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Easing the transition from soldier to civilian: Senator Dagenais and Senator Jaffer
October 4, 2018
image Jean-Guy Dagenais
Jean-Guy Dagenais
CSG - (Quebec - Victoria)
image Mobina S. B. Jaffer
Mobina S. B. Jaffer
ISG - (British Columbia)

Members of our armed forces deserve a professional, worry-free transition into civilian life when their military careers come to an end.

It’s deeply troubling that too many of the men and women who have faithfully served our country are, instead, experiencing stress, frustration and uncertainty as they prepare for the next phase of their lives.

Transition is currently fraught with delays, confusion and unnecessary duplication, with members often forced to leave the military before their basic financial benefits and other necessities are in place.

It is a desire to correct this ongoing lack of professionalism that moved members of our Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs to investigate and recommend ways to make an imperfect system work as it should.

Our subcommittee’s report, including 13 constructive recommendations, was released in June under the title From Soldier to Civilian: Professionalizing the Transition.

As the statistics tell us, this is no trivial matter.

Senator Jean-Guy Dagenais delivers remarks alongside Senator Mobina S.B. Jaffer during a press conference that took place on Wednesday, June 13, 2018.

In Canada, there are close to 700,000 veterans and more than 100,000 serving members of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), not counting their family members. Each year, 9,000 to 10,000 CAF members are released; approximately 1,600 of them for medical reasons.

Crucially, one third of the people leaving the military have difficulty making the transition to civilian life — many because of mental or physical injury.

As National Defence and Canadian Armed Forces Ombudsman Gary Walbourne told us:

“(These are) stories of financial hardship, emotional stress and senseless frustration. We have members of the Canadian Armed Forces who have served this country for decades, with multiple deployments and citations under their belts, and who face the threat of eviction or are evicted from their homes and face financial ruin while awaiting their severance pay, first pension cheque or benefits adjudication.”

This is clearly an unacceptable situation.

In our report, we deliberately use the words “collaboration” and “co-operation,” especially in relation to the Canadian Armed Forces, the Department of National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada.

Here’s why.

Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent told the subcommittee that at least 15 players from multiple organizations are involved in transitioning members from the military. Each has its own accountability framework, mandate and processes.

The inevitable result is a duplication of effort, confusion, and inconsistency across these various groups and across the country.

Lack of collaboration and co-operation, even if it is unintended, is the root of the problem.

Curiously, all the witnesses who appeared before our subcommittee including the Chief of Defence Staff, three veterans' groups and the current and past Veterans Affairs ministers, agreed that the transition system isn’t functioning as it should.

“We know we need to change the current system,” then-veterans affairs minister Kent Hehr told the committee at a 2017 meeting.

“We need to do something transformative, to do more than just slap on another piece of policy tape each time the system springs a leak. It’s time to rebuild.”

So what do we need to do?

Witnesses made the following key points:

  • Provide services and benefits to members and veterans in a timely manner.
  • Make the transition process more navigable.
  • Facilitate access to benefits and services from Veterans Affairs Canada, sometimes years after the release.
  • Streamline Veterans Affairs Canada’s medical determination process.
  • Improve access to mental health supports.
  • Provide members and veterans with the necessary supports so they can determine their new purpose in life and successfully achieve it.
  • Improve collaboration between Veterans Affairs Canada and other levels of government and agencies in order to improve services to veterans.

Our entire report and recommendations are available online through the Senate’s website but we especially want to highlight three recommendations that members of the subcommittee consider pivotal.

We are urging the federal government to implement them immediately:

  • The Canadian Armed Forces should ensure that no member is released until all benefits and services from all sources, including the Canadian Forces pension and Veterans Affairs benefits and services, are in place.
  • That the Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Canada collaborate to ensure that, before a member is released, the individual has a complete file ready, which includes their service record and history of medical treatment and which will be easy to access by Veterans Affairs should the veteran need to access the department’s services at a later time.
  • The administrative complexity involved in transitioning to civilian life should be reduced — or at least borne by civil servants, not soldiers.

There is clear logic to all three recommendations.

Holding CAF members within the military family until their benefits and access to services are in place is just common sense. Aside from those who are ill and injured, it is also worth noting that many transitioning members who joined the military in their teens have never known life, as an adult, in the civilian world. That alone makes the prospect of release incredibly daunting.

Senator Jaffer, next to Senator Dagenais, presents the committee’s key recommendations at the National Press Theatre during a live announcement.

As a logical extension of this, the committee believes that CAF and VAC should ensure that all relevant personal records are updated and shared so that the needs of the transitioning soldier can be promptly addressed.

And it should go without saying that DND and VAC should bear the burden of sorting out how to deliver services efficiently.

Gary Walbourne, the veteran’s ombudsman, said a recent survey identified broken lines of communication between different offices, as well as problems handling and transmitting relevant information.

This is all the more shocking in contrast with the generally smooth process by which men and women are welcomed into the forces.

When a person joins the military, he or she encounters a professional recruitment system where each step is designed to smoothly integrate new members into whichever branch of the military they have chosen. The process of their departure, however, remains an afterthought.

Our report offers the federal government recommendations that would achieve an equally professional system for members when they are released from the military.

And while much of our focus is necessarily on transitioning individual serving members and veterans, there is an important added dimension to this entire issue: Canada’s national security.

More than one witness at our hearings pointed out that achieving a successful transition is in the national interest.

Potential recruits see and hear news coverage, and absorb social media where these negative issues are discussed.

Who will want to serve in the armed forces, with all its inherent risks, if they decide the military doesn’t value the service of its members, especially those unfortunate enough to have their careers cut short by illness or injury?

The government and the military recognize that there is a problem. We know that they want to solve it and we believe that our report gives the federal government practical solutions to fix what needs fixing.

We have a problem and it’s time to solve it once and for all.

Senator Jean-Guy Dagenais is chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs. Senator Mobina Jaffer is its deputy chair.