On the morning of Nov. 11, 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released a special Remembrance Day message.
In it, Canada’s freshly sworn-in prime minister cited the “obligation to our country’s women and men in uniform, our veterans, and their families” and pledged to “honour this social covenant with the respect and gratitude it deserves.”
What that meant, practically speaking, was fulfilling a long list of campaign promises that included re-opening shuttered veterans’ services centres across Canada, improving pensions and benefits, and introducing new education programs.
A year on, with Remembrance Day again around the corner, the results have been mixed.
“They seem to be focused toward the goals they wanted to accomplish in the first year,” said Scott Maxwell of Wounded Warriors Canada, which advocates for ill and injured former soldiers and their families.
“Given it is Year One, and that doesn’t account for the time it takes to set up a ministry and get ministers in and learn the file … that’s not a long time. I’m sure we can all appreciate that.”
The federal budget, tabled in March, put an early dent in the list of promised changes.
It increased the maximum Disability Award for veterans and introduced a new ‘individual assessment’ approach to expand the number of vets who qualify for the Permanent Impairment Allowance. Neither of those changes come into effect until next April, however.
One budget-related change already in place is an increase to the Earnings Loss Benefit, from 75 per cent to 90 per cent of a veteran’s monthly salary. That happened on Oct. 1.
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But even if you qualify, securing these benefits remains a frustrating and time-consuming process, said Maxwell. Backlogs and long wait times have been perennial problems, with ill or injured soldiers having to explain their case to up to three different departments as they transition out of military life.
“We just see far too many ill and injured members of the Canadian Forces — who are either in the process of releasing or have been released — falling through the cracks,” Maxwell said.
‘Not an acceptable trend’
According to Veterans Affairs Canada, wait times to register for benefits have gotten longer, not shorter, in recent months.
Last summer, The Globe and Mail reported that just just 56 per cent of disability benefit applications meet the standard of being approved within 112 days (16 weeks). The average time to process a claim was 123 days.
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As of Sept. 30, the service standard had fallen to 49 per cent of claims processed within 112 days. The average approval time had dropped only slightly, to 122 days.
Part of the problem is a 22 per cent spike in disability claims over the last year, said a department spokesperson.
“While there has been an increase in the volume and complexity of disability benefit claims, the department recognizes that this is not an acceptable trend,” wrote Alexandre Bellemare in an email.
“(Veterans Affairs) is working to improve program success by hiring more front-line staff, simplifying the decision-making process for certain medical conditions, and working with partners to find further efficiencies.”
In early October, CBC News reported that there were still over 11,500 benefit claims from ex-soldiers backlogged in the system.
Service centres re-open
Of the nine veterans’ service centres closed by the Conservative government, three have now officially re-opened. Three more of the facilities, which offer front-line services for veterans, are expected to be up and running before the end of December.
The last few offices will be re-opening later than promised — as late as May 2017. An extra office, in Surrey B.C., is set to open at the same time.
Meanwhile, the department has hired 250 additional front-line workers, with more on the way, and there has been some movement on health services.
Last summer, for example, Ottawa announced a new e-learning program for caregivers of veterans. The tool, scheduled to go online in mid-2017, will be designed to help people caring for veterans with physical and mental health conditions.
Although there has undoubtedly been progress, the Liberal government has also faced harsh criticism in 2016 — chiefly linked to their promise to re-establish lifelong pensions.
In September, the lawyer for six veterans involved in a lengthy legal battle with Ottawa over their pensions accused Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr of ‘playing politics’ with his clients.
The Liberals agreed in May to send the lawsuit back to the B.C. Court of Appeal after a legal ‘truce’ expired. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair called the move “disgusting.”
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At the time, Hehr said his department is moving as fast as it can to re-establish lifelong pensions, which had been replaced under the previous government with lump-sum payments.
According to Maxwell, the government’s biggest misstep on pensions has been a failure to communicate.
“When it is a hallmark of your election platform … you want to stay open and in front of the communication on this topic,” he said.
“It’s basically just been, ‘sit back and wait.'”
So, where does Ottawa go from here?
Canada’s military and veterans ombudsmen both released reports this fall with suggestions for how the government can do better.
The Veterans Ombudsman, Guy Parent, recommended that Hehr change the current rules so that soldiers who are single and have no dependent children can designate another family member to receive the military Death Benefit if they die in a service-related incident.
The Military Ombudsman, Gary Walbourne, focused on the transition back to civilian life. He repeated a call for the government to simplify the process for veterans trying to register for benefits after being discharged, and suggested the creation of a “concierge service” would help guide ex-soldiers out the door.
Walbourne also recommended setting up a secure webpage to bring together all the resources a person would need in one spot.
Department spokesperson Bellemare said the government is working hard to address all these recommendations, and has done “considerable work” in 2016 to simplify the transition from active service to civilian life.
“For example, Enhanced Transition Services is about Veterans Affairs Canada engaging earlier with releasing Canadian Armed Forces members and their families,” he said.
“This joint (Veterans Affairs and Canadian Armed Forces) initiative has been launched at all 24 integrated personnel support centres.”
According to Maxwell, finally sorting out the lifelong pensions and further improving transition services should remain top priorities for the Liberals in 2017.
If nothing changes, he said, Wounded Warriors will be only be seeing more men and women in need of help.
“We end up finding it can lead to a whole bunch of other challenges downstream.”