A mandate for the new minister
There is no commitment in this country like the one made by Canadian soldiers going to war. They accept the very concrete possibility of being killed, maimed, and psychologically damaged in the service of the nation. They don’t choose when and where they’ll fight, but rather do so at the behest of the government and on our behalf.
As Seamus O’Regan takes the helm of Veterans Affairs following last week’s cabinet shuffle, he inherits the duty of acknowledging and rewarding that commitment. He will have a long task ahead of him: principal among his obligations will be to resolve the ignoble squabble between the federal government of Canada and injured veterans who wish to see the return of lifetime pensions for soldiers wounded while serving Canada.
Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, responding to a 2012 class-action lawsuit from six injured Afghan war veterans, claimed the government has no “sacred obligation” to veterans.
Justin Trudeau, in opposition, did not agree. He stressed, on multiple occasions, that indeed the government did have a sacred obligation, that this was precisely our debt to those enlisted to risk their lives for this country. He called on the Harper government to “end this court battle, and start giving our veterans the help they deserve.” Throughout his campaign, he promised to bring back lifetime pensions for injured soldiers.
Yet once in power, Trudeau’s Liberals have carried on the shameful lawsuit they inherited. Despite their rhetoric, they didn’t put it behind them and set to work restoring lifetime pensions for injured veterans. In their first budget, they elided the issue. In their second, they still provided no money.
Instead, they merely signalled the intention to announce plans by year’s end for a life-long pension option — though many suspect this will simply take the lump-sum payment for which injured vets are presently entitled and spread it out monthly. For those most seriously wounded, the best-case scenario would be a pension of $1,000 per month for 30 years.
This would be an embarrassingly paltry offer. Consider that Members of Parliament who survive a six-year tour of duty in the House of Commons become eligible at age 55 for a bare minimum of some $30,000 in pension, all the way up to potential annual pensions of $165,000 for longtime parliamentarians. Few, if any, will be so injured by their time in Parliament as to be left disabled.
Canada is lucky that its soldiers do not risk their lives, their bodies, and their lifelong mental health primarily for money. If in fact they did, two successive governments would now have driven home the lesson that it simply isn’t worth it. Rather, they are public servants who risk the highest sacrifice for their country.
The new minister inherits a small department with an extremely important mandate: to adequately compensate these public servants for their extraordinary contribution. He has both the opportunity and the obligation to make real all of the high-sounding rhetoric veterans have heard from too many successive governments. If Trudeau truly believes in this country’s sacred duty to veterans, then he must empower his ministers to act in accordance with that obligation.
It now falls to O’Regan to lead Veterans Affairs out of ignominy by retiring the “no sacred duty” legal defence and taking action to restore liveable lifetime pensions. If we can profit as a country from putting soldiers in harm’s way, surely we can find the resources to take care of them once they return.