At least one veterans group promises to campaign against the Harper Conservatives because of a stand taken by federal lawyers, who argue the country holds no extraordinary social obligation to ex-soldiers.
The lawyers, fighting a class-action lawsuit in British Columbia, asked a judge to dismiss the court action filed by injured Afghan veterans, saying Ottawa owes them nothing more than what they have already received under its controversial New Veterans Charter.
The stand drew an incendiary reaction from veterans advocates, who warned they are losing patience with the Harper government, which has made supporting the troops one of its political battle cries.
Mike Blais, president of Canadian Veterans Advocacy, told a Parliament Hill news conference that since the First World War, the federal government has recognized it has a “sacred obligation” to veterans — and that notion was abandoned with the adoption of the veterans charter by the Conservatives.
“We are asking the government to stand down on this ridiculous position (and) to accept the obligation that successive generations of Parliament have wilfully embraced,” said Blais, who pointed out veterans of Afghanistan deserve the same commitment as those who fought in the world wars.
“We’re damned determined to ensure (the same) standard of care is provided by this government or we shall work to provide and elect another government that will fulfil its sacred obligation.”
The lawsuit filed last fall by six veterans claims that the new charter, which replaces life-time pensions with workers compensation-style lump sum awards for wounds, violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In all cases, the awards are substantially less than what service members would have received under the old Pension Act system, which was initially set up following the First World War.
Veterans advocates, including Blais, see the new veterans charter as a bottom-line exercise.
“We went to war, signed up to serve this nation, nobody told us we would be abandoned,” he said.
“Nobody told us they were going to change the game in mid-flights and that our government would turn its back on us, and put the budget ahead of their sacred obligation.”
A spokesman for newly appointed veterans minister Julian Fantino said he wasn’t able to comment directly on the court case. But Joshua Zanin noted that more than 190,000 veterans and their families received benefits under the revised charter and the “government has taken important steps to modernize and improve services to veterans.”
Even so, federal lawyers argued that the veterans lawsuit is “abuse of process” that should be thrown out.
“In support of their claim, the representative plaintiffs assert the existence of a ‘social covenant,’ a public law duty, and a fiduciary duty on the part of the federal government,” Jasvinder S. Basran, the regional director general for the federal Justice Department, said in a court application.
The lawsuit invokes the “honour of the Crown,” a concept that has been argued in aboriginal rights claims.
“The defendant submits that none of the claims asserted by the representative plaintiffs constitutes a reasonable claim, that the claims are frivolous or vexatious, and accordingly that they should be struck out in their entirety.”
New Democrat veterans critic Peter Stoffer says the legal implication of claiming the government has no special obligation to veterans is far-reaching and he demanded the Conservatives clarify what it means.
He noted that unlike the previous legislation, the new veterans charter — passed unanimously by all parties in 2005 and enacted by the Conservatives in 2006 — contained no reference to social obligation.
Both Stoffer and Blais do not advocate for a complete return to the old pension system, but rather that veterans be given a choice of how the benefit is paid.
Among the soldiers named in the suit is Maj. Mark Douglas Campbell, a 32-year veteran of the Canadian Forces who served in Cyprus, Bosnia and Afghanistan.
In June 2008, Campbell, of the Edmonton-based Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, was struck by an improvised explosive device and Taliban ambush.
He lost both legs above the knee, one testicle, suffered numerous lacerations and a ruptured eardrum. He has since been diagnosed with depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Campbell received a lump-sum payment for pain and suffering of $260,000. He will receive his military pension, with an earnings loss benefit and a permanent impairment allowance but he is entirely unable to work and will suffer a net earnings loss due to his injuries, the lawsuit claims.
Another plaintiff soldier suffered severe injuries to his leg and foot in the blast that killed Canadian journalist Michelle Lang and four soldiers. He was awarded $200,000 in total payments for pain and suffering and post-traumatic stress.
The allegations in the lawsuit have not been proven in court.
The federal government application says policy decisions of the government and legislation passed by Parliament are not subject to review by the courts.
“The basic argument that they’re making is that Parliament can do what it wants,” said Don Sorochan, the soldiers’ lawyer.
He said he receives calls almost daily from soldiers affected by the changes, and thousands ultimately could be involved.
Sorochan, who is handling the case for free, said he doesn’t believe the objective of the legislation was to save money at the expense of injured soldiers, but that’s what has happened.
“When the legislation was brought in it was believed by the politicians involved — and I’ve talked to several of them, in all parties — that they were doing a good thing,” Sorochan said.
“But anybody that can objectively look at what is happening to these men and women who have served us, can’t keep believing that.”