09/16/2014 04:30 EDT | Updated 11/15/2014 05:59 EST

Cumberland County tops veterans' hearing loss claims

A small region of Nova Scotia has more hearing loss claims with Veterans Affairs Canada than Alberta and Saskatchewan combined, a CBC Nova Scotia investigation has found.

Documents obtained under the Access to Information Act cover the last two fiscal years and show the federal government has doled out more than $18 million to people in Springhill, Amherst and the surrounding area.

In that time, 474 people who live in the postal code areas of B0L, B0M and B4H — which roughly make up Cumberland County — made successful claims.

Saskatchewan had 63 claims awarded and Alberta had 402 in the same two-year period.

"It's word of mouth," said Ray Coulson, the curator of a military museum at the armoury in Amherst, who received $20,000 in compensation.

"You meet somebody somewhere and you tell them what you got and they say, 'Weren't you in the militia with me?' And they say, 'Oh, yes. Why don't you go in and see what you get.'"

The cheques are one-time payments that are tax free and range from approximately $800 to $134,000, depending on the severity of the hearing loss. The average settlement is just over $38,000.

The Cumberland County area has a proud military tradition that includes the Nova Scotia Highlanders Regiment, a unit of infantry soldiers.

"Back in the 60s and 70s, we were running 1,000 strong military types here," said Coulson, who was also a regimental sergeant major with the 1st Battalion, North Nova Scotia Highlanders.

Les Nash, a veteran who sits on the executive of the legion in Springhill, figures he's helped more than 500 people from Moncton to Pictou County file claims for hearing loss.

"Mostly I found it was army people because they were always on the ranges, right, firing the weapons and, of course, not only were the weapons loud, so were the deuce and a half trucks they used back then," he said.

Nash said many of the people he's helped spent years in the military. Others wore a uniform for less than two months in the 1960s.

"We always called it the Diefenbaker work program because they took them in the militia and that time the Cuban crisis was bearing down on us, if you remember, and a lot of them went in for training for that," he said.

"Some of them only did a six-week program so they were only in for six weeks but they did a lot of shooting at the time and, of course, there was no such thing as ear muffs back then. That was the big thing."

'We're not looking to disprove claims'

Applicants must fill out a Veterans Affairs Canada form and get an updated audiogram that shows their level of hearing loss. When possible, that's compared to audiograms completed when they joined or left the military.

According to Sandie Williamson, the director for long-term care and disability benefits at Veterans Affairs Canada in Charlottetown, audio tests since the 1970s have been conducted when most people enlist and when they are discharged from either the reserves or the regular force.

Before that period, audio tests were often not conducted — raising questions about some of the claims, especially if people went on to work in other noisy jobs.

"I'm going to say it this way, that's not my decision," said Nash.

"My decision is, once they're shown by the audiologist that they have hearing loss then by being in the militia, they have entitlement to send it in as a claim and [Veterans Affairs Canada] decide," he added.

Williamson said in cases where no baseline audiograms exist, the department relies on other evidence such as interviews and work histories to render a decision.

"We can't be certain in all cases that a person's hearing loss is totally as a result of their military service but our process is not adversarial," she said.

"We're not looking to disprove claims. Our adjudicators look at the facts of the case. They look at the evidence and circumstances and they draw every reasonable inference in favour of the applicant that the condition for which they are applying is related to military service."

The information obtained by CBC News does not show the number of successful applicants who performed only a few weeks of service. It also does not reveal the size of their settlements.

The $18 million represents about 55 per cent of the total amount paid out to Nova Scotia veterans during the period examined. According to the 2011 census, 31,353 people — or about three per cent of the province's population — live in Cumberland County.

Nova Scotia is second only to Ontario when it comes to the number of cheques handed out for hearing loss.

In the two years examined by CBC News, Veteran Affairs Canada paid out approximately $145 million in lump sum payments to Canadians.

The money does not include pension adjustments that some older veterans receive.