CANADA’S SOCIAL CONTRACT WITH ITS AFGHANISTAN WAR VETERANS
To ensure observance of the social contract between the people of Canada and their veterans.
- Canada’s Afghanistan war veterans do not believe they are getting the care they deserve and are demonstrating in cities and towns across the country. They have also launched a law suit against the government. Their concerns appear to be well founded.
- The New Veterans Charter which came into force in 2006 was met with high expectations, but it has already had to be amended and committees of the House of Commons and the Senate have since recommended further changes.
- Canadians revere their veterans and want them to have the best care the country has to offer. Deeply rooted in Canadian values is the recognition of a social contract between citizens and the soldiers they send into harm’s way to protect them.
- It is time to put the social contract into statutory form and give it the force of law. Nothing else will ensure the welfare of veterans and their families when governments fail to meet their obligations and the nation forgets. It is what the British have done.
On November 11, Canadians in communities across the land remember those who fought in Canada’s wars. Every year since 1936, the Royal Canadian Legion has chosen a National Silver Cross Mother to lay a wreath at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on behalf of all the mothers who have lost children in the military service of their nation.
Until recently, Canadians’ image of their veterans was that of a senior citizen, one of the 163,000 survivors (in 2010) of the Second World War with an average age of 86 or the 12,500 survivors of the Korean War with an average age of 78. But the total number of veterans today is in the range of 600,000, and includes those who fought in peacekeeping operations, the Balkans, and Afghanistan. These veterans are much younger, many in early or mid-life with families to support. When citizens gathered spontaneously along the Highway of Heroes to honour the 158 fallen soldiers returning from Afghanistan, two-thirds had been in their 20s, another 43 in their 30s. Only 13 were 40 years or older, only one over 50.
More than 2000 Canadian soldiers served in UN missions in the Balkans, 1500 in NATO missions there. Some 20 lost their lives and scores of others were injured (the numbers have not been well tabulated, in part because the government of the day wanted no publicity attached to Canadian casualties). Many witnessed atrocities that left deep emotional scars.
In Afghanistan, the number who served was close to 40,000. It is common knowledge that 158 Canadian soldiers were killed in Afghanistan, as well as a senior diplomat, three aid workers, and a journalist. Little appreciated is that several thousand soldiers were disabled in the decade-long war. The Department of National Defence says it was 2,047; but the Department of Veterans Affairs reported 6,732 Afghanistan veterans were receiving disability benefits as of October 1, 2011. According to a Library of Parliament study, that number will rise greatly as 25,000 to 30,000 service personnel are released from the military over the next few years. One DND study estimates that 13.2 per cent of Afghanistan veterans could be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
An analysis of what killed Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan offers some insight into what the survivors and their families are up against. A study co-authored by Col. Homer Tien, an army trauma surgeon who is also head of the trauma unit at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, reports that the leading causes of death were unstoppable hemorrhaging from wounds to the torso, gross mutilation and burns, and catastrophic brain injuries and severed spinal cords caused by being thrown about violently inside an armoured vehicle struck by a rocket-propelled grenade or IED (improvised explosive device). Many of those who survived the incidents which killed their buddies were left physically and mentally damaged for life.
Several who came home have committed suicide. The records on suicides are not complete, but what is known indicates the order of magnitude of the problem: 12 suicides reported in 2010, 21 in 2011, 10 in 2012, 13 in 2013, and five so far in 2014. It has been pointed out that these numbers are roughly comparable to the suicide rate in the general population. But considering that Canadian soldiers, men and women, are recruited for their mental toughness, the numbers are staggering – more than 60 suicides in less than five years.
Veterans in the streets
In 2010, veterans began to hold demonstrations across the country to protest their treatment at the hands of government — including on Remembrance Day. Veterans do not believe they are getting the care they once did, the care civilians with comparable injuries are getting, or the best care Canada can provide. The veterans have independent studies and two parliamentary inquiries to support their case. Their first Veterans Ombudsman agrees with them (the government did not renew his appointment), as does the commander of the Royal Canadian Legion.
The government, for its part, has been vindictive, unresponsive and inept. Critics of the government’s handling of veterans’ issues have had their personal files scrutinized at Veterans Affairs for information that might be used to silence them including Veterans Ombudsman Col. Pat Stogran (who commanded the first Canadian combat troops in Afghanistan after 9/11). Last fall, government lawyers dismissed a class-action lawsuit by a group of disabled (disabled!) Afghanistan war veterans as “frivolous or vexatious”. Ottawa has since announced that it would be closing eight of 32 district offices serving veterans’ needs. In January 2014, the Minister of Veterans Affairs missed a scheduled appointment with veterans to discuss the office closings, then had an angry public confrontation with them. When he later issued an apology, the veterans refused to accept it and demanded his resignation.
These are extraordinary developments for Canada.
The new compensation regime
The focus of veterans’ concern is a new regime of care which took effect in 2006.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is responsible for administering 16 pieces of legislation related to “the care, treatment or re-establishment in civil life” of those who have served in the Canadian Forces, and the care of their dependants or survivors. In 2005, the government introduced the New Veterans Charter (Bill C-45 which came into force on 1 April 2006) outlining the compensation system to apply to veterans and their families in the event of injury, disability or death. The Charter replaced the provisions of the Pension Act which had earlier governed the regime of care for veterans. Two separate sets of regulations detailed the types of service, amounts of allowances, and eligibility requirements.
A principal feature of the Charter was that it provided for one-time lump-sum disability awards, whereas the Pension Act had offered monthly tax-free pensions for life and survivor benefits. A study by Queen’s University researchers in 2010 calculated that, under the new arrangements, a wounded veteran could receive only two-thirds or less of what an individual would have been entitled to under the Pension Act. Moreover, the financial disadvantages would grow if a veteran were of a lower rank, had been more severely injured, had a larger family, or lived longer.
In their 2013 law suit, the Afghanistan veterans claim that the disability payments being granted soldiers are not only smaller than they would have been under the Pension Act, but also “paltry” compared to the damages which Superior Courts and provincial workers’ compensation boards have awarded for analogous personal injuries to civilians.
The Charter was amended in 2011, but in 2014 all-party committees of the House and Senate issued separate reports recommending further changes (14 by the House, nine by the Senate).
In 2007, a year after the New Veterans Charter entered into force, the Prime Minister announced a Veterans Bill of Rights to take effect immediately. The Bill of Rights was intended to be “a clear, concise, and straightforward statement that will allow the dedicated people at Veterans Affairs to ensure that every Canadian veteran is treated with the fairness, dignity, and respect to which he or she is entitled.” It was noted at the time that the bill was actually directed at Veterans Affairs employees not veterans, and that it stipulated no specific “veterans” rights, nor any “rights” not already enjoyed by any other citizen in dealing with the government.
The PM also announced the creation of the post of Veterans Ombudsman. The ombudsman would operate at arm’s length from government, would raise awareness of the needs and concerns of veterans, and would prepare an annual report to Parliament “for all Canadians to see”. But the report would go through the minister before being tabled in Parliament.
The social contract
Canadians have long revered their veterans. Apart from parades and monuments, however, support for veterans was largely confined to charitable handouts and small pensions until the Second World War. In 1944, the Mackenzie King government established the Department of Veterans Affairs to oversee an omnibus package of benefits known as the Veterans Charter to help rehabilitate and compensate those who had served. According to J.L. Granatstein and Dean Oliver in their Oxford Companion to Canadian Military History, the package had its weaknesses and inconsistencies, but “it was farsighted too and, internationally, second to none”.
For most Canadians today — as well as Americans, British, Australians, New Zealanders and others – a belief that war veterans and their families deserve the best care the country can offer is now deeply rooted in the national value system.
Why this should be so is not widely understood. The profession of arms is unique in requiring its members to carry out tasks with a high probability, sometimes near certainty, of injuring or killing them. Neither police nor firefighters – who also volunteer for hazardous duty — can be ordered to put themselves in such danger. When their commanders do so, they are typically cashiered for dereliction of duty or prosecuted for reckless disregard of the health and safety of those in their charge.
If only soldiers can be ordered to put their lives on the line for their country, it stands to reason that citizens have a special obligation to provide those soldiers with the best possible equipment, training and support – and the best possible care for those who are injured and their families. Without caveats or limitations. The quid pro quo for the unlimited liability of the soldier is the unlimited responsibility of the government to look after the soldier.
This “social contract” between citizens and the soldiers they send into harm’s way to protect them has been public policy in Canada for generations. But it has never been put into statutory form and given the force of law. As a result, governments have been free to curtail or dispense with their obligations to veterans – particularly the financial ones – whenever it suits them. The current government has gone further. In B.C. Superior Court, when veterans asserted that Canadians owed their veterans special treatment, government lawyers countered there was no such thing as a “social covenant”.
So the situation today is about as bad as one could imagine. For the first time in Canadian history, a government in Ottawa has declared that it doesn’t believe there is a social contract to be honoured. In other words, veterans are not owed anything special. Parliament has been generally ineffective in keeping government accountable (only 12 MPs today have ever worn the uniform). The media is poorly informed and too indolent to inquire. The population is generally oblivious. And Canada’s veterans have had to resort to legal action – leaving it to a court of law to decide just how civilized Canada really is.
Both the House and Senate committees found the absence of a reference to the social contract in the New Veterans Charter to be responsible for the current war between veterans and the government. The House report noted that the Charter “for unknown reasons” didn’t even repeat language found in the Pension Act that “The provisions of this Act shall be liberally construed and interpreted to the end that the recognized obligation of the people and Government of Canada to provide compensation to those members of the forces who have been disabled or have died as a result of military service, and to their dependants, may be fulfilled.” Veterans have a pretty good idea what these “unknown reasons” are. The Senate report called for the government to “table a document that articulates and promotes the social contract between the people of Canada and their veterans”.
The UK Armed Forces Covenant
In 2011, the British Parliament approved a new Armed Forces Act (2011) which enshrines in law “an enduring covenant” between the people, the government and those who serve or have served in the military and their families.
The Armed Forces Covenant explains that the first duty of government is the defence of the realm and that governments rely on the armed forces to fulfill that responsibility. Since this requires soldiers “sacrificing some civilian freedoms, facing danger and sometimes suffering serious injury or death”, the nation has “a moral obligation” to its military personnel to ensure they face “no disadvantage compared to other citizens” and are accorded “special consideration” as appropriate … “especially for those who have given most such as the injured and the bereaved”.
The Covenant sets out a framework for how members of the British Armed Forces community (serving and retired) can expect to be treated. It acknowledges that “The demands of service and other constraints may prevent expectations and aspirations being met in some circumstances”, but the intent of the Covenant is “to influence policy, service delivery and standards” – whether these are the responsibility of the Central Government or of local service providers. The Covenant then outlines the several areas and ways in which citizens should strive to serve soldiers and soldiers should expect to be treated. The list is long and detailed, and the government is obliged to report annually to Parliament on how well aspirations are being met.
SCOPE OF THE UK ARMED FORCES COVENANT 2011
There are at least three conceivable options for bringing an end to the war between Canada’s veterans and the government in Ottawa.
A. Leave things alone
One option would be for government to leave the current arrangements in place, not respond substantively to veterans’ concerns about compensation or access to services, and hope passions will eventually cool. As a gesture of reconciliation, the Prime Minister could replace the current Minister of Veterans Affairs, ideally with an individual who would have credibility with the veterans’ community.
The pros are difficult to envisage for any party to the dispute. Government might get some relief from the barrage of criticism it has been enduring, but that is unlikely. There is little sign veterans are prepared to cede. Moreover, a B.C. Superior Court ruling against the government could be politically very damaging. The cons are self-evident: for the government continued political strife in the lead-up to the federal elections in 2015, for the veterans no satisfaction for their grievances.
B. Take action on specific complaints
Another option would be for government to agree to take action on some of the veterans’ complaints, in particular to re-consider its position on awards for disabilities and to keep open the Veterans Affairs district offices. The government might also indicate a willingness to look seriously at some of the recommendations of the House and Senate committees. It could also amend the Charter to reintroduce the clause (from the Pension Act) that the provisions of the Charter would be “liberally construed and interpreted” in favour of veterans and their families.
The pros could be considerable. For government, it would help to defuse a volatile situation and placate an important constituency. For veterans, it would mean victory on two important fronts. The cons would be that the peace could be short-term, providing no guarantee that veterans would be suitably cared for whenever a future government chose not to make them a priority.
C. Put the Social Contract into law
A third option would be for the government to take up the recommendation of the Senate committee to “table a document that articulates and promotes the social contract between the people of Canada and their veterans”, put it into statutory form as Britain has done, and make it the law of the land.
The pros would be peace between veterans and their government, and the justice for veterans which Canadians expect. The cons would be that such a project would take time to complete, providing no immediate relief for veterans’ concerns.
The government should table a document in Parliament that articulates and promotes the social contract between the people of Canada and their veterans, put it into statutory form, and make it the law of Canada.