OTTAWA — When his son was nearly killed by an anti-personnel mine in Afghanistan in 2010, Jim Scott had no idea he was about to embark on a multi-year legal battle with the federal government on behalf of his son and thousands of other modern-day veterans.
The battle took the form of a class-action lawsuit over a major overhaul of the benefits and services available to ill and injured veterans in 2006 that provided today’s ex-soldiers less in support and compensation than those in previous generations.
For Scott’s son Dan, that meant a one-time, $41,000 payment from Ottawa as compensation for having lost his kidney, spleen and part of his pancreas from the explosion rather than the lifelong pension provided to similarly disabled veterans since the First World War.
“And my son said to me: ‘You know, we’re all getting these letters for really small amounts and we have significant injuries,’” Jim recalls from his home in Vancouver.
After some early successes, the high-profile Equitas lawsuit would hit a wall when the Supreme Court refused to hear the case in August 2018. But more than a decade after his son was injured, Scott and others say they are still fighting for equity and fairness for all veterans.
Parliament first adopted the Pension Act in 1919 to assist injured veterans and their loved ones. At the heart of the act was a lifelong pension for disabled veterans. Its value depended on the veterans' injuries and their home situation.
It wasn’t until a new wave of troops started leaving the military for medical reasons in the early 2000s that advocates began to argue the existing system was not meeting the needs of modern veterans, including helping them re-enter civilian life.
The New Veterans Charter was unveiled in 2005. A radical overhaul, it replaced the pension with a lump-sum payment for service-related injuries as well as training and rehab programs to help veterans live better lives after leaving the military.
As the number of troops returning from Afghanistan with injuries started to increase, the charter was rushed through Parliament with unanimous consent from all parties but with what many now agree was insufficient vetting. Instead, Ottawa promised to revisit it regularly.
It wasn’t long before veterans started to complain about problems with the new system. Not only were many of the promised training and rehabilitation programs difficult to access, the charter did not provide nearly the same level of financial support as the Pension Act.
Successive federal governments under first Stephen Harper and then Justin Trudeau have since made numerous changes to new system. The Liberals renamed it the Pension for Life in 2019 during its most recent substantive adjustment.
Veterans, as well as the Royal Canadian Legion and others, say those supposed fixes have not addressed the underlying inequality between the two systems, or the current system’s lack of financial stability.
“We call it the elephant in the room,” says Brian Forbes, who is chairman of the executive committee at War Amps. He is also chairman of the National Council of Veteran Associations, an umbrella organization that represents 68 veterans organizations across Canada.
“How is it possible the veterans who were injured prior to 2006 have a far better compensation package than those injured post-2006?”
The financial discrepancy is evident in a report prepared by the National Council of Veteran Associations. It shows an unmarried veteran with no kids who was completely disabled before 2006 could have received up to $6,441 per month under the old pension system.
For veterans with the same disability after 2006, that amount is $3,779 per month. The differences are even greater if the veteran is married and has kids to support. The old pension system accounted for those extra costs while the current system does not.
Both amounts do include money for attendant care and added expenses as a result of a service-related disability. Families and advocates have said the old system provided far more for attendants or caregivers than the current one does.
The Liberal government has pointed to the changes it made in 2019 as a significant improvement over the system in place under the previous Conservative government.
The parliamentary budget office in early 2019 confirmed the Liberals had added more benefits for most veterans.
But the PBO report also found “virtually all” veterans would be better off under the Pension Act, while the changes introduced by the Liberals severely shortchanged some severely injured ex-soldiers. At the same time, parliamentary budget officer Yves Giroux showed returning to the old system would cost Ottawa billions more.
Matthew Kane, who served as an intelligence officer before retiring from the military in 2014 with PTSD, tinnitus and back, hip and neck problems, says he is receiving 16.4 per cent of what he would under the Pension Act.
“So it shows the discrepancy and the financial distress that this can put veterans in,” says Kane, who now lives in Vancouver and sits on the board of the Equitas Society, which continues to advocate for a “social covenant” between the government and its military members.
Trudeau promised during the 2015 election to end Ottawa’s fight with the Equitas lawsuit and bring back the old pensions. Two and a half years later, his government was still in court with veterans.
During a town hall-style event in Edmonton in February 2018, six months before the Supreme Court refused to hear the Equitas case, Afghan war veteran Brock Blaszczyk asked Trudeau why.
“Why are we still fighting against certain veterans groups in court?” the prime minister replied to Blaszczyk, who lost a leg in Afghanistan. “Because they are asking for more than we are able to give right now.”
That answer still rankles in many parts of the veterans community.
That doesn't mean everyone wants the Pension Act reinstated in full. The National Council of Veteran Associations, the legion and others have instead been advocating for the old and new systems to be merged into one.
“You can't have everything that's in the Pension Act, and you can't have everything that's in the (Pension for Life), but you can take the very best of both worlds and marry them together,” says Ray McInnis, the legion's director of veterans' services.
“We're always going to have the negative veteran community out there because … you have two systems whereby (veterans) can be (injured) months apart in the same operation and one person's under the Pension Act, and one person's not.”
Scott worries the issue has fallen off the radar as Afghanistan fades into history, and that it will remain unresolved until the next group of young Canadian men and women return home from war.
“We're going to have this new crop of young kids coming back and we’re going another Highway of Heroes, and what my position is is we've wasted all this time that we could have made a better system,” he says.
“When we see soldiers come back that are disabled and so on, when they're not being very well taken care of, it hurts us all as a nation.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 9, 2021.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press