A small group of veterans disabled during the Gulf War and other recent missions is calling for the creation of a special ombudsman to negotiate the maze of bureaucracy they say stands in the way of pensions and benefits.
Sean Bruyea, a retired intelligence officer who served with the forces for more than 14 years and suffers numerous disabilities, told a news conference Tuesday that Veterans Affairs Canada "clings to an inflexible culture of insensitivity to the needs of disabled veterans."
It can take three to five years to process a pension for a disabled veteran and there are six levels of bureaucracy within the department, said Mr. Bruyea. Waiting times for treatment requests have escalated from two weeks to almost four months, he said.
But Veterans Affairs Canada "does not have any publicized service guarantees for processing claims," he said, adding that, in terms of treatment, modern veterans suffer from complex medical conditions that the department seems unable to address. "This is a bizarre oversight for a department mandated to provide critical and life-saving services."
Mr. Bruyea, who was flanked by other disabled veterans, fought off emotion as he outlined the problems - and the perceived lack of respect - he and others in his situation have received from the government. He pointed to a stack of paper, about 15 centimetres deep, that is correspondence relating to his own case.
Although there is a federal ombudsman responsible for all government departments, he said the office is simply too busy to handle the many complex issues presented by veterans.
Veterans Affairs Minister Albina Guarnieri said she is always willing to listen to compelling arguments and, if there are veterans who feel their cases were not handled properly, "bring them forward ... to the department to myself. We will always explore every possibility for veterans."
But Ms. Guarnieri said she believes the creation of an ombudsman's office would be redundant. There is already a Veteran's Review and Appeal Board that hears the cases of veterans who disagree with departmental decisions, as well as a bureau of pension advocates which provides free legal advice, she said. "And the Royal Canadian Legion does regard itself as an ombudsman and doesn't feel the need to have another one."
Bruce Poulin, a spokesman for the Legion, confirmed that to be the case.
"If you're looking for something that's akin to an ombudsman, we feel that the Royal Canadian Legion is in fact doing that very job," said Mr. Poulin. Any veteran "can walk into one of our branches and lodge a complaint and ask for our help.... We have dedicated staff here at Dominion command - there are lawyers who are specifically trained in those aspects."
But Mr. Bruyea said the Legion is just one of more than a dozen veterans' organizations in Canada and does not represent all former members of the service. So he doesn't understand why the government department would suggest that he ask a private organization, to which he does not belong, to lobby on his behalf.
"Veterans Affairs has benefited for a long time from a divide and conquer theory," said Mr. Bruyea. "The whole purpose of an ombudsman is to have an objective, independent voice. I, as a Canadian, should not to have to go through a self-interest group in order to get my rights met."