OTTAWA – A House of Commons committee has issued a mild rebuke of a controversial agency that hears the benefits complaints of ex-soldiers.
The all-party veterans committee told the Veterans Review and Appeal Board (VRAB) on Tuesday that it needs to reassess the way it does business when it comes to the independence of those hearing the cases and the evidence rules on which decisions are based.
“While the committee recognizes the need for veterans to provide evidence to substantiate their cases, which in turn ensures consistency in VRAB’s decision making, witness testimony suggests that the burden of proof on veterans may have become too high,” said the report.
The agency has been at the centre of an on-again-off-again political storm with veterans, veterans organizations and even former members of the board complaining that ex-soldiers face demeaning treatment, and unreasonable demands to prove their disabilities are related to their time in the military.
Many veterans loathe the quasi-judicial board, describing it as a dumping ground for partisan hacks, and say the seemingly endless bureaucratic process does not get them down as much as the snide comments and less-than-sympathetic attitude.
The committee heard about eight hours of testimony from critics and the board itself.
Former board member Harold Leduc came forward earlier this year with accusations that the agency was biased against veterans claims.
The committee also told the board it needs to give ex-soldiers more benefit of the doubt when assessing their appeals.
“The committee believes that one of the possible reasons why VRAB lost the trust and respect of some veterans pertains to the fact that some veterans feel that they are not getting the benefit of the doubt with regard to the evidence they present to the board,” the report said.
Opposition parties say the committee should have gone farther in its condemnation, pointing out that the Conservative majority restricted the amount of time for the study.
Liberal veterans critic Sean Casey went as far as to accuse the Harper government of excluding witnesses, especially smaller veterans groups who deal with complaints about the agency regularly.
New Democrat veterans critic Peter Stoffer, who has introduced a private members bill to scrap the board, describes the report as a “sham.”
Earlier this year, the veterans ombudsman issued a report expressing concern about the number of times ex-soldiers have had to go to the Federal Court because their claims were rejected by the board.
The board did not agree with much of what it heard during the committee investigation, and on the last day of hearings the chairman, John Larlee, appeared for a second time.
He referred to “inaccuracies” presented to the committee by “previous witnesses and sought to provide ‘clarifications.'”
Larlee told the committee the board “strives for fairness and impartiality in everything it does, that it treats all veterans, members of the CF and the RCMP, and their families with dignity and respect.”