have to talk to members of the board or the chair of the board.

Mr. Leduc: I can tell you, sir, that it takes two years. There is a three-month training program, but it takes two years for a board member to be fully trained and fully comprehend their job. A temporary member is only appointed for two years. During that time, they have no voting rights and are not part of the structure of the board in that sense. They are there as extra workers, if you will. It takes two years, and once their two years is up, they may not necessarily be reappointed. A permanent member starts off with a three-year appointment.

Senator Enverga: Are they using these temporary replacements as eventual permanent members of the board? How does it work?

Mr. Leduc: The last time a temporary member was appointed, I think it was me. That was in November 2005, and then I was reappointed under a different government as a permanent member for a longer term.

Senator Enverga: Basically it does not affect the proceedings. It doesn't affect anything. Is that what you are saying? Can they perhaps hire more temporary workers to make sure that all of the backlog is gone?

Mr. Parent: My point and my discussions with Mr. Larlee, who is the chair of the board, is that the board operates now with 22 or so members. I go back to what I said before; you need to maintain the operating level. You can't let it drop down to three while people are training or being appointed. It needs to be maintained at 25, and it will be 25. I think that is the important aspect of it.

Senator Enverga: Okay, thank you.

Mr. Leduc: The service standard has suffered. When I first got on the board in 2005, we told people clearly, ``Within four weeks, you will have a decision.'' That changed in about 2007, 2008 to us telling them, ``Between four to six weeks.'' Now they tell them eight weeks, so the quality of work has suffered.

The Deputy Chair: Let me ask you about something that the Legion raised, and that is the video or teleconferencing. They say the use of this is increasing. They don't think it's in the best interests of the veterans, who they think in most cases want to come face-to-face with the review panel.

What is your sense of that? Is it increasing? They also said that it's optional. They don't have to take it, but are they being pressured into taking it? Are they being told, ``Your case can be dealt with faster if you go the teleconferencing or videoconferencing route''? What is your take on this?

Mr. Parent: I've discussed the issue recently with members of the Bureau of Pensions Advocates, which, as you know, represents clients during the review process. The statement they made to me was that it works but is not for everybody. It's been particularly useful for people suffering from invisible injuries, such as PTSD, who are not comfortable in a crowd environment. For them, it might work very well. Again, it's the assessment before proceeding to videoconferencing that would be critical. It works in some cases but maybe not in others.

Mr. Leduc: My experience is that the board members were not asked about their opinion when this was developed. It was created by the staff and board management. We had one board member who actually worked on that committee with them. We were not brought into it and asked our views on it at all.

Personally, I like the human approach because, for a veteran coming into a setting similar to this, it's a court martial. They are already ill at ease, and no matter how you try to put them at ease, it is difficult. Sometimes you just need that human approach.

One time, I did a case where a person with severe PTSD could not come into a room, so I suggested to my colleague, ``Let's take off our jackets and ties, roll up our sleeves and go talk to him informally and ask the questions informally.'' It worked.

I also dealt with elderly veterans who were partially blind and could not hear. Instead of sitting this far apart, I moved my chair right across from the veteran and asked the questions that way.

You need that personal touch. You lose so much through the videoconferencing. You absolutely lose the dynamics of the hearing. It's just another way to save money.

Yes, the veterans are asked, but are they given all the options?

The Deputy Chair: Are they pressured?

Mr. Leduc: I don't know about pressure. I think they are not given many options. If they are using video conferencing in a certain city now, there goes your ability to have a personal hearing. They probably don't even know that they can ask for one. At the end of day, according to the law, it's their right to have that hearing.

The Deputy Chair: I understand that this initial hearing situation is not a problem in terms of backlog. The reconsideration is where the backlog is occurring. Some people are waiting more than a year to have their reconsideration decision. Have I got this characterized correctly?

Mr. Leduc: Pretty much. That's a scheduling issue, as I mentioned.

The Deputy Chair: It is on the reconsideration matter where the delay and backlog comes in?

Mr. Leduc: Before coming to this hearing today I asked a number of veterans if they were satisfied with the timelines, and I got a sense of it. Generally they are satisfied with how things are rolling along.

Things changed significantly in 1995. Before 1995, the applications were prepared by the Bureau of Pensions Advocates, and they were brought through to the Canadian Pension Commission; but in 1995 they wanted to speed it up for the older veterans, so they put the first level of the application in the bureaucrats' hands. With the administrative process, and when it comes to the lawyers sometimes, they are starting with a broken application because it's not them who started it. There can be some delays at the front end as well.

Mr. Parent: As well, I think the reconsideration is a finished process, and the veterans are actually asking to re-enter the process. So they go at the bottom of the list for the people who are in line for review and appeals, obviously, to be fair to the people who have been waiting for their own review and appeal, and this is why that other list builds up as well. That is why there is a big backlog on reconsideration.

Mr. Leduc: Reconsideration is not the end-all either, because oftentimes the members — depending — will look at it and say, ``How dare you question my decision?'' That's in the back of some people's minds as well.

Senator Dallaire: Gentlemen, two things: First, I was taken aback by the response from the Legion representatives who handle 15 per cent of all the cases that the bad opinion of this final arbiter, which establishes the atmosphere of the whole process — in the end, if people feel they have a fair shake, then your whole process is considered to be fair, but if, in the last dimension, people consider that body to be unfair, then that means the whole system can be felt to be unfair. It was articulated as being perception versus reality.

What is the position of the veterans at large, what you've seen particularly, Mr. Parent? You said you had not had a lot of cases brought to you. Of course that's out of your realm, but is there a perception of the VRAB out there?

Mr. Parent: I think there was and in some cases probably still is. I think what is happening is the fact that if you are treated with respect and dignity throughout the process, if the issues are addressed in a timely manner, if the decision letters are clear, then you accept the decision and you accept the process. But if any of these things are flawed, then of course you are already frustrated with what is happening and even more so if you are suffering from invisible injuries because your patience is not as good as someone who is not.

Obviously, these are the things that are important. It is not necessarily the decision but how they arrived at the decision. This is why in a lot of our reports we are saying it is important how you communicate the message. Some people will accept a ``no'' with the right wording as much as they will accept a ``yes,'' as long as they feel they have been treated with dignity throughout the process and the process was fair throughout.

Senator Dallaire: I'm looking for your opinion on a system that has impressive numbers and statistics. They have pie charts and all kinds of stuff that say we are achieving 82 per cent of review decisions and 86 per cent of appeal decisions. I used the figure earlier on that, of the number of decisions, so that's about 750 people who don't get the decisions.

If you've got a delta like that on these human beings who are veterans and are injured, do you consider that a strong enough argument to reduce the number of people working, whether they are better qualified? Like Minister Blaney brought in four ex-military to change the nature of that beast. Do you feel that's a warranted position to be able to reduce the capability versus maybe increasing the output?

Mr. Leduc: Are those statistics favourable decisions on the review of an appeal?

Senator Dallaire: Not favourable — just decisions taken.

Mr. Leduc: The legislation is clear that decisions will be made expeditiously or hearings will be held expeditiously and decisions taken that way. Any delay to any veteran is absolutely unacceptable, in my view.

Mr. Parent: I would have to agree that it's not necessarily whether the decision is favourable or not but how many actually are processed; again, that is what we're talking about. Indications are that that can be done and as long as it is maintained at 25, but the important thing is not to have a number that changes every six months because two members are finished their terms with the board. That is the important part of it.

Senator Dallaire: These are Governor-in-Council appointments. These are direct government decisions of wanting to fill those jobs or not, and so if they're not filled because somebody is taking the decision not to fill them — and, on top of that, we want to eliminate four of them. Is there a logic you see in meeting the challenges of the veterans and possibly an increased number of veterans who are injured coming before them?

Mr. Parent: It is dependent, again, on maintaining that 25 at all times. What is happening now is they wait until a member has actually finished his term before they start to process another one, and there is a four-month training period. We are looking at a vacant position for six or seven months.

Mr. Leduc: I would like to build on that and say I have been involved in veterans' issues since 1992, since I left the service, and I see this as part of the ongoing general erosion of benefits and services to veterans.

The Deputy Chair: This brings the meeting to a close. I thank Mr. Parent and Mr. Leduc for being here and giving us the information they have.

We resume tomorrow on Division 5, which deals with the changes to the Labour Code.

(The committee adjourned.)