Hauling Veterans Back To Court Over Benefits A 'Disgrace,' Opposition Says

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The Liberal government is a "disgrace" for sending wounded veterans back to court to fight for benefits, opposition parties charged Wednesday.

Veterans have been arguing the government has a sacred obligation to its soldiers and that the lump-sum payment wounded veterans receive under the New Veterans Charter — as opposed to the pension that was offered before 2006 — is inadequate compensation, as they receive less money over the course of a lifetime.

Government lawyers outraged many veterans by asserting that the federal government has no extraordinary obligation to those who have fought for the country.

kent hehr
Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr speaks with veterans at a stakeholder summit at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015. (Photo: Justin Tang/CP)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday said that after "10 years of neglect" by the former Conservative government there are a lot of issues to resolve, and he's proud of the work Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr is doing on the file.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair took issue with the government's stance, saying after "campaigning on a black and white promise to end the Conservative court case against veterans the Liberals are taking them back to court with the same lawyers, and the same arguments, to try and block them from getting the benefits they deserve and that the Liberals promised. It's disgusting."

"This is a disgrace, it is shameful. The Liberals must recognize Canada's moral, social, legal and financial covenant with veterans," NDP MP Irene Mathyssen added, noting the latest legal move will add to the $700,000 bill the Conservatives racked up fighting these veterans in court.

Trudeau condemned Mulcair for "playing politics" with veterans, but offered no reason as to why justice department lawyers are ending a legal truce and blocking the class action lawsuit launched by six injured Afghan veterans.

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CBC News first reported Tuesday that Hehr signed off on sending the lawsuit back to the B.C. Court of Appeal after the legal truce — formally called an abeyance agreement — expired Sunday, a move that has been described by some as a "betrayal" after veterans groups campaigned with Liberals ahead of the Oct. 19 vote.

The Liberals have also put Paul Vickery back on the case, the government lawyer who was removed by former Conservative veterans minister Erin O'Toole in 2014 after a period of fractious relations between the Harper government and advocacy groups.

"The prime minister promised to uphold the sacred obligation our country owes to our veterans and yet his justice minister has turned her lawyers on veterans," O'Toole said Wednesday in question period.

Hehr told the House he could not comment on issues before the court, but said the Conservatives "should applaud us for what we're doing," rhyming off changes made in the most recent budget, including reopening service offices, increasing the disability award and boosting the earnings loss benefit for injured veterans and expanding access to the permanent impairment allowance.

He also said he is dedicated to implementing all the items his mandate letter, including lifetime pensions, but said that "veterans stakeholders have asked us to get this right and not rush."

Veterans affairs minister 'two-faced'

The veterans promised to drop the litigation if Hehr provided timelines for enacting the priorities outlined in his mandate letter. But, according to Donald Sorochan, the lawyer representing the veterans, the minister has been noncommittal on timelines for implementing key promises, namely when lifetime pensions will be restored.

Government lawyers have informed Sorochan that they will revert to the legal position they initially argued in the Harper era, namely that the federal government has no extraordinary obligation to those who have fought for the country and that Canada does not have a social covenant with veterans.

They will also seek to justify the lump-sum payments, arguing that a "scheme providing benefits cannot be said to amount to a deprivation merely because claimant views the benefits as insufficient."

These positions were ultimately repudiated by the Harper government who sought to patch up relations with veterans, many of whom had become vocal opponents of the Tories.

The fact the Liberal government is now reverting to the same arguments that the Conservatives acknowledged were problematic has exasperated veterans groups.

"I am bitterly disappointed that I took some flack for trusting this government and now people are telling me 'I told you so, the government couldn't be trusted.' They were right," Sorochan said. "I think [Hehr's] an inexperienced minister with little background on the veterans affairs file and his chief of staff comes from the insurance industry where this type of approach is common, they're motivated to increase profits," Sorochan said.

Conservative Veterans Affairs critic Alupa Clarke also chided Hehr for the latest move, calling him "two-faced" for appearing publicly supportive of wounded veterans while his government is taking them to court over benefits his party promised to enact.