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Moments after a what is believed to be a rocket attack on Kandahar Air Field in the middle of the night, Canadian soldiers stand outside their tents after scrambling out of their beds after the loud explosions.(Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail)
Benefits battle lines
The Conservatives’ amicable Veterans Affairs minister announced a series of top-ups for disabled veterans earlier this year but it may not be enough to prevent an electoral backlash, reports Gloria Galloway

Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O’Toole spent much of March tweaking the benefits that Canada pays to injured former soldiers, sailors and airmen, trying to patch the deep rift between the Conservative government and the country’s vets.

His task had some urgency. With the discontent of veterans escalating, Prime Minister Stephen Harper faced a fall election campaign in which ex-military personnel would complain about mistreatment by a government that came to power in 2006 promising them both honour and respect.

But the efforts of the personable Mr. O’Toole, who landed in the Veterans portfolio after his predecessor was demoted, may not satisfy angry veterans. Some critics say the reforms do not go nearly far enough and promise to ensure that a party offering better compensation for their service and sacrifice replaces Mr. Harper’s Tories.

Mr. O’Toole made five key improvements for disabled vets. He expanded retirement income security, increased payouts to injured part-time reservists, made it easier for family caregivers to take a break, expanded the eligibility for allowances for the permanently impaired, and created a special benefit for those who are critically injured.

The minister says the new benefits and supports were the direct result of consultations with former members of the Armed Forces and “our work is a long-term project built on progress and adapting to the needs of veterans and their families.”

Brightcove player
On his second tour of Afghanistan, Michael Blois battled constantly with the Taliban. Some of his buddies lost limbs. Some lost their lives. Mr. Blois suffered repeated high-pressure blast-waves from rocket-propelled grenades that caused a traumatic brain injury, forcing him to leave the military and the only job he ever wanted. But his departure has not been easy. As a civilian, he says, he has had to fend for himself, paying his way through law school and making do with less compensation than he would have received had his injuries been sustained in a car crash. Mr. Blois tells his story in video.

But some of those who believe disabled veterans get a raw deal dismiss the changes as insubstantial. Altogether, they will cost the the federal treasury about $10-million this year, a relatively small amount compared to government promises for military expenditures such as upgrades to armouries.

“There have been many announcements and very little follow-through,” said Michael Blois, the former president of the Afghanistan Veterans of Canada. “I and many other Afghanistan veterans feel that the government has made announcements for the benefit of press coverage but has failed to actually live up to their promises. At this moment, I struggle to see how Afghanistan veterans will be able to support a Conservative government in the coming election.”

Michael Blois, a former soldier and former president of the Afghanistan Veterans of Canada, was injured near Kandahar in 2007, suffering a traumatic brain injury. (Timothy Moore/The Globe and Mail)

The New Veterans Charter, which was introduced by the Liberals and endorsed by all parties in the House of Commons, became law shortly after the Conservatives were elected in 2006. It replaced a system of lifetime pensions for disabled vets with one that relies heavily on lump-sum payments. That prompted some veterans to say the government treats the soldiers of long ago more favourably than those who are retiring today.

It is impossible to say how widespread any electoral backlash might be. Many soldiers, whom the Conservatives have regarded as one of their natural constituencies, leave active duty without ever needing the services of Veterans Affairs. But those who are speaking out claim to represent large numbers.

“No, we are not satisfied and, no, you haven’t done enough, and, no, it’s not going to change the way that many, many, many veterans vote on election day,” said Michael Blais, the head of Canadian Veterans Advocacy.

His group is working with trade unions to organize a rally on Parliament Hill two weeks before election day to encourage veterans and their families to cast ballots. Mr. Blais said he will not ask them to support any particular party. “But we will encourage them to vote.”

A more direct assault against Mr. Harper has been launched by a group that calls itself the ABC Campaign – Anything But Conservative – which was inspired by the government’s closing of nine Veterans Affairs offices across Canada.

ABC was created by Ron Clarke, a 74-year-old former army sergeant from Cape Breton, N.S., who will try to persuade veterans and other Canadians to vote strategically to prevent a Tory win. “We’re going after the government and we’re not going to stop until the election and hopefully, by that time, Mr. Harper will see the error in his ways,” Mr. Clarke said.

Some vets are taking a more wait-and-see approach.

A group of disabled Afghanistan veterans has agreed to put a lawsuit launched in 2012 on hold until after the election to give the plaintiffs a chance to assess what the political parties are offering. As a result, some of the vets have been invited to meet with Mr. O’Toole and serve as his advisers.

Canadian soldiers walking toward rugged terrain in Kandahar, Afghanistan. (Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail)

Don Sorochan, the lawyer who agreed to take the case pro bono, said some of Mr. O’Toole’s changes have been on target, even if they did not go as far as many veterans would like. “And, in my view,” he said, “we should let the political parties tell the people of Canada what they will do and that is one of the factors they should use in deciding who the next government should be.”

Scott Maxwell, the executive director of Wounded Warriors Canada, complimented the work of Mr. O’Toole.

Mr. Maxwell said the only reason veterans should be angry at the government is the amount of “valuable time” it took to replace the previous Veterans Affairs minister, Julian Fantino, with someone who is more active on the file. “You’ve got a guy there now in Erin who is working very hard and fast to repair some of that lost time and actually starting to target some of the critical areas of need,” Mr. Maxwell said.

But Sean Bruyea, a retired intelligence officer who is now a veterans’ advocate, dismisses Mr. O’Toole’s announcements as inadequate, miserly, and “pure facades.”

“I think in the longer term, [the Conservatives] have only made it worse for themselves because they have poisoned the well of trust, and veterans’ groups will realize that what they have unanimously asked for hasn’t even come close to being delivered,” Mr. Bruyea said.

The five major improvements offered to disabled veterans amounts to about $10 million annually and were developed, according to Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O’Toole in consultation with former Armed Forces personnel

Retirement Income Security Benefit

What it does: Ensures that the retirement income of veterans who suffered career-ending injuries during their military service does not drop below 70 per cent of what they were earning before age 65.

Projected cost: $2-million a year

Estimate of how many will benefit: 500

Rationale: The earnings-loss benefit ensures that veterans who are totally and permanently incapacitated receive at least 75 per cent of their pre-release salary, or a minimum of $42,426 annually, until they turn 65. But some vets have been plunged into poverty when the benefit ends after they reach the retirement age. The new benefit ensures they will receive an amount equal to or greater than 70 per cent of all of the benefits they collected from Veterans Affairs before that age.

What critics say: The government is guaranteeing to pay permanently incapacitated veterans 70 per cent of 75 per cent of the pre-release salary – or 52 per cent of what they were making as soldiers – upon reaching retirement age. Critics question why the salaries of military personnel who can no longer work because of a critical injury should decrease at all, and say many veterans will still be poor.

Exhausted after a 23 hour ride Canadian soldiers of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry C Company at FOB Robinson (Forward Operating Base) of the Afghan National Army and their US Army Mentors and now supported by an element of the Canadian Battle Group in Helmand Province, Afghanistan during operation"Katera" which in Pashto means dagger. (Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail)

Parity for Part-Time Reservists

What it does: Increases to $42,426 the minimum annual earnings-loss benefit for part-time reservists who are severely injured during military activities in Canada and must undergo a Veterans Affairs rehabilitation program or can no longer work.

Projected cost: $24-million over five years

How many will benefit: About 290 by 2020

Rationale: Part-time reservists who were so badly injured during training in Canada that they had to quit their military jobs were eligible to receive $24,300 annually while taking part in a Veterans Affairs rehab program, or after participating in such a program if they were permanently unable to work. That was significantly less than the $42,426 offered to regular members of the Forces. This eliminates the inequity.

What critics say: Even critics applaud the measure, although they question why it was not done sooner, because the inequity has been known for many years.

Family Caregiver Relief Benefit

What it does: Provides family members who are informal caregivers of disabled veterans with tax-free grants of $7,238 annually to pay for someone to take over periodically while they have a break.

Projected cost per year: $1.3-million in 2015-16, increasing to $2.9-million by 2019-20

How many will benefit: 350 spouses or caregivers of the most seriously ill and injured veterans by 2020

Rationale: Family members of disabled veterans who care for their loved ones at home sometimes need to recharge. This will help them to do that, either by hiring a professional or paying a friend or other family member.

What critics say: Many spouses, children or parents have had to quit their jobs to care for severely wounded veterans. Some said they should be compensated for the loss of income, and this amount is too small to replace a missing salary. Others said they need training to help them learn how to deal with complex injuries like post-traumatic stress disorder, and this does not do that.

A Canadian soldier of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) 1st Battalion, A Company mans the gate at the Gombad safe house in the district of Sha Wali Kot in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, as two local Afghans walk by the main road in Gombad carrying shovels. (Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail)

Expansion of Permanent Impairment Allowance Eligibility

What it does: Makes more people eligible for the monthly allowance that is paid until death to permanently and severely injured veterans who have mobility issues or need help with daily activities.

How many will benefit: About 300 by 2020

Projected cost per year: About $2.2-million in 2015-2016, increasing to $6.2-million by 2019-2020

Rationale: The criteria were too narrow for receiving the permanent impairment allowance, which pays $600 to $2,800 a month and is awarded according to the extent of a veteran’s incapacitation. The Veterans Ombudsman found last year that 48 per cent of totally and permanently incapacitated veterans did not receive the allowance, and even some of the most severely injured were getting the lowest amount.

What critics say: The government predicts that 300 more veterans will be eligible for the permanent impairment allowance by 2020. But that is far fewer than the 823 the Veterans Ombudsman said are not receiving it or a supplement even though they “suffer from a health condition that prevents them from returning to any occupation that is considered to be suitable and gainful employment.”

Critical Injury Benefit for Armed Forces and Veterans

What it does: Provides a tax-free benefit to members of the Canadian Forces and veterans who experience an injury or disease related to their military service that is so severe it immediately interferes with their quality of life.

Projected cost per year: $200,000

How many will benefit: About 100 current veterans and Canadian Forces members and two or three additional members a year in the future.

Rationale: Some members of the military who suffer severe and sudden injuries in the line of duty endure an immediate decrease in their quality of life. But, if they recover and can return to active service or find work outside the military, they may never be compensated for their pain and suffering.

What critics say: While key demands from veterans and their advocates have gone unaddressed, this seemed to come out of nowhere. It will not benefit many people, and appears to exclude those with mental injuries, although Veterans Affairs says that is not the case.

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