05/26/2015 11:51 EDT | Updated 05/26/2016 05:59 EDT

Veterans Watchdog Guy Parent: Feds Making Progress For Ex-Soldiers

OTTAWA - An analysis of whether the Conservative government is living up to its promises to improve the delivery of benefits for veterans suggests things are moving in a positive direction, the veterans' ombudsman says.

Veterans and the government still aren't in sync on what programs and services ought to look like, but there's been progress, Guy Parent said in an interview Tuesday.

"We haven't closed any gaps but certainly there are some being narrowed," Parent said. "And I think they are being narrowed because the intent of the recommendations is being met."

It's been nearly a year since the House of Commons veterans affairs committee made 14 recommendations on improving the so-called New Veterans Charter, the 2006 document that changed how benefits are delivered. The ombudsman has been calling for changes to various elements of the policy in a series of reports beginning in 2013.

The charter, introduced by the Liberals but implemented by the Conservatives, has been controversial for how veterans' benefits are determined and paid out. Fighting over its application has coloured the relationship between veterans and the government for years.

Both Parent and the committee have pinpointed some shortcomings, ranging from how injured vets are compensated for lost income to what happens once they retire.

While numerous changes have been made, veterans aren't necessarily making the connection that they're in relation to the committee's report or his own reviews, Parent said, which is what prompted him to undertake an analysis.

Parent found that in the many cases, the government's actions have proven to be in sync with the intent of the recommendations.

In March, the government introduced new regulations expanding monthly benefits for soldiers with severe and permanent limitations, addressing concerns that the way eligibility was being determined shut out too many people.

But there's also a lot waiting in the queue, including legislation yet to be passed and regulations yet to be unveiled.

So while in some cases the government is meeting the intent of the suggestions — like providing better financial support to injured veterans after they retire — the scope of that promise remains unclear.

"The devil is in the details," Parent said.

"Will the regulations change that opinion of meeting intent? We hope not, but at that point in time we'll be able to really give a good perspective on fairness."

Parent said he's confident pending bills will be passed by the Commons before it rises for the summer; if not, the legislation will have to be re-introduced following the federal election scheduled for October.

At one point last year, the relationship between the veterans community and the government had deteriorated to the extent that some veterans groups were threatening to protest outside Conservative campaign events this fall.

The major stressors were policy and personnel — many veterans felt slighted by then-veterans affairs minister Julian Fantino, who has since been replaced by Erin O'Toole, himself a veteran.

O'Toole's second-in-command in the department is former chief of staff Walt Natynczyk. Together, they've repaired a lot of damage, Parent said.

"Things are lined up so that at least the veterans community can have the certainty now that people understand the issues," he said.

"So I think that is a big step in the right direction."

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