Broken faith with nation’s vets?
Ex-soldiers battle for benefits, support
OTTAWA — 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 about 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.