OTTAWA - The Harper government says it intends to appeal a B.C. court ruling that cleared the way for a class-action lawsuit involving veterans of Canada's war in Afghanistan.
A group of ex-soldiers is taking Ottawa to court, alleging that the federal government's new system of compensating veterans violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The government's new veterans charter eliminated the lifetime disability pension for disabled soldiers and replaced it with lump-sum payments.
The veterans say the new disability payments are paltry compared to awards given to those who fought in previous wars, and don't keep up with worker’s compensation claims — or even civil settlements in personal injury cases.
Don Sorochan, the lawyer for the soldiers, said he had hoped the government would allow the case to proceed and be decided on its own merits.
The fight over whether the soldiers have the right to sue is little more than a stalling tactic, Sorochan said — one that could find its way to the Supreme Court of Canada and delay the case for years.
"The motivation here is money, saving money on the backs and blood of veterans that served Canada," Sorochan said from Vancouver.
Federal lawyers intend to argue that allowing the lawsuit to proceed would undermine the authority of Parliament.
The case put forward by the soldiers hinges on the fact that ever since the First World War, successive federal governments have recognized the sacrifice of wounded soldiers as an extraordinary service that places a special obligation on the Crown.
But the Harper government's legal team notes the promises of past governments are not — and should not — be binding on present and future governments.
"While this may sound reasonable, their argument could have a far broader impact than perhaps intended by the plaintiffs," said a government statement released Wednesday by Veterans Affairs.
"If accepted, this principle could undermine democratic accountability as parliamentarians of the future could be prevented from changing important legislation, including the sort of changes that some veterans would like to see to the new veterans charter."
During the first round of court action, federal lawyers tried to argue that the government had no special obligation to veterans. But B.C. Justice Gordon Weatherill dismissed the federal government’s application, saying the case "is about promises the Canadian government made to men and women injured in service to their country and whether it is obliged to fulfil those promises.”
The decision to appeal came on the same day as Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino met with veterans advocacy groups at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, trying to sell them on the merits of an upcoming parliamentary review of the charter.
A House of Commons committee will examine whether recent changes to the charter are having the desired effect. The country's veterans ombudsman released a report on Tuesday that said, among other things, that the system will penalize hundreds and perhaps thousands of wounded soldiers who don't have pensions when they turn 65.
In a statement, Fantino said Parliament, not the courts, should be the ultimate decision-maker when it comes to deciding the sort of compensation soldiers receive.
"My recent commitment to proceed with a comprehensive review of the new veterans charter by elected officials, in our Parliament, will provide the appropriate forum where all voices can be heard, including those of the plaintiffs, veterans, family members, other interested individuals and subject matter experts," said Fantino.
"That is where we can work together on appropriate change for veterans and their families."
An outspoken veterans advocate was astonished at the government's argument and accused the Conservatives of trying to force veterans out of the courts into a parliamentary process that they control.
"It is terrifying when you think about it," said Sean Bruyea, who fought a high-profile privacy battle with the government in 2010. "They want any mechanism for change completely controlled by bureaucrats and politicians."
The government fought a similar but unsuccessful court battle over clawbacks to the veterans insurance system.
"I think the government is frightened with what happened in that case and I don't think they would suggest a (parliamentary) mechanism if they thought they were going to win (in court)," Bruyea said.