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Vets care and benefits sabotaged: advocates

OTTAWA - Veterans of bureaucratic battles over the treatment of ex-soldiers unleashed a scathing critique Tuesday of the Harper government's record.

Outspoken advocate Sean Bruyea, at the centre of a privacy scandal when his personal medical information was leaked, testified to a parliamentary committee that MPs have failed to hold the department of veterans affairs accountable and to demand recommendations from previous studies be implemented.

The House of Commons veterans committee is reviewing the Conservative government's signature legislation, which governs the benefits and entitlements of those who've served.

It conducted a similar exercise in 2010 and came forward with 18 suggestions for improvements.

Bruyea says the department claims to have implemented 10 of them, but he can't find evidence to support that, notably on issues such as compensating families who care for severely disabled veterans.

Similarly, 16 recommendations coming from a separate advisory group that oversees the New Veterans Charter have been ignored and all of the efforts seemingly amount to a giant wheel-spinning exercise.

"Four years later, we are at it yet again with witnesses fighting to implement many of the same recommendations you included in your 2010 report," said Bruyea, who was among the first critics of the federal government's updated charter.

That charter was passed by all parties in 2005 and adopted by the Conservatives a year later.

"Why is it that Parliament through either inaction or inability has failed to stand up to the bureaucracy?" Bruyea asked.

Harold Leduc, an ex-member of the federal veterans appeal board, told the committee that the charter is fundamentally flawed because it is designed to transition former military members to civilian jobs, and not take care of them into old age, the way the previous system did.

Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino asked the Commons committee to conduct a comprehensive review of the charter, which was only updated just three years ago, after facing rising chorus of complaints.

A spokesman for Fantino defended the government's handling of the legislation, noting that it has been amended or improved to the benefit of ex-soldiers numerous times since its inception.

"Most notably in 2011 the charter was expanded to create a new monthly financial benefit for the seriously injured, among other improvements," Nicholas Bergamini said in an email.

Conservative MP Wladyslaw Lizon echoed and noted that the government is committed to making incremental changes.

"We can't improve the charter in one shot," he said, while asking critics for their best suggestions at immediate improvements.

Another advocate, Don Leonardo of VeteransofCanada.ca, was incredulous at the suggestion and asked why the government should be trusted.

The charter fundamentally overhauled the decades-old system of compensating for soldiers for wounds and lost limbs by introducing a worker compensation-style system of lump-sum payments instead of pensions for life.

Veterans of the Afghan war argue in a class action lawsuit, currently before the B.C. Superior Court, that the new system is less generous and discriminates against modern-day soldiers.

Federal lawyers, in their statement of defence, claim that the state has no special obligation to soldiers, who accept they have to lay down their lives without question.

They argue that promises dating back to the First World War to take care of those who fought are nothing more than political policy statements that don't bind current or future governments.

But Bruyea pointed to comments made by Prime Minister Stephen Harper when the charter was enacted in 2006.

He quoted: "In future, when our servicemen and women leave our military family, they can rest assured the government will help them and their families' transition to civilian life. Our troops' commitment and service to Canada entitles them to the very best treatment possible. This Charter is but a first step towards according Canadian veterans the respect and support they deserve."

This was a promise from the current prime minister, not one made a century ago, Bruyea noted.

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