More From Veterans Affairs

Since my previous post on Canada’s Shabby Treatment Of Its Veterans, not much has changed. In fact, veterans have seemed to have just gotten angrier.

And it’s with good reason. A group of veterans that came to Ottawa to lobby against office closures felt disrespected after a meeting with Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino went off the rails. He showed up late, didn’t listen to them, and was generally rude. Let me emphasize that this is the Veterans Affairs Minister. And although Stephen Harper is trying to suggest that service is better under this government, Thomas Mulcair is right in saying that these vets are “not in Ottawa to shake hands.” They’re mad, which is pretty evident in watching any of the videos attached to these two news stories.

It seems to me that the government should be moved by this. Veterans Affairs exists to serve veterans. So if you’re completely pissing them off, maybe change course. Maybe listen to the people you are pretending to serve. Don’t stand up in the House of Commons and suggest that veterans are actually better off, because that is clearly not how veterans see it.

Amidst all of this has come another frustrating story. Just two days after the funeral of a Canadian veteran who committed suicide, the government sent a notice to the deceased’s husband, informing him that he owed almost $600. This because Veterans Affairs “overpaid” his wife’s benefits since she did not live the full month of December.

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Canada’s Shabby Treatment Of Its Veterans

Let me be frank here. Saying you “support the troops” is not the same as actually supporting the troops. Sorry, but wearing a red tie to work or putting a bumper sticker on your car is not “support”. You know what is supportive? Criticizing this ridiculous government for its treatment of veterans.

If anyone cares enough to look into the issue, there are countless ways that the Harper Government™ is treating the country’s veterans like garbage. Here are some examples.

Canada has a Veteran’s Charter, which was overhauled in 2011. You would think that overhauling something would, you know, make it better. But it didn’t. Under the new Charter, severely disabled veterans will have their benefits cut off at 65. For many severely disabled veterans, this all but ensures their living in poverty. The Veterans Ombudsman, Guy Parent, also says that the new lump-sum payments that replaced pensions in the new Charter are inadequate. And compensation for pain and suffering is somehow less than what Canadian courts award for personal injury. Figure that one out. If I lost a leg in a car accident, I would receive more compensation in court than a soldier who lost a leg from a land-mine in Afghanistan would receive from the government.

Plus there’s all of the cuts. Nine Veterans Affairs offices are to be closed by February, and 25% of Veterans Affairs workforce are planned to be cut by 2015. More services are being moved online, which makes perfect sense for the 90-year-old veterans that stormed Juno Beach. What this means is that veterans can call Service Canada and talk to employees who have no particular knowledge about veterans’ programs. Or they can travel as far as 1,100 kilometres to the nearest remaining Veteran Affairs office.

Now, the cuts are of course defended because of the decreasing number of WWII and Korean veterans. But there are still 680,000 veterans (plus current military) in Canada that did not serve in WWII. Many veterans need one-on-one service, not over-the-phone bureaucracy. And if so many veterans are against the closures and protesting against it, shouldn’t that tell us something?

Then there’s the government’s attempt to scale back military pensions. Then there’s the critic of the Veteran’s Charter who had his personal information leaked by Veteran’s Affairs. Then there’s the plan to honour Afghanistan veterans that was scrapped. Then there’s the veterans who are booted from the military just before pension eligibility. Then there’s the fact that only 28% of money budgeted for the Last Post Fund (funding for funerals of impoverished veterans) actually gets spent. This followed the revelation that the fund rejected 67% of requests that it received. (Fun fact: Canada provides funerals for convicts that can’t afford it, but veterans have to rely on this fund.) Then there’s the smear campaigns against veterans who dare to criticize the Conservative Party.

But perhaps the most egregious example of the Conservative Party’s neglect is its flat-out rejection of the Canadian government’s long-standing promise to care for wounded soldiers. This is a promise that Prime Minister Robert Borden made in 1917, just before the Battle of Vimy Ridge. He stated:

You can go into this action feeling assured of this, and as the head of the government I give you this assurance: That you need not fear that the government and the country will fail to show just appreciation of your service to the country and Empire in what you are about to do and what you have already done.

The government and the country will consider it their first duty to see that a proper appreciation of your effort and of your courage is brought to the notice of people at home that no man, whether he goes back or whether he remains in Flanders, will have cause to reproach the government for having broken faith with the men who won and the men who died.

But Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party argue that this no longer applies. The government, in other words, is no longer bound to care for soldiers wounded in combat.

The Conservatives are so cemented in this morally bankrupt position that they tried to have a class-action lawsuit from veterans of the war in Afghanistan thrown out of court. This lawsuit claims that the government has a duty to care for veterans. When throwing out the lawsuit failed, the government instead launched an appeal. They argue that this promise to care for veterans should not bound the current government. 

I’m sorry, but if the government sends you to war, they cannot then decide to abandon you. There is a moral and social obligation. And whether or not the Conservatives are legally right is not at all the point. The point is that they don’t much care for treating veterans with dignity and respect.

It just doesn’t make sense. For a government that wasted so much money trying to commemorate the War of 1812, why does it dismiss the actual people involved in war? Why try to make Canadians care about a two-hundred-year-old war while not caring about Canadians in war? I know that this Conservative government has its priorities mixed up, but that’s taking it to a whole new level.

I am the furthest thing from a war supporter. But if your government put you into combat, that same government has a moral duty to take care of you when your body or mind gets injured. Unfortunately, 400 Canadian veterans die in poverty every year. Our government loves photo-ops and cheap talk. But the way it actually treats veterans in this country is an absolute travesty. Something a lot of “supporters” fail to admit.

Baird in the Middle East

Canada’s foreign policy has devolved under the current government, summarized well by Bob Rae in a recent blog post. John Baird’s meeting this week in east Jerusalem adds another facepalm to the already disgraced state of the country’s foreign affairs.

Baird met with the Israeli justice minister – the government’s chief negotiator with Palestinians. He met with her in east Jerusalem, which is across the Green Line and into disputed territory. Under international law, the area is occupied territory, and past ministers have known the significance of not crossing the line.

Baird held the meeting where he did for one of two reasons. Either he met there to be purposefully provocative and remind Palestinians that Canada is fully on the Israeli side, or he did not know the significance of the Green Line. The latter is worse but much less likely. Baird might be backwards in most of his actions as foreign affairs minister, but he’s smart enough to know what he’s doing. For Canada, this is a frightening prospect.

Canada, We Need to Talk About Managing our Natural Resources

Prime Minister Harper recently approved the sale of Nexen Inc. – a Calgary-based oil company – by the China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) as well as Progress Energy by the Malaysian firm Petronas. It’s easy enough to make fun of the government’s decision, due to both their hypocritical criticism of “foreign environmental interests” in the oil sands and also the unclear and seemingly arbitrary rules surrounding foreign takeovers. But regardless of what one thinks about these two recent deals, there’s a larger issue at play.

The issue is the way that natural resources are governed in Canada. The free-market system essentially hands over all power and wealth to the highest bidder. In Alberta, companies are able to extract oil with relative ease, giving only a small royalty to the provincial government. The result has been less than spectacular. Alberta, blessed with the second largest deposit of oil in the entire world (in a country where natural resources are provincial jurisdiction), has very little to show for its immense geological good fortune. It has relatively low taxes, low unemployment and higher-than-average salaries. But that’s about it. And when you think of what places like the United Arab Emirates or Norway have done with their respective oil fortunes, it’s downright embarrassing.

Canada/Alberta’s model of giving companies nearly all of the oil revenue is short-sighted and inefficient. Alberta’s population of 3.5 million people have been given the second largest deposit of the world’s most important resource, and yet Albertans have very little to show for it. The benefits have simply not been given to the people; companies have retained most of the wealth.

There’s a better way to manage resources. Canada flirted previously with a national oil company (Petro-Canada), which was eventually privatized. I understand the political impossibility of suggesting the need for a publicly run oil company, but I believe the argument has its merits. Part of Petro-Canada’s problem was that it competed alongside every other oil company, which of course didn’t solve the main issue – that corporations control too much of our country’s natural resources. All Petro-Canada did was give Canadians some ownership of the country’s natural resources, when really citizens should own it all.

Let’s look to Norway in order to see a system that effectively manages its oil resources.

Norway abandoned a royalty system because oil companies regulated their production to keep royalties at a minimum. The country maintains the philosophy that oil ultimately belongs to the nation. Companies, including Statoil (which is primarily owned by the Norwegian government), can help in harnessing natural resources, but the oil is still owned by the country. Norway’s high taxation rate (78% on oil companies’ net profits) has allowed the country to put its oil revenues into a robust sovereign wealth fund.

Norway puts 100% of its oil revenues into this Government Pension Fund. The fund is now worth more than $664 billion (US). Alberta’s Heritage Savings Trust Fund sits at an embarrassing $16 billion (and shrinking).

And yet despite putting every penny of oil revenue into this pension fund, the government is able to provide immense government services to its citizens by using the interest made from the fund. Norway is ranked #1 in the world on the Human Development Index, has zero debt and is a highly generous welfare state.

Norway understands that it can benefit greatly from oil if its system of governance is set up in a certain way. And it also understands that oil does not last forever, which is why it is investing so heavily into its pension (rainy day) fund. To top it all off, Norway is a world leader in alternative energy production, using hydroelectricity (98.5%) as its main source of electricity as well as wind and solar.

Canada can surely take a lesson from Norway’s oil management. We too need our system of natural resource governance to benefit citizens, not just a handful of powerful oil companies.

Lifesaving Drugs to Poor People? Nah.

Every once in a while, a bill comes along that is essentially impossible to oppose. Bill C-398 was one of those bills.

On Wednesday, the House of Commons defeated C-398 – a bill that would have enabled lifesaving generic drugs to be shipped to poor people in developing countries at an affordable price. These are drugs used for HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, but are typically too expensive for the world’s poorest people. Quite simply, it would have saved lives by enabling the world’s poorest people access to much-needed drugs.

All but seven Conservative MPs voted against the bill, resulting in a 148-141 defeat. The Minister of International Cooperation, Julian Fantino (the person in charge of Canada helping poor people), did not vote.

The bill was an attempt to cut the red tape and make more efficient Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime (CAMR). CAMR came into effect in 2004, but has simply not worked. C-398 would reform CAMR to make it effective and, thus, ensure that lifesaving drugs are available to poor people around the world.

I do not hide my general displeasure with the current government, but this particular incident makes me especially upset. It’s upsetting because no good reason has been offered by Conservative MPs as to why they voted against it. Most wouldn’t rationalize their ‘No’ votes and those that did just spread misinformation about what it is that C-398 would accomplish. Some said that it would violate Canada’s WTO agreements. But that claim is quite simply untrue.

I can’t think of any real reason why MPs would vote against this bill, but that’s the nature of Canada these days. And for Conservative MPs who claim to be pro-life, their decision to deny poor people lifesaving drugs is particularly baffling. NDP MP Paul Dewar put it best soon after the bill’s defeat.

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