Opening Remarks: Senate Committee – National Security and Defence

Gary Walbourne -- DND/CF Ombudsman

Ottawa, ON | September 20, 2016


Thank you Mr. Chair and Good Morning to All,

As most of you know, my mandate as Canadian Armed Forces and National Defence Ombudsman is to investigate complaints and serve as a neutral third party on matters related to the Department and the Canadian Armed Forces. My mandate is to act independently of the chain of command, both military and civilian, reporting directly to the Minister of National Defence.

It is my understanding that this committee has dealt with a broad range of subject matter from operations to strategic policy and beyond. I am not here to focus on weapons of war or where operations occur. What I am here to discuss are the people we send on those missions – our most valuable resource.

Our military personnel from across the country have voiced concerns over a number of critical issues related to their service from recruitment to retirement. Additionally, we have heard particular issues pertaining to Cadets, Canadian Rangers, Reservists, Civilians, and Families. From these engagements, we produce reports that contain evidence-based recommendations, not suggestions, aimed at solving some of the long-standing systemic issues facing CAF members. Our reports recommend action, and their implementation would mean real change for our members in uniform.

Since the creation of the Ombudsman’s Office in 1998, we have built a compendium of evidence-based work that has and can still serve as guideposts for successive governments to implement real change.

I believe that the government has the opportunity to fix the system that too often allows vulnerable people to fall through the cracks. Between our reports and those produced within the CAF, successive Ministers have had plenty of evidence supporting the need for real change in key areas. We have an ocean full of studies and I am just waiting for somebody to wade into the waters and start making decisions. The concept of commissioning a study to study the results of a previous study will no longer pass the public sniff test. Some of these decisions may not be popular, some may not be as politically palatable as one might desire, but they are the right ones for the men and women who serve or have served this country.  Too many of their complaints are avoidable.

Let me give you some examples.

The tragic events of October 20th and October 22nd 2014 in St. Jean-Sur-Richelieu and at the National War Memorial that resulted in the tragic deaths of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and Corporal Nathan Cirillo gave rise to important questions about the entitlements provided to families of our fallen members. Shortly after Reservist Corporal Cirillo was shot to death at the National War Memorial, it emerged that his family would be entitled to significantly less in the way of ongoing death benefits than a Regular Force Member who would meet a similar tragic fate. Given that Regular Force Warrant Officer Vincent was killed only two days before, the contrasts were made in stark public fashion. Given the significant media and broader public attention, the Government swayed and provided benefit parity FOR THIS INCIDENT ONLY.

But what about those Reserve Force members who are injured or who pass away in Service to Canada, such as those who are on training? So far, and despite my office’s best efforts to provide an evidentiary basis to make meaningful changes surrounding benefit parity, little has been done. My position has always been: a soldier is a soldier; an aviator is an aviator; and a sailor is a sailor. Once you put a uniform on, you are in service to Canada. If you get hurt while you are in uniform – serving Canada – you should be treated equally.

Yesterday, we published the first visual process map of the medical release process for Regular and Reserve Force members. These maps were developed in collaboration with the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman.

 Not only do these maps demonstrate the complexity of the process, but also, that there are different steps to be followed by the Regular and Reserve Force members. It is evident that a streamlined process is required.  Transition must be made seamless.

Regarding Transition, I believe that there is a fundamental disconnect between the Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Canada wherein a member must navigate departure from one before entrance into the other. Most of this has to do with the determination of attribution of service and the current service delivery model.

Last week, I released a report that I had delivered to the Minister of National Defence in June where I recommended that the Canadian Armed Forces determine whether an illness or injury is caused or aggravated by that member’s military service and that that determination be presumed by Veterans Affairs Canada to be sufficient evidence to support an application for benefits.

In conducting their adjudications under the New Veterans Charter, Veterans Affairs Canada, as the administrator, considers mostly documentary evidence generated by the Canadian Armed Forces. The evidence consists largely of the applicant’s medical records and possibly other career related records.

This begs the question of why a protracted bureaucratic process is required for VAC to review records prepared by the Canadian Armed Forces when it is possible for the CAF to determine whether a medically releasing member’s condition is related to or aggravated by military service. Given that the CAF has control of the member’s career and has responsibility for the member’s medical health throughout that career, such a determination can and should be presumed to be evidence in support of a member’s application for VAC benefits.I believe that my recommendation of having the CAF determine service attribution, in conjunction with a change in the Service Delivery Model would cut wait times by 50% or more, greatly reducing the current 16 week service standard at VAC – which – by the way – does not include the 3 weeks it takes for VAC to get medical files from the CAF or the time it takes a member to get and submit relevant documents.

 You may also think that the development of a new service delivery model would require intensive study that will take months or even years to complete.

Next week I will be releasing a report that I submitted to the Minister of National Defence in August containing a potential new service delivery model. What I have proposed to the Minister in this report – predicated on the fact that no new legislation is required and the Canadian Armed Forces will determine whether an illness or injury is caused or aggravated by military service is fairly simple.  They are:

  1. That the CAF would retain medically releasing members until all benefits from all sources have been finalized and put into place.
  2. Establish one point of contact for all medically releasing members to assist in their transition.
  3. That we develop a tool that is capable of providing members with information so that they can understand their potential benefit suite.

These will all be detailed in the report to be released in the upcoming weeks and I will make sure this committee receives copies.

Three strong, evidence-based, member-centric recommendations ladies and gentlemen that I believe are GAME CHANGERS.

Senators, my biggest fear is that these recommendations will be set aside for the wrong reasons.  Those in senior leadership positions may tell decision-makers and law-makers, such as yourselves that it cannot be done – that it requires too many new employees, legislative changes, or infusions of millions of dollars into the system. I can assure you that this is not the case. In fact, my Office has found that these changes would come at very little financial cost and would start benefiting members and their families in the immediate/near future. If there is too much complexity it is because we have created it, and it can be undone. All that is needed is the will to do it.

As we all know from their mandate letters made public, the Prime Minister has asked the Minister of Veterans Affairs and the Minister of National Defence to reduce complexity, overhaul service delivery and strengthen the partnership between the two. Both Ministers and the Chief of Defence Staff have publicly acknowledged that the system needs fixing. The time is no longer to study but to fix.

 As I have previously stated, there has been a glut of reports and studies from parliamentary committees, my office and the Veterans Ombudsman’s Office, as well as internal ones commissioned by VAC and the CAF that contain strong recommendations to help fix the system. Many of these recommendations have been “ACCEPTED” by those in positions of authority to make change. But as we’ve learned: acceptance does not always translate into implementation.

As part of the Defence Policy Review, I submitted a comprehensive, evidence-based position paper to the Minister of National Defence outlining many of the issues facing the Defence Community across the country. All of the issues raised in the document have to do with the people side of Defence, and only the people side of Defence. Each issue translates to the quality of life for our Defence community. I sincerely hope that this evidence is given serious consideration when decisions are made.

In my submission to the Minister, I deliberately avoided recommending studies or reviews. As I have previously stated, we do not need them. They are complete.  What we need now is leadership with the will to build a system that is indeed member-centric, and fair to all. No matter what position or stance we take at home or abroad, a well-supported military force – including their families and our next generation of leaders, will be a factor in determining success. Our people should be our top priority, our true “No Fail” mission.

Thank you, Mr. Chair, and I stand ready for questions.

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