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The Burden: The toll of veterans' injuries on families and caregivers

OTTAWA — Christine Shepherd has been explaining her ongoing fight with Veterans Affairs Canada for about 20 minutes when her voice breaks and the tears start to flow.

OTTAWA — Christine Shepherd has been explaining her ongoing fight with Veterans Affairs Canada for about 20 minutes when her voice breaks and the tears start to flow. She has just said she feels the department only sees forms, not the people behind them.

Her husband Jeff, a former military police officer with degenerative neck and back conditions that the couple is trying to prove are from his time in uniform, sits on the couch beside his wife. A few minutes earlier, he had described her as his “angel.”

“No, it's true,” he said. “Because I can't, I can't remember half this stuff. And I don't know about the guys … and ladies out there who don't have somebody and have problems with their memory and stuff like that. Or even being able to fill out forms.”

The Shepherds are an example of the countless families across Canada forced to care for a loved one struggling with a long-term injury or illness from their time in the Canadian Armed Forces.

For Christine, that has meant taking more responsibility for the day-to-day running of their household about 45 minutes east of Ottawa while collecting the necessary medical reports and filling out the requisite forms to apply — and reapply — for benefits with Veterans Affairs.

Yet while the federal government has a number of different programs available to financially support such households and help families that may be struggling because of a veteran’s injury, advocates and others say those supports fall short of what is needed.

A House of Commons committee released a report earlier this year that underscored the central role families play in supporting service members during their time in the military and beyond, especially when they are forced to hang up their uniform due to injury.

“If CAF members experience mental health issues after becoming veterans, their loved ones, usually their spouses, must take on the role of caregiver in addition to their existing family roles,” the report read.

Yet the committee found that while Veterans Affairs does provide some assistance, “VAC’s mandate is quite restrictive as regards its capacity to support family members and other caregivers who tend to the needs of veterans.”

Questions and concerns about the support provided to caregivers aren’t new.

In May 2014, Jenny Migneault chased then-veterans affairs minister Julian Fantino through the halls of Parliament in a riveting scene captured on camera in which she complained that the government was forgetting about caregivers like her.

Migneault at that time was the wife of a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and had arrived in Ottawa hoping to make the case for more training and other support so the families of former service members could better care for their loved ones.

Reflecting on that time seven years later, Migneault says she realized two months before that incident that she was a caregiver for her then-husband, who was grappling with severe stress following an extended tour in Haiti.

“I wasn't free,” she says from her home in Trois-Rivieres, Que. “I wasn't free to work, I wasn't free to live a normal life. Because I had to quit school and go back home. This is when it hit me that I was a caregiver. And this is where it all made sense.”

At that time, many injured veterans were complaining about unfair treatment they received compared to previous generations. The root of those complaints stemmed from a 2006 overhaul of the system of benefits and supports veterans had been getting since the First World War.

Among the changes was the elimination of any additional financial compensation and support for veterans who were married and had children, something that remains a source of frustration for advocates. 

The change also removed a monthly allowance given to eligible veterans to cover the costs of someone having to care for them, whether that was the hiring of a professional or a family member having to work less.

Stephen Harper’s Conservative government eventually introduced an annual $7,200 grant for caregivers in 2015, but critics said it fell far short of the maximum $23,300 under the old system and was not enough to help family members forced to quit jobs to care for veterans.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government created a new grant in 2018, but it still provides half the pre-2006 amount. Critics have also complained the eligibility criteria is too restrictive, with some saying it focuses too much on veterans’ physical limitations. 

“So PTSD is still not the reality from a bureaucratic perspective when it comes to caregivers,” says Migneault, who is now divorced from her former husband but continues to work with caregivers and advocate for better support.

“I don't put the spoon in his mouth. But if I don't prepare the meal, if I'm not the one going to Costco to get the food, it's not going to happen.”

In its report, the Commons committee essentially called for the government to reinstate the pre-2006 grant and expand access to better reflect the specific challenges faced by the families and caregivers of veterans with mental-health conditions and brain injuries.

Veterans Affairs spokesman Marc Lescoutre said in an email that while the department appreciates the committee's recommendations, "Parliament was dissolved for the election, therefore there was no official government response to table for this (committee) report."

The committee also called on the government to better ensure family members affected by a veteran's military service can access other supports, including mental-health treatment, which was significantly curtailed two years ago.

That move followed outrage over Veterans Affairs having paid for Christopher Garnier’s PTSD treatment while in prison because he was the son of a veteran, even though Garnier had been convicted of killing Halifax off-duty police officer Catherine Campbell in 2015.

Veterans ombudsman Nishika Jardine issued a similar call for better access to mental-health services for families earlier this year after several complained that the department had cut them off from counselling and other assistance without notice.

Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay responded to Jardine's concerns earlier this year by suggesting the department did not have the authority to pay for treatment benefits for a veteran’s family member.

And while MacAulay left the door open to expanding the department’s authority, he emphasized that Veterans Affairs would look at alternative resources and be as flexible as possible where it could while considering what new measures might be needed.

Michelle McKeaveney has personally felt the strain on her own mental well-being while caring for her husband Chris in the years after he returned from Croatia with PTSD in 1993 following what to that point was Canada’s bloodiest battle since Korea.

“We've got nothing to support them but our own energy,” she says from her home in Prince Albert, Sask., where she leads several peer support programs for veterans, first responders and their families. “Well, what happens when we're exhausted? Where's our respite?”

Back at the Shepherd home, Jeff again emphasizes the importance of Christine’s support in his post-military struggles, including his fight for the government benefits and services that they say are needed and have been promised.

“Look at the stress it's putting on her,” he says. “She's in tears. Is that normal to expect a spouse who's looking after someone to go through that? To have the time, to have the expertise, to have the sheer energy to do it?”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 8, 2021.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press