OTTAWA - The Harper government moved quickly Monday to limit the damage of a scathing report from Canada's veterans ombudsman, who accused a review agency of being secretive and unfair to ex-soldiers in search of benefits.
Federal Court challenges arising out of decisions from the Veterans Review and Appeal Board were the subject of an exhaustive study by the ombudsman office.
The office found that 60 per cent of the cases were returned to the agency, which is supposed to provide veterans fair, sympathetic hearings, because it did not give veterans the benefit of the doubt and did not generously interpret the law surrounding compensation.
The criticism mirrors complaints earlier this year from an outspoken board member, Harold Leduc, who claimed his private medical information was spread around the board in an effort to discredit him because he often sided with ex-soldiers.
The Conservatives have made support for veterans and soldiers one of their boilerplate political positions.
Yet the ombudsman's report accused the board of often leaving applicants in the dark about reasons for its decisions and not disclosing to veterans what medical information it used as the basis for its rulings.
"This is about the fair treatment of the men and women who have served their country honourably," said ombudsman Guy Parent.
The board must realize that it needs to work within the law, and the act is "quite clear in saying they need to liberally construe the evidence and go in favour of the applicant."
Leduc said board staff described members who regularly sided with veterans as Santa Claus.
Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney told the House of Commons on Monday that he's ordered the board to accept all of the report's recommendations. The agency, in a letter to the minister, promised to act within 30 days.
Board spokeswoman, Danielle Gauthier, said the agency is committed to improve the appeal process for veterans and their families.
The report complained the board did not take stock or learn from the cases the Federal Court returned for another hearing — something it promises to do in the future.
Whenever an ex-soldier is unhappy with a decision of Veterans Affairs on either benefits or services, they have the right to have their cases reviewed by the board, which is a quasi-judicial agency. If the board rejects the veteran's claim, the last resort is to take the case to Federal Court.
The report made seven recommendations, including a requirement for the agency to publish its decisions rather than keep them secret.
The board's action plan falls short of the full disclosure demanded by the ombudsman. It says it is already publishing "noteworthy decisions" and will link its website to the one operated by the Federal Court.
The 53-page investigation report noted the board is swamped, conducting as many as 5,000 reviews of Veterans Affairs Canada cases each year.
"I recognize that board members and staff have the difficult task of determining the merits of cases by deciding on questions of law and fact in an environment characterized by heavy workloads, increasingly complex cases, and pressure to issue timely decisions," he said.
Parent added it's up to the department to consider why so many of its decisions are the subject of challenge.
The Royal Canadian Legion was swift in its reaction Monday, saying the report undermines the credibility of a board that is already viewed with suspicion by former service members.
President Pat Varga urged the government to clean up the agency.
"The government has an obligation to our veterans and their families to ensure that they have access to a fair and transparent adjudication process," she said.
"They have been injured in service to our country and they deserve to be treated fairly and with respect."
Following the release of the report, Liberal veterans critic Sean Casey served notice that he wanted a House of Commons committee investigation of the board.