Bro­ken faith with na­tion’s vets?

Ex-sol­diers bat­tle for ben­e­fits, sup­port


When the ar­mistice that ended the First World War was signed and the guns fell silent on Nov. 11, 1918, Cana­di­ans wearily cel­e­brated what they hoped was the start of a new era of peace.

For thou­sands of Cana­dian vet­er­ans, how­ever, — par­tic­u­larly those wounded by bul­lets, shells or gas at­tacks — a far dif­fer­ent bat­tle loomed: the fight with Ot­tawa for sup­port and ben­e­fits. It’s a bat­tle that per­sists to this day.

Much has been made of Canada’s dis­pro­por­tion­ate con­tri­bu­tion to the Al­lied war ef­fort; more than 600,000 Cana­di­ans served in uni­form, which rep­re­sented around 7% of the young coun­try’s 8 mil­lion peo­ple.

But there was a heavy fi­nan­cial cost that came with field­ing such a large force — a cost that Ot­tawa ini­tially be­lieved would be cov­ered by London, but which would later be borne by Cana­di­ans and re­sult in a $2-bil­lion deficit by the end of the war.

While the gov­ern­ment did cre­ate vet­er­ans’ hos­pi­tals and dis­abil­ity pen­sions and pro­vided some land to those who served, the ser­vices were dif­fi­cult for many to ac­cess and ex­tremely lim­ited in ac­tual ben­e­fits.

Mak­ing mat­ters worse was the fact many vet­er­ans had a hard time find­ing jobs.

“There was a great fear in Canada that we might get into the ter­ri­ble mess that they got into in the U.S. af­ter the Civil War with vet­er­ans’ pen­sions, which were an enor­mous eco­nomic cost on the fed­eral pub­lic,” says author and his­to­rian John English. “So we al­ways had that in mind and we were con­ser­va­tive. But there was a sense of great dis­ap­point­ment.”

The en­su­ing years would see the emer­gence of in­flu­en­tial vet­er­ans’ or­ga­ni­za­tions de­mand­ing Ot­tawa in­crease its sup­port — and their sheer num­bers en­sured the gov­ern­ment had no choice but to listen.

Hear­ings were held in Par­lia­ment, fed­eral com­mis­sions were or­ga­nized and the gov­ern­ment opened its wal­let, to the point where vet­er­ans’ pen­sions con­sumed more than 20% of fed­eral rev­enues start­ing in 1920.

One ques­tion went, and re­mains, unan­swered: What does the gov­ern­ment ac­tu­ally owe Canada’s vet­er­ans?

Many vets have pointed to a speech de­liv­ered to the troops by then-prime min­is­ter Robert Bor­den on the eve of the bat­tle for Vimy Ridge as the ge­n­e­sis of a “so­cial con­tract” or “so­cial covenant” be­tween the gov­ern­ment and those in uni­form.

“You need have no fear that the gov­ern­ment and the coun­try will fail to show just ap­pre­ci­a­tion of your ser­vice to the coun­try in what you are about to do and what you have al­ready done,” Bor­den said.

The re­al­ity, says Wil­frid Laurier Univer­sity his­to­rian Mark Humphries, is that there is no real an­swer to the moral ques­tion be­cause so­ci­ety — and vet­er­ans’ needs — are con­stantly chang­ing.

“The vet­er­ans don’t sim­ply end,” Humphries says. “They con­tinue to age and they con­tinue to then ex­pe­ri­ence be­ing a vet­eran dif­fer­ently de­pend­ing on how far they are from that con­flict.”


Wounded Cana­dian sol­diers make their way to an aid post dur­ing the Bat­tle of Pass­chen­daele in Novem­ber 1917.

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