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Commons committee calls for modest changes to benefits regime for ex-soldiers

Veterans Joseph Burke, left, and Richard Blackwolf look on as members of the Commons veterans affairs committee hold a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 3, 2014., to release the conclusions of the statutory review it undertook in November 2013 of the Enhanced New Veterans Charter Act. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

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Veterans Joseph Burke, left, and Richard Blackwolf look on as members of the Commons veterans affairs committee hold a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 3, 2014., to release the conclusions of the statutory review it undertook in November 2013 of the Enhanced New Veterans Charter Act. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA - A House of Commons committee chose to recommend modest rather than wholesale changes to the federal government's veterans charter Tuesday, admitting its long-awaited review of benefits and entitlement would not satisfy everyone.

The report, which is not binding on the government, was presented to Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino and endorsed unanimously by all three parties on the veterans committee.

"All we're asking is for people to look at it as an honest, collective effort by all members of all parties across the political spectrum to get things right," said Conservative MP Laurie Hawn, an ex-air force pilot.

"Will it ever be perfect? No, it won't, but we'll continue to try and make it better."

The analysis, which contains 14 recommendations, was originally intended to douse growing flames of discontent in the veterans community over the charter, which was introduced almost nine years ago by the Liberals but championed by the Conservatives after they came to power in 2006.

It was also hoped the report would begin repairing the political damage wrought by the federal government's response to a lawsuit filed by Afghan vets, who say the new system is discriminatory and not as generous as the pension-for-life regime it replaced.

Federal lawyers have told the court the government has no special obligation to returning soldiers and that it cannot be bound by the promises and practices of past governments, such as those made by then-prime minister Sir Robert Borden during the First World War.

Fantino asked the committee to specifically define the social contract the nation has with those who lay down their lives without question.

The committee examined the social convent recently introduced by the British, which clearly spells out the obligation to its soldiers, but in the end recommended the tentative step of cutting and pasting wording from Canada's old pension act into the new charter as a preamble.

It also suggested attaching the veterans bill of rights to the charter, but both fall short of the unambiguous legal declarations that veterans have been demanding.

Asked to define what the nation owes it soldiers, Liberal veterans critic Frank Valeriote said it's not carved in stone.

"That obligation changes from time to time, depending on the conflict," Valeriote said. "You know, different needs arise depending on the conflict our forces are engaged."

Veterans advocate Sean Bruyea said the committee avoided making a clear, concrete statement on what is a fundamental question for those who serve. The last thing someone who has offered to give their life wants to hear is that we'll discuss later how we'll care for you, he said.

But Valeriote said the implementation of the recommendations contained in this latest report would be a visible demonstration of the country's obligation and gratitude.

The report recommends, among other things, that the government not medically discharge soldiers before Veterans Affairs is ready to care for them, provide better support to families, and guarantee benefits for life for the most seriously disabled vets.

The country's veteran ombudsman singled out care for the most gravely injured, saying last fall that the system as it's currently designed could leave injured soldiers in poverty after age 65.

The report recommends improvements to the current system of lump-sum payments meant to compensate for pain and suffering injuries, including lost limbs.

New Democrat veterans critic Peter Stoffer said it's not an option to return to the previous pension-for-life system, as vets in the class-action lawsuit would be like to see.

"It won't solve every issue that's out there," Stoffer said. "To go back to the old system would be a bureaucratic nightmare right now."

The committee says the lump-sum awards should at least match payouts in civilian courts, something the veterans ombudsman has also advocated.

Stoffer noted that injured veterans are eligible for a series of other benefits, including the permanent impairment allowance and benefits for lost earnings, but access to those funds should be further opened up.

Veterans ombudsman Guy Parent said Tuesday the recommendations are "an important step forward to resolve current gaps."

Bruyea, however, said the report "comprehensively passes the buck back to the department" for more study.

Mike Blais, president of Canadian Veterans Advocacy, said Fantino promised — and has yet to deliver — a comprehensive review, and it's clear there's been no serious discussion about changing the lump-sum award system.

"What we have gotten is nothing more than fluff," he said.

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