Cana­dian vet­er­ans bat­tled for ben­e­fits

A heavy fi­nan­cial cost came with field­ing such a large force in 1918


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.

How­ever, for thou­sands of Cana­dian vet­er­ans — 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 about 7 per cent of the young coun­try’s eight 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 that 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 En- glish. “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 per cent of fed­eral rev­enues start­ing in 1920.

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

Many vet­er­ans 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. “No man, whether he goes back or whether he re­mains in Flan­ders, will have just cause to re­proach the gov­ern­ment for hav­ing bro­ken faith with the men who won and the men who died.”

The dif­fi­culty, says Cana­dian War Mu­seum his­to­rian Tim Cook, is that while Bor­den promised the sol­diers that their coun­try would care for them, “no one could de­fine that dur­ing the war and that led to a post­war con­flict of what was owed to the vet­er­ans.”

De­spite var­i­ous agree­ments be­tween vet­er­ans and the gov­ern­ment, the dis­pute borne of that vague com­mit­ment more than 100 years ago con­tin­ues even as it has evolved to in­clude what is owed to vet­er­ans’ de­pen­dants, sur­vivors and care­givers.

Most re­cently, six dis­abled vet­er­ans of the war in Afghanistan cited that speech in a high­pro­file law­suit that al­leged Ot­tawa broke its con­tract with vet­er­ans when it re­placed the dis­abil­ity pen­sions avail­able to pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions with a lump-sum pay­ment in 2006. Gov­ern­ment lawyers con­tended that Bor­den’s words were “po­lit­i­cal speeches not in­tended as com­mit­ments or solemn com­mit­ments” and noted that there is no “so­cial con­tract or so­cial covenant” en­shrined in leg­is­la­tion.

The gov­ern­ment’s ar­gu­ment was con­sis­tent with its long­stand­ing prac­tice, says David Ber­cu­son, a mil­i­tary his­to­rian at the Univer­sity of Cal­gary, namely that while it may have a mo­ral obli­ga­tion to sup­port vet­er­ans, there is no le­gal obli­ga­tion.


Prime Min­is­ter Bor­den vis­its the Western Front and Hon. Bob Rogers meets an old friend, 1917.

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