A Winnipeg woman dying of lung cancer has been denied compensation promised by the federal government for illnesses linked to Agent Orange spraying at CFB Gagetown, N.B, because she missed a deadline for getting diagnosed.
"I was tired. I was worn out. I was just exhausted. But, I just thought I was stressed through work," said Debbie Bertrand, 57. "I can't change not going to a doctor."
Bertrand grew up in a military family. She is one of several thousand people who lived or worked at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown when Agent Orange was sprayed there.
"We as kids weren't given a choice of where we were allowed to live when our fathers were in the military," said Bertrand. "We just happened to be there at that time and that place."
The Canadian military allowed the U.S. to conduct Vietnam War-related experiments, in the summers of 1966 and 1967. The U.S. spraying in those years is only a small portion of the Agent Orange used in the Gagetown area over a 28-year period.
Ottawa has since promised $20,000 payments to anyone who suffered ill health effects linked to the American tests. Lung cancer sufferers qualify. However, the deadline to get diagnosed was June 30 of this year.
Sick before deadline
Bertrand said she was feeling quite ill before the deadline, but didn't go to a doctor. In June, she was working overtime as a civil servant in Winnipeg, processing Employment Insurance cheques during the postal strike.
"It's pretty obvious that she had been sick with lung cancer for quite some time, she just hadn't been diagnosed" said her daughter, Amy Bertrand, adding her mother always put others first and doesn't stand up for herself.
"She will walk away because that's what she was told — and that's not right."
Bertrand has worked for the federal government for 25 years and was just starting to plan her retirement when she got sick.
"It was very shocking actually," she said, adding she drove herself to hospital after she started coughing up blood.
"Maybe I should have gone to the doctor in May – and never mind the rest of the Canadians that they didn't get their EI cheques. I should have looked after myself instead of them."
By the time Bertrand went to hospital in August, her cancer was inoperable and quite advanced. Veterans Affairs then told her, since she was diagnosed after the cutoff, the rules dictate she is not entitled to a payment.
"In order to accept an Agent Orange ex gratia application after the June 30, 2011, deadline, there must be circumstances beyond the control of the applicant," reads the latest rejection letter from Veterans Affairs.
"Furthermore, the medical document you provided shows you were diagnosed with lung cancer on Aug. 11, 2011. That is after the eligible time period."
Cut-off date criticized
"Why do they have a cut-off date on such an important issue that's been around for years?" asked Bertrand. "How many other people don't know they are sick right now?"
The Agent Orange Association of Canada, which advocates for people exposed, said it believes many people who have suffered didn't even apply.
"I have talked to eight or nine people that found out … after the June 30th deadline. So of course they could not apply. The government right from the beginning did not do due diligence in informing people," said president Carol Brown Parker.
She said some requests submitted before the deadline were denied because of technicalities.
"The whole thing is an insult," said Grant Pye, whose application was rejected. "They are playing with people's lives here."
He said his family spent summers at a vacation property near the base and he suffers from two diseases approved for compensation. His application was denied, though, because technically the summer property was not his "residence."
"I proved I was there [during the spraying]," he said, "I wouldn't have bothered if I didn't have the right to it."
Pye's MP, Conservative John Williamson, wrote a scathing letter to Veterans Affairs about the denial calling it "arbitrary and discriminating."
"An injustice has occurred," wrote Williamson. "Your office has chosen to ignore the clear intent of the program … I ask that you right this wrong in the interest of fairness and justice."
Figures from Veterans Affairs show 9,584 people have applied since 2007, when the federal government first decided to compensate people exposed to Agent Orange in and around Gagetown in the mid-'60s.
About 4,800 people — half the applicants — have been paid. Veterans Affairs indicated most of the $114-million fund has now been depleted. About $8.6 million went to administration.
The remaining $9 million will be used to pay claims, with the last cheques being sent out by Dec. 30.
Woman has filed 2 appeals
Bertrand’s daughter, who like her mother works for the federal government, said the money would allow her to take a leave of absence to care for her mom at home.
"They were testing a chemical they used for war on my family," said Amy.
She's helped her mother file two appeals and said the slow response shows disrespect for her mom, whose time is running out.
"They can't even have the courtesy to respond to letter we sent by a lawyer," she said. "This isn't just about the money. It's about the principle. It's not right that the government can treat their citizens like this."
Veterans Affairs refused to comment on Bertrand's case, citing privacy. The minister responsible, Steven Blaney, declined a request for an interview.
A statement from his spokesperson read, "We went beyond our initial commitment by providing additional funds to the program to ensure all those who are eligible for the ex-gratia payment receive it. This is concrete proof that our government is delivering transparent and measurable results for our veterans and their families."
Several members of Bertrand's family have also become ill, with diseases linked to Agent Orange exposure, and some have since died.
She hopes by going public she can still get Ottawa's attention before Christmas.
"When you are not ready [to die] you are not prepared," says Bertrand.
Her daughter is hopeful her mother's appeal will be considered and compensation granted, so she can use some of the funds to take time off work.
"I do work two jobs, so it's hard to be home all the time to look after her," she said, choking back tears. "Until it affects you directly, you don't really know how hard it is."