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A Canadian soldier rests on the muzzle of his rifle while riding in an armoured vehicle in Kandahar province on Nov. 16, 2007. (FINBARR O'REILLY/Reuters)
A Canadian soldier rests on the muzzle of his rifle while riding in an armoured vehicle in Kandahar province on Nov. 16, 2007. (FINBARR O'REILLY/Reuters)

Ottawa steps up financial support for wounded soldiers Add to ...

The Harper government has announced new measures to help Canada's most severely wounded soldiers, one day before Parliament resumes and the divisive issue was expected to become a flashpoint again.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn held a news conference Sunday to detail the enhanced benefits, which they say will cost $2-billion over the program's lifetime.

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Included in that is $200-million over the next five years for veterans who can't go back to work because of their injuries.

"There is no higher standard of civilian responsibility for a government than to treat those veterans who have put it all on the line," Mr. MacKay said.

Stephen Harper, who has championed the military throughout his terms as Prime Minister, has been under fire recently by veterans and their ombudsman Pat Stogran, a retired colonel, for a change in policy that sees wounded soldiers receive compensation in lump-sum payments rather than monthly pension payments. Veteran say the lump-sum payments are reckless.

Mr. MacKay and Mr. Blackburn did not indicate whether the system of lump-sum payments would be continued or stopped, but said more announcements are on the way.

"We're coming soon about this question of lump-sum payment," Mr. Blackburn said. "There will be something soon about that."

The ministers said that over the next five years more than 4,000 will benefit from the new measures. The measures include a lifetime $1,000 monthly stipend for 500 veterans who are severely injured and not expected to work again. These are veterans with physical as well as mental injuries.

This is in addition to what they would receive under the New Veterans Charter that took effect in 2006. They could receive up to a maximum of $2,600 a month.

As well, more than 3,500 other seriously injured veterans are expected to be eligible for permanent monthly allowances, which will vary from $536 to $1,609, under expanded and revised eligibility criteria.

All of the money is taxable.

Col. Stogran said on Sunday that while he is "encouraged" by the government's "decisive move," he is still concerned about the threshold used by bureaucrats to determine who is eligible.

"The department can say, 'I'm sorry, your wounds aren't serious enough to warrant this.' That's the kind of shenanigan the system [places]on our veterans," he said.

"They set the bar as high as any insurance company in Canada in the interests of preserving the public purse ... when the legislation actually directs it should be liberally interpreted ..."

He said "the system is still broken, severely broken."

"There is a big black machine out there, a black hole of bureaucrats that have a culture of deny, deny, deny like an insurance company."

Afghan veteran Paul Franklin lost both legs in an explosion of a convoy he was driving in 2006. He said Sunday's announcement is a good start, but is holding out hope the issue of lump-sum payments will be addressed soon.

"I don't think the financial commitment of $1,000 a month is anywhere near enough," Mr. Franklin said on the phone from Edmonton.

"You've got someone that's out of work - how are they supposed to use that $1,000 for rent and home ownership and all those other huge expenses of life?

"Hopefully ... our lump-sum benefit will be increased."

Mr. MacKay denied Sunday that the new measures were provoked by Col. Stogran's frustrations.

The ministers also said this is just the first in a series of announcements they will be making over the next few weeks about benefits for Canadian veterans.

"This is the first piece," said Mr. MacKay about improving the lot for Canada's veterans. "It is important to reflect upon the fact, we have 18- and 19-year-old veterans. That is not the traditional image Canadians have of veterans."

He said they face "very personal" and "complex" challenges regarding their homes, families, transport, and education.

With a report from The Canadian Press

 

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