The Ontario Soldiers’ Aid Commission, the province’s emergency grant program for veterans, turns away veterans of recent conflicts while returning most of its budget unspent every year to the government, Global News has learned.
The provincial law it works under was last updated in 1970 and doesn’t let it give money to veterans of any conflict more recent than Korea. So while veterans of more recent wars often ask the volunteer board for help, none can be given grants.
The Soldiers’ Aid Commission, Canada’s only provincial veterans’ program, can grant veterans up to $2,000 to deal with emergencies such as rent payments, home repairs or moving costs. For veterans who qualify, it has filled a gap, since Veterans Affairs Canada until recently didn’t provide one-off payments to meet specific needs.
The vast majority of veterans who do qualify are given the money they ask for. But over 60 per cent of the commission’s $253,000 budget goes unspent for lack of qualified applicants, heavily censored documents released to Global News under access-to-information laws show.
“I think there’s absolutely no fairness to it,” says former soldier John Tescione. “If you’re going to have a program for veterans, and cut it off to previous wars, what is the purpose of that?”
Tescione, now 48, was wounded in Croatia in 1994 when a group of Serbian soldiers opened fire on a vehicle he was riding in with another soldier.
The soldiers’ lives were saved by their body armour and the mass of the vehicle, though Tescione was shot six times in the head and arms, and has struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder ever since.
“My injuries are just like those that came off those beaches, fighting in the Second World War,” he says. “It’s no different.”
One of the bullets pulled out of him, he points out, was a Second World War-era Mauser round.
“The situations are exactly the same. But the time and place that I got injured doesn’t qualify me.”
READ MORE: Invisible wounds, revisited — Canada still falls short in treating soldiers’ psychic scars
Today, the group of veterans the commission can legally give money to is shrinking and increasingly elderly. The average living Canadian veteran of the Korean War is 86, and the average living Canadian veteran of the Second World War is 93.
Their numbers are falling fast. In 2012, 48,200 veterans of the Second World War or Korea still lived in Ontario — by 2018, that number had fallen by more than half, to 20,200, according to numbers provided by VAC.
VAC is serving 29,911 post-Korean War veterans in Ontario; all have a problem or disability in some way linked to military service.
Veterans Affairs says it provides services to 16,432 veterans of the Afghanistan conflict nationwide, but could not break that total down by province.
“It wasn’t much of a tent at the end of it”
A year after he left the military, Phillip Kitchen found himself living in a tent in a Kingston campground with his wife, his son — who was less than a year old — and their dog.
He had come back from Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder and had been present at a 2006 incident in which an American warplane mistakenly bombed Canadian troops, killing one soldier. and wounding several others.
“I didn’t want to leave the military at all, but being classified as non-deployable, the writing was on the wall at that time,” he said.
Within a year of his return, a son was born prematurely and died. Kitchen ended up kicked out of the military in 2008 for testing positive for THC.
After running out of the money from military pension contributions he cashed out, Kitchen’s family moved into the tent. Luckily, it was springtime. Kitchen and his wife tried not to let their stress show, and presented it to their young son as an adventure.
“We didn’t know what the next day was going to bring,” he remembers. “We had all our stuff in storage, and we slowly were piecing it out to pawnshops and selling it wherever we could to get the money just to put food in the cooler, and ice in the cooler to keep the food good.”
Rainstorms flooded the tent, and the family’s clothes mildewed. They had to scrape together money they didn’t have to do the washing to get rid of the mildew. And the tent started to wear out.
“The tent got beat up,” Kitchen said. “It wasn’t much of a tent at the end of it.”
And he worried about winter.
“It got more difficult as time wore on, as days turned into weeks turned into months. The weather was always in the back of my mind, too — that this can only last for so long.”
The family’s ordeal ended when Kitchen’s discharge category was changed and he started getting payments from Veterans Affairs in time to find somewhere to live before winter.
What would a $2,000 grant from the SAC have meant to the family?
“At that time, it would have been a place to live — a place for my wife and kids to have shelter and heat. Food. It would have been a welcome relief from the daily stress of survival.
“It’s sad that they send a new batch of soldiers into a conflict but forget to update laws to support them when they need it. It’s very unfortunate that nothing was changed.”
Starting in April of last year, VAC started offering a similar program at the federal level.
How many younger veterans are turned away? The government knows, but won’t tell us
The documents show that the SAC is keeping a tally of how many younger veterans are applying for grants they can’t legally be given and must be turned away.
We asked Ontario’s social services ministry, which runs the program, for these statistics, but they refused to provide them. It would also not provide copies of two mandate reviews of the program carried out in 2002 and 2015, telling Global News that finding them would involve “an extended amount of manual work.”
Of the veterans Global News contacted for this story, all of whom lived in Ontario, none had ever heard of the SAC — including Tescione, who worked for years as a veteran peer counsellor.
“I don’t even know about it,” Tescione said, “and I’ve been in the business of helping other veterans.”
In 2018, the city of Toronto said that 11 per cent of the city’s outdoor homeless population reported having served in the military in some way. One per cent of Toronto’s overall homeless population, or about 90 people, reported military service outside Canada.
READ MORE: Is Ottawa underestimating the number of homeless vets?
“Since taking office, Ontario’s government for the people has delivered on our commitment to give back to those who have sacrificed so much for our country, including through the elimination of recreational fishing fees and property taxes for Royal Canadian Legion halls,” wrote Derek Rowland, social services minister Lisa MacLeod’s press secretary.
“We are currently exploring opportunities to strengthen our government’s supports for Canadian veterans to make a more meaningful impact.”
A Conservative government brought in the original program in 1915, Rowland pointed out.
Opposition veterans’ affairs critic Jennie Stevens called the restriction an “unfair loophole.”
“The fact that Ontario routinely and unjustly denies modern-day veterans the support that older veterans can access is wrong,” she wrote in an e-mailed statement. “It’s discriminatory, and it has to change.”
“Veterans answered a call to serve our nation and protect the innocent. They didn’t let us down, and the province shouldn’t let them down.”
Commission once helped thousands
The SAC was founded in 1915 to help returning soldiers find their feet in civilian life and get jobs.
During the 1920s, it had over 200 local branches in Ontario. It was authorized to operate as a children’s aid society —in theory, it still is — and at one point had full custody of 584 children.
Among other activities, it ran a summer camp on a farm near Guelph:
In the late 1920s, the commission shrank as responsibility for veterans shifted more clearly toward the federal government.
(The volunteer-run commission has stretched its mandate in other ways, finding grant money for merchant navy veterans who aren’t strictly eligible under Ontario’s legislation, the documents show.)
We reached out to a member of the commission, who said he would need approval from MacLeod’s office to talk to the media.