POLITICS

Ombudsman urges government to resolve home-equity disputes for Canadian soldiers

02/04/2013 04:36 EST | Updated 04/06/2013 05:12 EDT
OTTAWA - The Canadian Forces ombudsman says the Harper government has an opportunity now to help military families who've suffered huge home-equity losses by amending proposed legislation that's before Parliament.

Pierre Daigle testified Monday before a House of Commons committee that's studying C-15, the latest attempt in a decade-long struggle to overhaul the military justice system.

Since 2007, as many as 146 applications for reimbursement have been denied to military families for losses they've taken after selling their homes because of forced transfers to different parts of the country.

The problem could be solved by giving the country's top military commander the full power to make one-time payments in grievance cases, Daigle told the all-party Commons defence committee.

"This is an unfairness that people serving this country are facing, and all we want is to solve this unfairness," Daigle said in an interview with The Canadian Press following his testimony.

The legislation being studied by the committee has been before Parliament several times, in different forms, over the last 10 years without being passed.

The issue of military justice, including the overhaul of the grievance process, has been the subject of two studies by two justices, including former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Antonio Lamer.

Daigle says a previous version of the bill — C-41 — in 2010 would have solved the home-equity problem by giving the chief of defence staff the power to "decide all matters relating to a grievance, including financial matters."

That provision is not contained in Bill C-15.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay testified last week that cabinet passed an order in June 2012 that would give the top military commander the authority to award financial compensation under certain circumstances and said he "hoped" it might apply in the case of families who've taken a financial because of transfers.

But Daigle told the committee Monday there are limitations to those powers, most notably Treasury Board policy, the same policy that has denied military families compensation for tens of thousands of dollars in losses.

His assessment was backed by the military's No. 2 commander, Vice-Admiral Bruce Donaldson, who told the committee Monday that officials are still studying what sort of authority the cabinet order gives to Gen. Tom Lawson, the new chief of defence staff.

The only solution is to amend the bill under consideration, and make it retroactive, said Daigle.

"I wish that the committee will see it the same way and put the (chief of defence staff) authority over the grievance system back in the legislation," he said.

Liberal defence critic John McKay said the government would like to argue that the cabinet order "is a good first step, but it strikes me as no step at all."

New Democrat MP Jack Harris, his party's defence critic, agreed it would be of no help.

Conservative members of the committee questioned whether home equity was an issue at all, disputing figures from Daigle's office and another set obtained through access to information about the number of rejected applications.

MP Laurie Hawn, a former CF-18 fighter pilot, said only 30 claims out of 113,000 forced transfers have been turned down.

"That's three 100ths of one per cent, (but) I don't know if that jives with your numbers," said Hawn. "Considering the numbers we're talking about that number seems a little small. It seems quite small."

McKay countered, saying an attempt to play down the numbers doesn't make the problem less severe given that soldiers, sailors and aircrew have no choice when they're ordered to move.