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Opinion It’s time to restore the social contract with our war veterans

What, through our federal government, do Canadians owe our veterans? What is our debt to injured soldiers, our obligation to weary warriors ravished by trauma, and our responsibility to the widows and widowers of veterans? These questions are fundamental to individual and collective beliefs of patriotism, security and honour.

These issues are getting attention once again following a class-action suit against the federal government launched by six veterans of the Afghanistan war regarding perceived inadequacies of the New Veterans Charter passed by Parliament in 2005.

Existing public programs and services to veterans authorized by Parliament, including lump-sum payments, are of course lawful activities of public policy. This does not mean, however, that they are adequate. For many veterans, the great risk of lump-sum payments for compensation for disabilities is that the adverse effects of combat may not fully manifest themselves for several years, well after financial compensation has been decided.

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Contrary to claims by Justice Canada lawyers, the federal government and veterans do have a special relationship. It is an extraordinary association rooted deeply in Canadian military history, forged in human sacrifice and nation building, enacted in public policy commitments and expressed through enduring symbols of remembrance. Public policies in particular can be seen as societal recognition of the contributions made by veterans, with particular reference to the costs they incur and the contributions they make to society. The distinctive treatment accorded veterans in federal policy is also apparent by the fact that veterans have had a specific department and minister representing them, in one form or another, since 1918.

Canadians have long regarded disabled veterans as highly deserving of compensation. In fact, the Pensions Act of 1919, which offered disability pensions for soldiers, was the first substantial federal intervention in the field of social policy in Canada. By the 1940s, social security provisions for the armed forces and their dependants were more advanced in scope and benefits than those for civilian Canadians.

The fiduciary obligation of the federal government to veterans is therefore multifaceted; true, the relationship is historical and cultural; it also involves ethical and legal duties.

In this relationship, veterans occupy a position of vulnerability with reference to the federal government. That vulnerability takes many forms: it can be medical, financial or social in character. Regrettably, working relations with federal officials are not always distinguished by trust, good faith and acting in the best interests of veterans.

There are too many stories of bureaucratic stalling, breaches of confidentiality of files, homeless veterans, and struggles by veterans and their families for support. Canadian veterans and their families ought to be able to reasonably expect respectful treatment and adequate standards of care. Even with the creation of the veterans' ombudsman office several years ago, problems persist and the need for reform remains. Sadly, to voice serious concerns about their fights for care and battles for support, a National Day of Protest has become an annual event for Canadian veterans in November.

The government of Stephen Harper must work on restoring a constructive, open, and respectful relationship with Canada's veterans and their families. As first step, Justice Minister Peter MacKay should instruct his departmental lawyers to abstain from any language that denies the existence of a special relationship between government and veterans. To let this line of argument continue will rightly enrage veterans.

Second, the federal government should confirm that there is, has been, and always will be a special contract, a moral and political obligation, with veterans. This fall's Speech from the Throne would be a fitting occasion to underline the relationship between the Crown and the military. A third step, also symbolic but profoundly significant, would be to add a preamble to the New Veterans Charter that affirms the sacred trust or social obligation between parliament and the veterans.

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This fall, an ongoing parliamentary committee review of the New Veterans Charter will take place. As a fourth step, this process should produce concrete measures that improve support services for families; enhance the financial security and standard of living of veterans; and, increase the range and types of vocational rehabilitation and supports for the employment opportunities of veterans.

Continuing to deny and diminish this special relationship with veterans feels like the Harper government is stomping on poppies.

Michael J. Prince is Lansdowne Professor of Social Policy at the University of Victoria, the son of a Second World War veteran, and the co-author with Pamela Moss of a forthcoming book, Weary Warriors: Power, Knowledge, and the Invisible Wounds of Soldiers.

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