OTTAWA - The system of awards for the pain and suffering of the country's most severely wounded soldiers is about to be overhauled as the Harper government attempts to defuse a volatile issue within the angry veterans community.
Multiple federal sources tell The Canadian Press that Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O'Toole will announce targeted improvements Monday to bring lump sum awards for the most severely disabled more in line with what courts award civilians injured in workplace accidents.
Just how much soldiers — with missing limbs and other injuries such as post-traumatic stress — should be paid in compensation has been a lightning rod issue since the federal government overhauled the benefits regime in 2006.
Currently, the maximum tax-free award is $306,698, which is considerably lower than the benchmark civilian award of $342,500, established in 2012 by the B.C. Supreme Court.
Addressing the issue is crucial this election year for the ruling Conservatives and O'Toole, who've proposed a series of new and improved benefits to win back the allegiance of increasingly outspoken and alienated ex-soldiers.
Legislation to enact the changes is expected to be dropped Monday in the Commons, with the issue of the lump sum award being among the most crucial.
Payments are determined on a sliding scale depending on the degree of disability, but the sources say not to expect an across-the-board increase for every category of injury. Instead, the measures will be "limited to the people who are most critically injured."
One source, who was not authorized to speak to the media, said on background one mechanism under consideration since last fall was an additional one-time, $70,000 top-up payment that could be added separately to whatever lump sum is given to a soldier.
The move would bring the payment system in line with Ontario's compensation framework, said a second federal source.
The fact that modern-day veterans receive less is at the heart of the class-action lawsuit by angry Afghan veterans. The government and lawyers for the plaintiffs recently put the suit on hold as they negotiate a settlement.
The government has heard complaints for years, and in 2011 it tried to placate injured veterans by allowing them the choice of whether to take the lump sum or have it paid out in stages. Only two per cent of those eligible have taken up the offer and the payment schedule remained unchanged.
The Commons veterans committee weighed in last summer, finding the pain and suffering awards given to severely injured soldiers don't match what courts or provincial compensation systems provide.
"The amount of the lump sum payment is considered very low by those with very serious injuries in the short or medium term, who are forced to leave the Canadian Forces but whose permanent disabilities are moderate," said the all-party's committee report, released last June.
Many veterans view the one-time disability award as the government simply washing its hands of the wounded, the committee was told in public hearings.
Former Liberal Senator Romeo Dallaire, a retired lieutenant-general, was among the most outspoken in saying the measure was detrimental to soldiers.
Kevin Berry, a veteran of the Afghanistan mission and a veterans advocate, told the committee the ongoing payments for pain and suffering made under the old pension-for-life system, replaced in 2006, had symbolic value.
"When my knees ache and I put my hearing aids in — I'm 30, by the way — I'm reminded that there's a connection to the government of Canada and, by extension, the people; that my sacrifice is remembered; and that it's dealt with through a financial stipend," Berry testified.
"It's not a huge amount of money. I'm not going to get rich off of it. But it's a nice reminder that I haven't been forgotten and that's acknowledged — every day."
The government said last year it needed to study the financial implications of adjusting the lump sum and introducing new benefits.
The proposed changes are going to be a hit to the government's bottom line that one source said the Conservatives are eager to book in the 2014-15 fiscal year, which ends Tuesday.
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