COMMENT: Fight for our country but fall through our cracks
Last January, my party introduced an Opposition Day Motion urging the Conservatives to take immediate steps to increase investment in mental health services for Canadian Forces members. The three-part motion called on the federal government to: address the mental health crisis for Canadian soldiers and veterans by hiring appropriate mental health professionals; reserve its decision to close veterans’ office, and; to prioritize and conclude the more-than 50 outstanding boards of inquiry on military suicides so that grieving families may have answers and closure.
Sadly, although our motion received support from all Opposition members, the Conservatives voted against it.
Each year, I attend Remembrance Day ceremonies in my riding. I reflect on the issues of war and those who have served our country. One of the things I talk about is that, regardless of whether we may agree or disagree with a particular military mission, we need to support those who undertake this task on our behalf – especially when they come home.
Since I was elected in 2006, I have carefully observed the debate about Canada’s involvement in conflicts, such as Afghanistan and Libya. It appears that we are often too eager to send our troops into battle, but tend to forget about them when it is over.
We see this today with the closure of Veterans Affairs offices and the lack of support for mental health issues.
The shortcomings of the Veterans’ Charter and the challenges facing impoverished veterans are issues that have fallen through the cracks. However, that’s not the case with the practice of discharging injured soldiers from the military before they reach ten years of service, which is when they would qualify for a pension. That is a cold-hearted calculation and, along with the recent significant cuts in regional services for veterans, it makes the bottom line of the balance sheet more important than compassion and caring.
The increase in these discharges since the Conservatives have taken office is undeniable. The percentage of soldiers who are medically released before becoming eligible for pensions has grown from 10% in 2001 to 16% in 2011. It means that over 200 injured military personnel a year are being discharged in this way.
Part of the problem is the universality-of-service rule, which requires Canadian Forces members to be fit to deploy at all times, at home and abroad. The other part of the problem is a government that refuses to amend the rule to allow injured soldiers to serve in domestic positions or retrain for other duties that better suit their post injury abilities. This type of accommodation is made available in other parts of our civil service, but not for our forces.
It is a cynical way to treat people who volunteer to do a job that has a significant risk of injury and is entirely essential for Canada to honour international commitments and be prepared to defend itself. These soldiers risked their lives, were injured, and are now being abandoned to an uncertain future.
“The actions of this Conservative government are shameful,” said the Official Opposition Veterans critic, Peter Stoffer. “Contrary to what the government says, many injured soldiers are being released when they are not ready and fall short of qualifying for a military pension.”
Without ongoing support, these injured soldiers are being released and left to their own devices. Many are unprepared to manage their own rehabilitation. Canadians need to hear these stories in order to demand that the government amend the rule being used to balance the books at a cost we aren’t prepared to pay.
As our National Defence critic, Jack Harris stated, “Recent figures show that the Conservatives have not only failed on their promises to increase the number of mental health professionals in the Canadian Forces, but since 2012, they have delayed hiring staff and continued cutting their budgets.
In summary, I must say that I cannot understand why a government which is so willing to send men and women to war does not do everything in its power to look after them and their families. This is morally unacceptable.