Care, Compassion and Respect for our Veterans
January 23, 2015
Thank you very much Robert. What a lovely introduction by someone I greatly admire. It’s special for me to be here today. You see how long it’s taken for us to book this, seven months. I wanted to be at your 100th anniversary and missed that. They wouldn’t let me out of Ottawa. I certainly wasn’t going to cancel because it would have taken us another two years for me to get here and join you.
I’m a proud Rotarian as well. It’s also very special for me to have so many friends here, friends from Churchill Society, True Patriot Love and the Canadian Armed Forces. They’re friends because we share passions. We share passions for our parliamentary democracy, for service and for country. It means a lot that friends have taken time to join me and of course my wife Rebecca who is my partner in this journey into public service—we’re two years in now—that we feel is very important. Without her love and support I would be lost so I’m glad to see her here.
As Robert mentioned this was an appointment where I was going to speak on my role as an MP and a Rotarian and how Rotary appealed to me as a former military officer looking to serve the greater good of my own community. I was going to talk about Courtice Rotary, some of our great work. I was going to talk about my favourite Paul Harris quote which is, “Great things happen when good people come together.”
I think that says it all about Rotary’s work, not just in Canada but around the world. It truly is leadership at the local level. There were several dozen Rotarians at the founding meeting of the United Nations. Easter Seals is a charity started by Rotarians and Rotary has been in the forefront of trying to eradicate polio. It would be only the second disease eradicated from the face of the earth.
Rotary as a group was the leadership at the World Health Organization, the Gates Foundation and increasingly our government over the last few years has joined in your journey. It’s an impressive record and as Rotarians you should be really proud. As Veterans Affairs Minister the veterans community and the Canadian Forces writ large saw your wonderful gesture in 2011 when there had been a couple of poppy boxes stolen from a few locations in Toronto.
It was the Toronto Rotary Club that stepped up with a $5,000 donation to make up the difference in the poppy fund that those boxes would have been. Don’t think those gestures go unnoticed, very impressive. In fact, Rotary in many ways embodies the same principles that lead people to join the Canadian Armed Forces—service above self.
I think nothing epitomizes service above self than donning the uniform of your country and putting yourself into harm’s way. We have some tremendous veterans who did that for country and for freedom in the Second World War. Fred Strickland who was part of the Second Tactical Air Force is with us, a multi-decade Rotarian, still continuing to put service above self. George Richardson who was a fighter squadron pilot joined Rotary years after the war, continues to put service above self.
I’m going to do a twist on what Gerry did earlier because there are a number of veterans in the room but there are also families in the room because they serve as well. I saw my friend Alex Brown who is here somewhere whose son commanded a reserve regiment in south western Ontario, Chris Brown, proud to call him a friend.
I’d like everyone in the room if someone in your family—children, spouse, partner, served in the armed forces please stand. Now I would like anyone who served in the military to stand at the same time. Everyone still stand up. Thank you and your families for your service. I serve all of you, veterans and families, as Minister of Veterans Affairs so I’m here to serve you.
I do that to show that without the family unit being strong, the veteran will not be strong. That’s going to be a theme during my tenure as Minister of Veterans Affairs. Because we’re one day away from the 50th anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill, probably the greatest parliamentarian in history who secured the freedoms we enjoy today and Canadians served with our allies in that effort.
With the Churchill Society here I had to embed a couple of Churchill quotes into my remarks. I’ll use one now because it really exemplifies my opportunity and challenges as Minister of Veterans Affairs. Churchill once said, “It is not us saying we will do our best. You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.” What has been necessary as Minister of Veterans Affairs has been listening and coming up with a plan. Today I’m going to share with you a few reflections on my first few weeks listening and meeting with veterans and advocates from across the country.
C’est un honneur pour moi de vous parler aujourd’hui non seulement comme membre de cette belle organization mais aussi en tant que Ministre des anciens combattants sur les enjeux auxquels font face les hommes et les femmes qui ont servi notre pays et ceux et celles qui le servent encore.
Service above self—I’ll stay with that theme. In many ways it embodies why I joined the military at 18. I wanted to serve the country. I didn’t particularly know what I wanted to do in the military and went off to military college to find that out but I wanted to serve a greater purpose than what I thought I was doing as a young high school student in Bowmanville, Ontario.
The most startling thing I’ve learned on my journey meeting people in my first three weeks as Minister has been that continuing passion to serve. We see it in Frank and George up here with me today, both I will note air force people. It’s good to see the air force so well represented here. But in Esquimalt I met a young master corporal Bruno, a clearance diver who had just gotten out of the military a few years earlier.
He’s in his transition to civilian life yet he’s already volunteering his time with wounded warriors in a program to help families with mental health. Immediately out of uniform and immediately helping other veterans and military families. I’ve been struck by this throughout my visit.
At Sunnybrook Hospital in this city I met Fraser Holman. He came up to me, knew I was the new Minister. He was wearing a smock that said volunteer. He was there to volunteer with our Second World War and Korean vets at Sunnybrook. I only learned later that he was a retired major general and former fighter pilot and fighter pilot squadron commander. Now the top gun is wearing a smock that says volunteer and quietly going on his way serving veterans, service above self.
The two central themes that I hope to establish as Minister of Veterans Affairs and it’s good to see one of my predecessors in this portfolio, John McCallum here, is to do two things. I want to create an informed and respectful dialogue about the opportunities and challenges facing our veterans. In the last few years we haven’t always seen that and that’s not serving veterans.
Let’s talk about some of the challenges we have and a plan to fix some of those challenges. Let’s also talk about some of the tremendous work going on and there really is tremendous work, personal stories, people within Veterans Affairs helping Canada become a leader on support for families, veteran families, military families, Canada becoming a leader in the rising challenges regarding mental health.
Let’s not just focus on some of the challenges. Let’s also say what we’re doing right and talk about that responsibly. Everything we do should be focused at care, compassion and respect. Even when there’s disagreement politically or amongst veterans or amongst advocacy organizations, let’s agree to do that respectfully and show care and compassion to those who served us.
As Churchill said, you’ve got to succeed in doing what is necessary.
The three broad themes I’ll fill the rest of my time with are; what is necessary?
What do I see as necessary after my first three weeks traveling from coast to coast on my listening tour?
We have to have a veteran-centred approach to everything we do from policies to future planning to programming. The veteran has to be at the centre of everything we do and their family which is why I asked the families to stand.
It’s not just the person on the frontline in an office or on the phone. It’s the policy advisors. Everyone in Prince Edward Island where the department is headquartered or in Ottawa, in my Minister’s office, the veteran will be at the centre of everything we do. The question should be, “how will this help the veteran or their family?” Can we make this simpler for the veteran or their family? Can we cut down on wait times for the veteran and their family?
Veteran-centric means responding to the rising new needs, mental health being the largest. A fact that stunned me when I first heard it over the course of the last three weeks is in the last five years operational stress injuries, PTSD being the most widely known one but there’s various forms of mental injury from service, in the last five years have increased by 100%.
Let’s talk about that rationally as a challenge. We have to meet rising new needs of demand. We’ve been trying to do that. By the end of this year we’ll have a network of almost 24 operational stress injury clinics open to help address that rising need. That may not be enough but we’re moving there and giving resources, adapting programing to support our veterans.
Why we have to talk rationally about that is the first operational stress injury clinic opened by Mr. McCallum’s government did not open until 2002. This is something that the Canadian Forces has been struggling to deal with for the last two decades and is now making great headway. It’s an area where Veterans Affairs is working closely with them.
Some of our programing is cutting edge in the world in terms of helping the veteran get to a better place to resume their duties or to transition to a civilian career, nothing better exemplified than the story of Chris Linford and his wife Catherine. I joined Wounded Warriors to launch their program in Victoria last week called Couples Overcoming PTSD Every Day.
Chris Linford served with Romeo Dallaire and other Canadians in Rwanda. He developed PTSD. Ask him. When he finally put his hand up and said I need some help he had world class care. He got to a better place and he redeployed to Afghanistan. He didn’t lose his job. He wasn’t mired in years of challenge and trouble. He accessed programing. It worked.
Not only did he go back to his job. He redeployed in Afghanistan. Now like many of the veterans I talked about before he’s out of the military. What does he want to do? He wants to turn around and help his brothers and sisters in arms and the family. Chris and Catherine have launched a program that helps families deal with operational stress injuries and the impact they have on the family unit.
The second broad theme that I’ve learned and I see as a vision for the department is a seamless integration with the Canadian Forces. There are 700,000 veterans right now in Canada—the Second World War, Korea, NATO, UN Peacekeeping, Cold War, Afghanistan but there’s 80,000 veterans coming. Who are those veterans? They’re the men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces.
For 50 years the Department of National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada operated as if they were two different units, not recognizing implicitly that the men and women wearing a uniform now, regular force and reserve, are veterans of the future. One of the stakeholder meetings I had this week was at my old base in Shearwater, CFB Shearwater 12 Wing … meeting with leadership in uniform of the Canadian Forces.
One of the first questions I got is they said, Sir, why are you coming here as Veterans Affairs Minister. I said because you’re a veteran in 2, 5, 10 or 15 years. The very fact that a senior leader asked that question shows we’ve got to make integrating services, understanding benefits better. The commanding officer told me he had three service members come into my office over the last couple of years and express their interest in getting out; one was a medical issue and one was a spouse who had a better job in another province. He said I didn’t know what to tell them. Go meet Veterans Affairs after you leave the forces. We have to make sure that it’s seamless. I want to see an end state where someone in basic training gets their first briefing on Veterans Affairs.
Throughout their career, the leadership particularly, should be able to know and talk responsibly about what services at Veterans will be available for the men and women under their command when they become veterans.
We don’t want to see people spending 30 years or even three years in uniform dropping off the cliff because Veterans Affairs is a mystery and it’s not talked about while people are in uniform. The health, family and career of the veteran—that transition piece—where will I move with my family? What will my next job be? Do I need any medical support or assistance? All of those decisions, all that makes an effective transition, those decisions are made while they’re wearing the uniform.
They don’t wait to say to their partner where will we live when I hang up my uniform? These decisions are made years in advance. Let’s recognize that and let’s make Canadian Forces and Veterans Affairs become seamless in the education and discussion about services, benefits and transition.
If the transition goes well we have remarkable success. He’s going to criticize me immensely for singling him out but a friend of mine Ihor Kozak is in this room today. Ihor was one of the top Canadian immigrants years ago and the reason why he won that award was because within seven years of coming to Canada from Ukraine he was serving Canada in uniform. That’s pretty impressive.
Decorated twice for his service in the Afghan mission and as an engineer supporting Camp Mirage and other services there—he successfully transitioned to a career in aerospace as an engineer. Now he’s a veteran. I serve my friend Igor. His transition has been successful, likely with no assistance from the government.
I met veterans a week ago who said I found out that your government has put several hundred dollars towards resume writing and career assistance for me when I was leaving the forces but I was told about it two days before I left the military. I had a job. I would have loved to know I had some assistance eight months earlier. That second pillar I think is critical. It’s seamless integration with the Canadian Forces.
You’re going to see our language change. Our medical official will now be our Surgeon General. We’ll start learning the language, using the same language. I’ll be speaking to men and women on bases in the future so they have the knowledge to give to their peers and to their subordinates in terms of what their transition to become a veteran will be like.
The third main pillar that I’ve taken up from my learning and listening tour over the last few weeks has been we have to create a culture that strives for service excellence. It is about service. Veterans Affairs has spending in the range of $4 billion. This is a unique department where 90% of that goes to programing support for our veterans.
I think Canadians should be proud to know that. Ninety percent is directly to support and that’s been our focus, try to get more to the veteran, to the family, to the front lines, to rising areas of new needs like mental health.
Because we’re so service focused we have to build a culture that strives for excellence.
Remember the first pillar. If it’s veteran-centric and if every decision relates to how we help the veteran and their family. Service excellence should be something that we never achieve but we always strive towards. Are the operational stress injury clinics that we’re opening up geographically—spread throughout the country—are they meeting the need?
Do we need a roving swat team? Can we work better with the Canadian Forces sharing desperately needed psychologists and psychiatrists who are short in the civilian population? The University Health Network Hospitals here are likely short of these in demand professionals. If the Canadian Forces are short and Veterans Affairs are short, can we work together to address those shortages?
We also have to recognize we have a challenge that Canada hasn’t seen for 50 years, since the Korean War. We have veterans with some serious injuries both physical and mental from service 12 years in Afghanistan, a war. Canada has traditional war veterans. We also have Afghan veterans, Cold War veterans and none of them are identical.
We have to meet the service excellence challenge of serving veterans who are 29 or 89. Nothing is more stark than my friend Ernest Côté. You saw the 101 year old veteran who was terribly attacked over the Christmas holidays. I met Ernest on Juno Beach when I was there with the contingent from the anniversary last June and Ernest was an inspiration.
He parked his walker at the top of the beach and a 101 year old veteran walked down onto the shores that he and his colleagues had landed on 70 years earlier. It was remarkable. People were crying. Are Ernest’s expectations—in terms of service—are they the same as Ihor when he leaves? No. We have to recognize that. We have veterans like my friend Jody Mitic who lost two legs in Afghanistan but almost won Amazing Race Canada, speaks and inspires people on his road to wellness.
He still has challenges but he was just elected as an Ottawa city councillor. Permanently impaired but not permanently limited. He wants to access his benefits and service on an iPhone or BlackBerry. I don’t think my friend Ernest Cote at 101 wants to use his on iPad. Let’s recognize some of the challenges we have and make a plan and strive for service excellence so we meet the needs of those veterans in their 20s and those veterans in their 80s and 90s.
That’s not an easy challenge. Some of our allies are facing the same challenges. Let’s learn from them, recognize if areas need to be fixed and fix them. Doing things the way they were done in 1950 after we set up the modern Veterans Affairs structure, that’s not good enough. Are we striving for service excellence and meeting the needs of all veterans?
Those are our challenges. The way forward is that I will work on the challenges and articulating them but I will need the assistance of everyone in this room and of all Canadians to make sure we have that informed and respectful dialogue because I think all Canadians, all political parties want to support the men and women who have served us and given us the country we enjoy.
As Minister I’m also very comfortable and I’ve shown that in my first few events recognizing where third parties like Wounded Warriors or True Patriot Love or groups like Send Up the Count and Treble Victor. There’s immense diversity in some of the groups advocating and supporting our veterans.
It they’re doing something faster or better than the government I’m going to applaud and thank them because if they’re trying to serve the veteran and their family, I’m there to support that effort. If we can learn from the service dog work that Wounded Warriors and other groups have done and adopt that and get that benefit out to veterans, why would I suggest that government has the monopoly on trying to serve our veterans.
I’m going to need the help of Rotarians who as I said put service above self. This club in particular, I looked at your list of speakers in the last few months, you care. You’re aware of these issues. Brigadier-General Chapman was here. Chaplain Robert Fead was here last week or two weeks ago.
My friend R.H. Thomson, the actor who basically helped us kick off commemorating the First World War with his amazing vigil work and the Churchill Society worked with R.H. as well. You are bringing speakers to tell their story. We need to not just tell the story beyond Toronto. We need to applaud and encourage groups that are there to support military families, veterans and their families.
As I said, my most inspiring part of my tour has been seeing at the heart of so many of these groups are veterans who just got out of uniform. They want to continue to put service to others at the centre of their lives. That’s our way forward. Those are some of the areas we need to work on to show care, compassion, respect to our veterans.
I’m starting and I’m going to continue this work with your support. There’s no better way to end with friends here from the Society and with the 50th anniversary of Churchill’s death coming tomorrow than of course a Churchill quote, or adopting a Churchill quote. I will work hard and I will offer blood, toil, tears and sweat in support of our veterans. Thank you very much.