OTTAWA - Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino has asked a House of Commons committee to spell out precisely what kind of social and legal obligation Canada has to its soldiers.
The issue is at the heart of a class-action lawsuit underway in British Columbia, where veterans of the Afghan war say they are being discriminated against by Ottawa's new benefits system.
The Conservatives, who bill themselves as champions of Canadian soldiers, faced criticism last summer when federal lawyers filed their defence in the court case.
Justice Department attorneys argued Canada has no extraordinary obligation to care for wounded and broken veterans, despite pledges of previous governments dating back to the First World War.
Fantino wants MPs to define what Canada's shared duty and responsibility should be for possible inclusion in the veterans charter.
"The work our government does each day has been and can be called many things: duty, responsibility, commitment, social contract, sacred obligation or covenant," he said.
"Colleagues, I believe it is all of those things. Therefore, as part of this review, I ask you to determine how best to state our commitment to Canadians and their families and what is the best format to do so in the New Veterans Charter."
By asking the committee to examine the question, Fantino has shifted the political responsibility from the Conservative government to all political parties.
The minister is already on the record as saying he believes elected officials, and not the courts, should define what the country owes its soldiers who are placed in harm's way in defence of the country.
"It is important that Canadians express, though the parliamentary process, exactly what is our shared duty, responsibility, mandate, obligation, commitment or covenant to Canadian veterans," Fantino said.
The Commons veterans committee is currently studying whether changes to the charter, made in 2011, are having the desired effect.
One advocacy group reacted with cautious optimism, but suggested Parliament's feet need to be kept to the fire.
"This could be a very positive development if veterans unite behind the wounded and speak with many voices and one message: Fulfil the sacred obligation" to soldiers, said Mike Blais, president of Canadian Veterans Advocacy.
Fantino also defended the planned closure of nine Veterans Affairs offices across the country, and the amount of money the government has put into a burial program for impoverished ex-soldiers.
The government was put on the defensive last year when it was revealed the Last Post Fund, meant to assist with burial costs and a headstone, had rejected two-thirds of the requests put before it in the previous five years.
The Conservative government increased the amount of money available for funeral expenses, but did not loosen the eligibility criteria, which have not been revised in decades.
The rules generally exclude modern-day soldiers who served during the Cold War and in Afghanistan.
Despite suggestions the government may be willing to bend on the criteria, Fantino told MPs he believes efforts to date have been acceptable, given that Britain and New Zealand have similar, but less generous programs.
"It is clear this program has kept up with the changing times, because of improvements made by our government," he said.
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