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NDP’s motion helps veterans’ suit against Ottawa, lawyer says

Donald Sorochan, partner at Miller Thompson LLP, and lead prosecutor, speaks during a meeting to discus a lawsuit brought on by six injured veterans, including Campbell, and how the Canadian government is failing veterans, at the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 617 in Toronto on Thursday, June 5, 2014.

Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

An opposition motion endorsed by the Conservatives that recognizes Canada's obligations to retired members of the military provides additional ammunition to a suit brought against the government by disabled veterans, their lawyer says.

The motion introduced by New Democrat MP Fin Donnelly says there is a "covenant of moral, social, legal, and fiduciary obligation" between Canadians and past and present members of the Canadian Forces who have been injured or killed during their military service. It goes on to say that the government is obligated to provide "equitable financial compensation and support services" to current and former members of the military and their dependants.

Although the Conservatives supported Mr. Donnelly's motion in a vote on Tuesday night, the government has taken a different position in defending the lawsuit brought by a group of disabled modern-day veterans who say the New Veterans Charter leaves them poorly compensated compared with those who fought in the two world wars and Korea.

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Federal lawyers have argued that the suit before B.C.'s Supreme Court should be dropped because, among other things, the government has no special legal obligation to soldiers. When the court rejected that argument, the government appealed.

The case is on hold, at least until the end of month, while the veterans and the government try to reach a settlement out of court. The abeyance period could be extended if the talks are moving forward.

But, if the case resumes and government presses ahead with its appeal, Don Sorochan, the lawyer for the veterans who are at the centre of the lawsuit, said a unanimous vote of the House to Commons that says the government does have an obligation to veterans would bolster his arguments.

"I would probably apply to re-argue the appeal on the basis of the change of government position," Mr. Sorochan said.

He said he would also point to a "purpose clause" contained in recent legislation called Bill C-58 that was introduced by Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O'Toole to improve the payouts to disabled new veterans. It says the government has an obligation to show due appreciation for military service to Canada by providing services, assistance and compensation to members of the Forces and veterans who have been injured or families of those who have died in the line of duty.

"That, plus the unanimous vote in the House of Commons of NDP MP Fin Donnelly's motion are welcomed as encouraging," said Mr. Sorochan, who has waived his fees to help the veterans. He said he believes the lawyers who are arguing against the case brought by his clients may be out of step with the current position of the Conservative government.

Mr. O'Toole told a Commons committee this week he thinks the purpose clause in the bill goes further than the NDP motion to acknowledge the obligation that Canada has to its veterans.

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When Mr. Donnelly asked Mr. O'Toole at that committee whether he would instruct the government lawyers to negotiate a settlement, the minister did not offer a direct response. He instead pointed to the improvements to the veterans' compensation package that are included in his legislation.

"I sincerely hope that they see Bill C-58 as progress," replied Mr. O'Toole, "that they see our purpose statement, and our fulfilment of the obligation that they've talked about as to be a very positive step."

But Mr. Sorochan said the measures taken by the government to improve compensation for modern-day veterans are not sufficient to end the court action. They "are good steps towards resolving difficulties," he said, "but they don't go far enough to justify dropping the lawsuit."

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