Speaking in Vancouver on Tuesday, Minister Erin O'Toole announced a new Family Caregiver Relief Benefit as well as expanded eligibility for the Permanent Impairment Allowance — life-long monthly financial support for badly injured soldiers with limited career and earning prospects.
"This constitutes an acknowledgment that the needs of veterans and their families are not frozen in time," said O'Toole, after denying that his government's recent initiatives and announcements amounted to an admission of having mistreated veterans.
"I think we're trying to get the balance right and this is about getting it right."
Veterans ombudsman Guy Parent found in a report last August that overly strict eligibility criteria meant nearly half of the country's severely disabled troops were not receiving permanent impairment funding.
"The proposed changes we are announcing today would expand the eligibility so the criteria are less rigid and more veterans with serious impairments would qualify for this allowance," O'Toole told a crowd of media and soldiers.
The new Family Caregiver Relief Benefit will provide an annual tax-free grant of $7,238 in recognition of what O'Toole described as caregiver fatigue, allowing family members to take "a well-deserved break."
The plight of families caring for wounded veterans came into sharp focus last spring during a nasty confrontation caught on TV cameras that showed then-veterans affairs minister Julian Fantino ignore Jenny Migneault, the wife of a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Migneault said on Tuesday she was pleased with the government announcement but was disappointed the initiatives did not go far enough.
"I'm happy because it's a recognition that I exist," she said. "It's a good start but more needs to be done and more needs to be discussed."
Migneault also said she was concerned that the stipend still fails to recognize the value of support work by family members, who are still excluded from compensation through some veterans support programs.
"Right now (my husband) can pay the neighbour to accompany him but me, I cannot receive that money because I'm his wife," said Migneault. "There's a question of dignity."
Migneault had asked that spouses be given counselling and training on how to cope with loved ones suffering from combat-related mental health issues, as well as better access to retraining opportunities.
Ottawa-based veterans advocate Sean Bruyea said the government's two recent announcements leave far more questions than answers.
Bruyea said the annual $7,000 caregiver stipend from Veterans Affairs amounts to "a cruel joke," pointing out that National Defence has a similar attendant care benefit for families of wounded troops that pays up to $36,500 per year.
O'Toole has laid out a series of initiatives ahead of the federal budget and next fall's election, which include a proposed new retirement benefit for wounded soldiers who don't have pension and equal access for injured reservists to an earnings loss benefit program.
Each of the initiatives addresses long-standing complaints, particularly in the case of reserve, or part-time soldiers, whose plight has been highlighted repeatedly by not only the ombudsman but successive parliamentary committees.
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-- With files from Murray Brewster in Ottawa.
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