Editorial: They sacrificed, now their country is failing to help them

Two years ago, the number of Canadian veterans applying for disability benefits stood at roughly 30,000. Some had been waiting two years for an answer. Last year, that number had climbed to 40,000, and this year it stood at 44,000. As before, some applicants have been waiting two years and longer to find out if they qualify.

The federal Veteran’s Affairs department which handles the program has a policy that 80 per cent of all applications are to be processed within 16 weeks.

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Clearly that target is not being met.

Members of the armed forces, certain merchant navy sailors, and RCMP officers, qualify for disability benefits. How many actually receive them is another matter.

In April, Robert Nordlund, an RCMP officer for 36 years, died of cancer. He had been waiting two years to learn if he qualified for benefits. But Veteran’s Affairs dismisses requests if the applicant has meanwhile died and there is no surviving spouse or dependent children.

This disgraceful state of affairs began in 2006, when the federal government replaced lifelong pensions with a lump sum payment.

During the 2015 election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to reinstate the pension. But instead his government bundled all of the existing benefits into an entitlement that veteran’s groups say is worth roughly half what the previous pension would have offered.

There are several additional factors in play. Trudeau’s administration has introduced a computerized program for disability payments that has some of the same bugs as his government’s Phoenix payroll system — a system that has consistently missed payments to federal employees.

Paperwork is also a nightmare. Master Cpl. Paul Franklin served with the Canadian military as a medic for 11 years. Two weeks before he retired, he lost both his legs to a suicide bomber in Afghanistan. Every year since he has been required to prove he has no legs.

Then in 2018 the veteran’s ombudsman’s office discovered that more than 270,000 retired soldiers had been shortchanged by Veteran’s Affairs. The amounts involved, totalling some $165 million, were huge.

The department has admitted the “accounting” error, and promised restitution this year. But in the meantime about 175,000 of these veterans have died. How the compensation will be paid in such cases is unclear at best.

But by far the most immediate problem is the lengthy wait veterans must endure to learn if their application will be approved. Some 70 members of the armed forces have committed suicide since their service in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some could have been saved if the government had lived up to its promises of faster and improved service.

And here an ugly thought enters the scene. If veterans without direct dependents die two years before an application is processed, the government will make no payment to the estate.

To be fair, this policy is set in legislation (though given the department’s well-established reputation for tardiness, one might wonder why). Nevertheless, there is no financial incentive to move at better than a snail’s pace.

We’re not suggesting deliberate foot-dragging. We are suggesting that if the department cannot live up to its wait times policy, the two-year deadline should be extended.

The bottom line is clear. We ask young men and women to step forward and serve their country, with the promise that when the time comes, they will receive a fair pension, and get it in a timely manner. As things stand, those promises are not being honoured. Not even close.

When Nov. 11 comes around, it’s not enough to wear a poppy, put some money in a collection pail, and lay a wreath at the Cenotaph. What we owe our veterans is a demand that the federal government — of whatever party — set matters right. Now.

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