With news earlier in the week that the government was considering shrinking Veterans’ Affairs as the number of traditional veterans fades, Liberal veterans’ affairs critics Rob Oliphant put out a release to condemn the plans. I spoke to Oliphant to delve more into the issues at stake.
Q: The government is thinking about shrinking Veterans’ Affairs. I know your committee just did a big study, so I want to know what you have to say about this.
A: It’s been very hard to get the numbers from this government – it’s one of the usual problems that we have. It’s the same problems that Mark Holland had about jails, and the Parliamentary Budget Officer had to go through and come up with expert opinions on the numbers without the government’s help. So in this we don’t really know the numbers except intuitively, obviously there’s going to be a change. Obviously, elderly veterans who served in either World War II or Korea are disappearing, and that’s the reality that we know. There are a little over 100,000 of them left, and a little over 400 of them die every week – the number of traditional veterans is shrinking. What we’re saying is that gives an opportunity to change the nature and the way we do veterans’ assistance. There could be less money involved at some point, and it could be a radical change to the way the department actually delivers service, and who it is in the department that delivers service and how they deliver it, where they deliver it, but simply seeing this as “well, the department is shrinking because veterans are dying” is narrow, short-sighted, and not very creative.
Q: It seems to me a narrow perception of traditional veterans rather than veterans who have been peacekeeping operations throughout the century, or new veterans from Afghanistan.
A: Sure – and in fact there are really not two types of veterans but three types. There are the “traditional veterans” from World War II and Korea – they have certain programmes and eligibilities. They have certain benefits, for instance long-term care and those kinds of things that are very different, than the next stage of veterans, which go from the mid-fifties until 2006, with the advent of the New Veterans’ Charter. Even though they are lumped together, there is a difference. I’d say the first claim on the time, the energy, and the creativity of Veterans’ Affairs, as well as the money, are on the veterans from 1955 to 2006, and there are several issues that are going on there. One is eligibility for long-term care, very specifically some of the problems with a programme called SISIP, which is actually a defence department programme, but it’s the insurance programme for disabled veterans, and there are some issues around there that need to be addressed. I think there are other programmes that are long-term programmes that we’ve had for traditional veterans that need now to be extended to Cold War veterans, Peacekeepers, failed state operations – for instance in Cypress, in Rwanda, Sudan and Bosnia – and then Iraq as well, and the first phase of Afghanistan. And the next phase are those under the New [Veterans’] Charter, which is working in some ways, but also is not working in other ways. It was meant to address a situation that had an old style of benefit for disability, for instance, without the real emphasis on rehabilitation and integration back into the workforce. So we accepted that it’s a good thing to do, but it appears that the programmes aren’t working – we’ve just finished our study, and the programmes are saying we need to do some major overhaul. And the Minister has, in a veiled way, agreed – now we’re going to have to push him on it in the fall. They really haven’t come up with any sort of a plan. We’re arguing that there’s not necessarily a saving of money that’s going to be at stake here. If it costs less money – great. But if the goal is to save money, we’re going to fight it tooth and nail to say that the goal in this are is not to save money, it’s to be effective, to be just and to be fair.
Q: First the government downgrades Veterans’ Affairs to a part-time minister, and now this article in the Globe is talking about folding it back into DND entirely as one of the possibilities. What does that say to you about the commitment to veterans’ issues?
A: I think it’s a complete lack of understanding. Obviously we have argued that Veteran’s Affairs and DND need to be better integrated – that it needs to be a more seamless transition for our military personnel when they retire or when they’re discharged for medical reasons – that their files automatically flow. Veterans’ Affairs can’t even tell us how many veterans are in Canada – they simply don’t know because you have to basically register and sign up for programmes with Veterans’ Affairs to be on the database at Veterans’ Affairs. So Veterans’ Affairs wouldn’t necessarily know that my father is a veteran because he’s never taken a programme. He’s never gone into any of the benefits. He did right after World War II – when he got out of the service, he got his tuition paid for at the University of Toronto as part of his discharge – they had a variety of benefits that people could choose, and he chose that one. But Veterans’ Affairs has no record of him – that would have been a DND programme at the time. It’s much better with the new veterans, because I think there is a record of veterans that are discharged now, say from Afghanistan, but that’s been a very difficult kind of process. So that’s one of the things. We’ve argued that of course there needs to be a better relationship between Veterans’ Affairs and DND, but the missions of the two organisations are entirely different. We could argue that Agriculture and Natural Resources should go together – they both have to do with land, one has to do with rocks and trees, the other has to do with crops and livestock, but they have different cultures, different mentalities, different ways of being. And so we keep a Department of Agriculture and a Department of Natural Resources. The reality is with Veterans’ Affairs and DND, the primary goal of DND is the safety and security of our country. It is operational, it is effectiveness in the field, it is readiness, it is peacekeeping – it is all of those things. It’s an operational department. Veterans’ Affairs is a people department. They have to mindful of the culture of the military – absolutely it’s part of them, but their focus is on people. Their focus is on insurance, on medical care, on rehabilitation, on all those kinds of services that may be a secondary industry or enterprise in DND, but it’s not their primary focus. I would argue that if anything, some of the programmes at DND – the people orientation, the rehabilitation, the medical services – maybe they should be put in with Veterans’ Affairs, and DND could contract to Veterans’ Affairs for certain things. They’re very, very different operations.
Q: Moving on, how’s your summer going?
A: Summer’s great. I’m in French training for a week in St. Jean – it’s good. Next week I’m going into the Air Force. I’m spending four days at Greenwood, in a programme they have for Members of Parliament to become sensitised to the issues of what it means to be on an Air Force base. I think there are five or six of us going, and we go Sunday, and we get out Thursday. I’m kind of looking forward to that. One of the reasons that I chose that culture is because my father was in the Air Force in World War II. You can choose the Navy, the Army or the Air Force, so I chose the Air Force. But I’m going to do a couple of days in New Brunswick right afterwards around Gagetown, and I’m holding a town hall community meeting on Agent Orange and the government’s partial success but partial failing in addressing the problems of Agent Orange and the two generations of people who have been affected by the defoliants that were used around Gagetown. We have 40 years of defoliant use, and there’s a number of medical studies and there’s obviously health effects, and the government has acknowledged it partially in the part of a payment called an ex gratia payment, so I’m holding a town hall to find out what else the community is looking for. I’m going to Greenwood over to New Brunswick over on Thursday or Friday, and then I’m home for a while.
Q: When is your shift on the Liberal Express?
A: I’m doing a couple of them, and I’m in and out because I’m doing a lot of the events related to ethno-cultural communities. I’m doing a couple of days – doing a little bit of South-western Ontario, then I’m going to be in Winnipeg and Manitoba for a couple of days at the end of the month, and then I’m going to be in British Columbia in Mid-August. I’m going to Yukon with the leader, partly because I lived there for six years, and I have lots of friends up there. It’s good for me to be with the leader to introduce him to people. Then I’ll join him in the Lower Mainland for three days on that bus tour.