Reality Check: Are the Liberals turning their back on veterans?
The relationship between veterans and the Canadian government is bad — that much is not new.
However, a comment made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a town hall last week may as well have been a lightning bolt drawing all eyes up to the storm clouds darkening the precarious relations between those who were prepared to fight and die for Canada and a government they say has turned its back on them by forcing them back to court to fight for better benefits.
“Why are we still fighting against certain veterans’ groups in court?” Trudeau began after being confronted by a veteran during his stop in Edmonton about the ongoing dispute.
“Because they are asking for more than we are able to give right now.”
That comment immediately sparked outrage from veterans groups and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer. Scheer released an ad shortly afterwards saying the government had found no shortage of money to spend on things like compensating Omar Khadr for the complicity of Canadian officials in his detention and torture at Guantanamo Bay.
Brock Blaszczyk, the Afghanistan war veteran who posed the question to Trudeau, said he was “disappointed” in the response and in the fact that the government is continuing a court battle with veterans despite pledging not to do so.
“He made a promise that us veterans wouldn’t have to fight the government in court anymore,” Blaszczyk said. “But yet, there’s still veterans out there in a legal battle with him over this whole mess of lifetime pensions.”
Why is the government still fighting veterans in court? Are the Liberals actually betraying veterans?
Here’s everything you need to know.
Why are veterans and the government in court?
In 2012, the Equitas Society launched a legal challenge on behalf of six veterans of the Afghan War.
Known as the Equitas lawsuit, the case argued that changes passed unanimously by all parties in 2006 to the way the government compensates veterans injured in the line of duty resulted in discrimination and unequal benefits depending on whether an individual was injured before or after the change went into effect.
In essence, it alleges that younger veterans face discrimination because veterans who served in previous wars could received more in benefits than veterans who have served since 2006.
Prior to 2006, veterans who were injured received a lifelong pension of a maximum of $2,733 per month tax-free as compensation for pain and suffering, based on the extent of their injuries.
WATCH: Debate over veteran pensions becomes heated during Question Period
The lump sum payment brought in in 2006 includes career support and rehabilitation and is called the New Veterans Charter.
The maximum lump sum a veteran can get under the New Veterans Charter is $360,000 but the average lump sum award is roughly $43,000.
The veterans in the Equitas lawsuit say that change means those who became veterans under the New Veterans Charter rather than under the lifelong pension program are getting up to 40 per cent less than their older counterparts.
That, they argue, amounts to discrimination — but the government does not agree.
A 2014 decision by the B.C. Superior Court gave the case the OK to head to trial.
Despite Trudeau vowing in 2015 that he “would ensure that no veteran has to fight the government for the support and compensation they have earned,” the government appealed that ruling in 2016 and in December 2017, the B.C. Court of Appeal threw out that decision.
Just last week, the veterans filed leave to appeal that ruling to the Supreme Court of Canada.
That court must now decide whether it will hear the case and rule on the veterans’ efforts to bring back the lifelong pensions as they existed before 2006.
Wait, didn’t the Liberals promise to help veterans?
In their 2015 election platform, the Liberals vowed to restore lifelong pensions as an option for injured veterans and laid out that as a specific goal for the Minister of Veterans Affairs in the mandate letter for that role.
The pledge in the campaign platform did not, however, specify a plan to restore the lifelong pension program to the full amount it had been prior to 2006.
In December 2017, Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan announced the plan to restore lifelong pensions through an injection of $3.6 billion into veteran benefits that will start in April 2019.
That announcement came on the heels of efforts by the government to tick off several other promises to veterans that they made in their campaign platform, including increasing the amount of the disability award and increasing the earnings loss benefit.
Both of those were announced in Budget 2016 and have since gone into effect.
But veterans say the plan for lifelong pensions does not live up to the promise the Liberals made to treat veterans with more respect and that it does little to make up the difference in compensation that was the core concern with the change to the lump sum payment in the first place.
Under the new lifelong pension option, veterans will have the option of either taking the lump sum payment or opting for a lifelong pension that would result in a maximum tax-free monthly payment of $1,150.
WATCH BELOW: Former soldier talks about why he challenged Justin Trudeau on military veterans policy
As well, those with severe or permanent disabilities can also get a new benefit worth between $500 and $1,500 each month, also tax-free.
Both are indexed to inflation.
However, only about 12 per cent of veterans are eligible for the maximum amounts and veterans’ advocates say most will not end up getting the same level of compensation and support that existed under the old lifetime pension program.
What are the Conservatives demanding?
Scheer said during Question Period in the House of Commons on Monday that the argument by Trudeau last week that the government cannot afford to give more to veterans stands in stark contrast to choices they have made on other kinds of spending.
In particular, Scheer pointed to the $10.5-million settlement with Omar Khadr, the Canadian who was detained and tortured by American officials in Guantanamo Bay for close to a decade.
Scheer also took aim at the government spending $256 million for a China-led infrastructure bank, $372 million on a loan to Bombardier, and $200,000 in security costs for RCMP to accompany Trudeau and his family on their Christmas trip to the Aga Khan’s private island in 2016.
WATCH ABOVE: NDP, Conservatives accuse Trudeau of having his priorities mixed up when it comes to veterans
The Conservatives have called on Trudeau to apologize for his remarks.
In response, Trudeau defended the charge that some veterans are asking for too much and said the government cannot go back to the old system because doing so would require clawing back money already invested in the support programs and additional benefits that were introduced under the New Veterans Charter and which will remain under the new Liberal plan, though in different packaging.
“We cannot return to the amount of money that was given before without accounting for the money invested in services for veterans,” Trudeau said.
“And what I know from veterans I’ve spoken to is nobody wants after having served their country with valour and honour and sacrifice to have their government say: Here’s your cheque. Now don’t bother us anymore.”
What happens next?
There are several outstanding issues at play in the argument around whether the government could or should do more to help veterans.
First, a decision by the Supreme Court as to whether it will hear the Equitas case could set a standard to define exactly what is owed by a government to those who serve in its military: in essence, whether there is a social contract or a covenant for a standard of care after a soldier is injured in service to their country.
On average, it takes the Supreme Court roughly three months to decide whether to hear a case and given the Equitas appeal was filed just last week, it will likely be spring before a decision on that application is made.
From there, it takes about six months for the court to issue a ruling once it hears an appeal.
WATCH ABOVE: Does Justin Trudeau owe veterans an apology?
Second, Budget 2018 is expected to be unveiled in late February and it remains to be seen whether there will be any additional funding for veterans’ services announced in that.
A number of campaign promises on the veterans file are still outstanding, including pledges to invest $100 million each year to “expand the circle of support for veterans’ families” and cover the cost of four years of college, university or technical school for those who complete military service through an $80-million per year education benefit for veterans.
Both promises are marked as unmet on the non-partisan platform tracking website TrudeauTracker, while others such as re-opening the nine Veterans Affairs service offices that were closed by the Conservatives in 2012, have been completed.
Third, the April 2019 start date for the revamped lifelong pension option for veterans will be one to watch as veterans come forward with their experiences of either getting less money than they expected or more.
In short, comparing benefits from one program to the other is difficult given the variables between them. While the Liberals have outstanding promises — and in some cases, ones that they have broken outright — they have also met others and launched a large-scale overhaul of a program that reaches to the core of one of the most strained relationships the government has with some of its citizens.
In this case, the answer to whether veterans are better off under this government than they were under the last is very much one that may only be clear years into the future once the full scale of changes can actually be assessed.
SOUND OFF: What do you think of the argument that some veterans are asking for too much from the government?
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