Wounded veterans will be back in court this week to fight the federal government's contention that it has no special obligation to former soldiers in a case that has been reopened by the Justice Department to the chagrin of veterans' groups across the country.
In documents filed with the British Columbia Court of Appeal on Monday, the lawyer for the six veterans involved in the lawsuit is asking the court to refuse the government's request that the court rule on an appeal in the case. He says the Liberal government is returning to arguments that it campaigned against, and is breaking promises that helped get it elected. The case has been on hold for a year.
The central issue in dispute – the assertion that there is no "social covenant or social contract" between veterans and the Canadian government – inflamed veterans when it was first advanced in the B.C. Supreme Court by the previous Conservative government.
The Liberal government is abandoning promises to settle matters, said Don Sorochan, the lawyer for the vets whose firm, Miller Thomson, has agreed to let him do the work pro bono. The Liberals "are not keeping that commitment," he said, "nor are they keeping their platform commitments," which are reiterated in ministerial mandate letters.
Bruce Moncur, a veterans' advocate from Windsor, Ont., is urging veterans to show up at the courthouse wearing their medals to support those involved in the lawsuit. "It is a stab in the back," Mr. Moncur said. "A lot of vets saw the Liberal platform and voted for it because it was the best one."
The six wounded veterans launched the suit against the government in 2012, with the thought of eventually turning it into a class action. They said they should not be forced to accept less compensation for their injuries than what they would have received through the civil courts or workers' compensation.
Among other things, they wanted a reinstatement of the lifetime pensions for wounded veterans that had been replaced in 2006 by the New Veterans Charter that relies largely on lump-sum payments.
Justice Department lawyers responded by saying there is no extraordinary social covenant owed to veterans, other than what Parliament decides to give them, and filed a motion asking for the case to be dismissed. The court ruled against that motion and the government appealed.
That set off a firestorm, both in the veterans' community and in the Commons where the opposition decried the government's treatment of those who were permanently disabled in the military service of Canada. Justin Trudeau, who was then Liberal leader, asked the government "to live up to our sacred obligation, end this court battle, and start giving our veterans the help they deserve."
The Conservative government agreed to put its appeal on hold in May, 2015, and the two sides tried to find a private resolution.
In the lead-up to the fall election, the Liberals promised to reinstate the lifetime pensions and persuaded the veterans who were part of the suit to appear with them at campaign events.
After the Liberals won, Mr. Trudeau said in Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr's mandate letter that the minister must ensure that the "government lives up to our sacred obligation to veterans," and that he must "re-establish lifelong pensions as an option for our injured veterans." Mr. Sorochan said the veterans agreed to drop the suit if the government would set timelines for acting on the mandate letter.
But that has not happened. The pensions were not included in the March budget and, when the abeyance period in the lawsuit expired May of this year, Mr. Hehr signed off on sending the case back to the B.C. Court of Appeal.
Government lawyers have asked the Court of Appeal to render judgment on the same arguments that they advanced initially – that there was no special social obligation owed to veterans.
Michael Blais, the president of Canadian Veterans Advocacy, said most veterans he knows are furious about the decision. "I don't think I have talked to anyone who is not angry about it," said Mr. Blais, who sits on government advisory groups that are discussing ways to treat veterans more fairly.
Mr. Hehr said in a statement on Monday that his government did not take veterans to court. "This is part of an ongoing lawsuit which began many years before we came into office. I find it deeply regrettable that, under the former government, veterans had to take this step to ensure their well-being," the minister said.
"Canadians gave us a strong mandate to repair the relationship with veterans, especially for those who became ill or were injured in the course of their service," he said. "One focus is to make veterans financially secure through the provision of a life-long pension option and I can assure Canadians that I remain committed to this, and to fulfilling all items in my mandate letter."