Resuming the debate adjourned on September 22, 2020, on the motion for second reading of the following bill:
Bill 202, An Act to continue the Soldiers’ Aid Commission / Projet de loi 202, Loi prorogeant la Commission d’aide aux anciens combattants.
I think a lot of people are aware, over the discussion over the last few weeks since the bill has been introduced, that the Soldiers’ Aid Commission has actually been around, serving veterans in Ontario, for more than 100 years, Speaker, and it has a long history. In fact, this morning, a quick Google search pulled up a report that was published in 2015 that highlights that 100-year history. That long history includes serving veterans who have returned from both our world wars, as well as the Korean War. Those events are a long time ago now. In fact—I’m just checking the years here, as I look at the timeline—those events happened before I was born, so I think it makes sense that we’re standing here discussing a bill that would modernize the mandate of the Soldiers’ Aid Commission.
Veterans and their families face many challenges when they return home. Those challenges can include post-traumatic stress disorder, physical injury, unemployment and homelessness. Actually, Speaker, if you pull up Netflix these days, you can find lots of great documentaries that have been done on some of the damage that’s caused by serving our country overseas and ensuring our freedoms remain here in Canada—and freedoms abroad, which our veterans have often served the purpose of upholding. We’re proud, as Canadians, to not only fight for freedom here in Canada and here in Ontario, but to have a strong military that is able to also uphold freedoms internationally. So not only is that important during wartime, but it’s important that we continue to understand what the repercussions of that are after those world events, and, in Ontario, part of that work is done by the Soldiers’ Aid Commission.
We recognize now that there’s a new generation of servicemen and women, and a modern Soldiers’ Aid Commission would help more of our heroes in need. Some of the things, for those who aren’t aware, that the Soldiers’ Aid Commission covers and pays for, for veterans who have returned, are health-related items and specialized equipment, such as hearing aids, wheelchairs and prosthetics, as well as home-related items such as mobility-related renovations and repair costs; also things such as counselling, and, this may sound like a simple thing, even clothing when they’ve returned to Canada.
In addition, the modernized program will help veterans in need pay for employment readiness supports such as short-term courses or training, work tools and clothing for even a job interview. We all know—I think we can remember going out and perhaps buying a suit or something nice to wear for our first job interview, and we took advice from those who were already in the working world on how we should dress and what we should look like. Well, you can imagine, particularly for those who have served overseas for a lengthy period of time, they might not even have that clothing and probably haven’t done a job interview in many years, so anything we can do to support them in that transition back to home life I think is important work.
I’m also proud that Ontario has this long history. Actually, we’re the only province that supports veterans in this way, and that’s a history we should be proud of and we should build on, and that’s why we’re here discussing it today.
Now, just before I go into some of the details about how we’re modernizing the commission, I want to take this opportunity to speak about a constituent of mine who actually has been very involved in getting us to this place. Some of you may know, if you’ve had interactions with the Soldiers’ Aid Commission, John Greenfield. John is a very special community leader in Durham, and it really is a privilege to be able to stand in this House today and acknowledge him.
John has worked—he has been a community guy. He has worked for the city of Oshawa for 40 years—of course, now retired. He has been a member of the Royal Canadian Legion for 32 years. He was a service officer and a sergeant-at-arms for 15 years and he is also a life member of the local Temple Lodge No. 649, where he has been a member for 56 years. Actually, it’s probably a bit longer than that now, because the stat I was looking at is probably a few years old now, so it’s probably longer than 56 years. He’s a regular volunteer, as so many of our veterans are. He serves regularly at the Legion, but also the Bowmanville Older Adult Association. He can be found frequently there serving meals to seniors. He really is a community-minded constituent who it’s really such an honour to serve.
He’s really always—I can’t think of a community event I’ve been at, really, and John not have been there. He’s very involved in planning our local Remembrance Day ceremonies, he’s at every one of those that I am at, and he’s always faithful to march in all of our Christmas parades.
But why am I highlighting John today, Speaker? He’s a constituent, and I think his background speaks for itself, but, more than that, John has actually been on the Soldiers’ Aid Commission for 18 years. And since that time 18 years ago, he has been lobbying subsequent ministers and governments to expand the mandate of the Soldiers’ Aid Commission. He saw the need to modernize. But John is not only a man of words; he is a man of action. And so John took action indeed. He started touring Legion halls across the province to spread the news about the Soldiers’ Aid Commission, to make sure that veterans were aware of the supports that were available to them. But also, what he found in those discussions with them was that most people couldn’t believe that the mandate did not serve modern-day veterans.
Speaker, that’s leadership. John recognized, despite the fact that perhaps people of his vintage were well served by the commission, that there was a generation coming after him and we needed to modernize to better serve them. That’s leadership. I can’t think of what leadership is, more than looking ahead to what the next generation is going to need, not only making sure we’re serving the people of today and the needs of today.
And so that’s why we’re here. He saw that those who had gone and served in Afghanistan, for example, were not served by the Soldiers’ Aid Commission, and I think we all—I shouldn’t say all, but probably most members in this place, if you don’t know someone who has served in Afghanistan directly, you probably have met a family member of someone who has served. And that’s an example of an event that is in my lifetime that I can remember. It’s quite shocking, actually, that our Soldiers’ Aid Commission has taken this long to recognize the need to make sure these veterans are taken care of when they return after going abroad and defending our freedoms.
This bill before us that we’re debating here today, Bill 202, is An Act to continue the Soldiers’ Aid Commission and, as I said, Speaker, modernize it, to make sure it’s serving all veterans. I’m going to read from the preamble, because it really sets out what the goal is with this bill: “All Ontarians recognize the great contributions and sacrifices that veterans have made to Ontario and to Canada. Since the establishment of the Soldiers’ Aid Commission in 1915, Ontario has honoured the service of veterans to the nation, and supported veterans and their families in need. Ontario remains committed to carrying on the legacy of the commission in order to help meet the modern and changing needs of veterans and their families.”
There’s a word I want to highlight in the preamble that I think we all need to remember and recognize, and I think we do. I think most of us do. I think it’s why we attend Remembrance Day ceremonies every year. But it’s that word “honour.” This is about financial assistance, it’s about meeting the practical needs of veterans, but it’s also about honouring them. They honoured every single one of our lives by serving our country and upholding our freedoms, and we are in a better place today because of them. I can’t think of a more important thing for us to do as a government than to make sure that, in response, we continue to honour them. That’s why the words are echoed every Remembrance Day, “Lest we forget.” We must not forget their service, and we must continue to honour them, and that’s why we’re here.
Now, I want to get into some of the practical things that this bill is doing. Section 3 of the bill sets out the objects of the modernized commission. It says:
“The commission has the following objects:
“1. To administer a financial assistance program for eligible veterans and eligible family members of veterans who are resident in Ontario.
“2. To review applications for financial assistance and decide whether or not to approve them, in whole or part, in accordance with the regulations made under this act, if any.
“3. To provide advice to the minister on matters affecting veterans and their families.
“4. To engage in any other activities that may be prescribed by the regulations made under this act.”
There are two items within that section that I want to highlight and talk further about. One is that it is right in the objects of the commission to provide advice to the minister on matters affecting veterans and their families. I think that ongoing advice from the commission is necessary to make sure that the commission is modern and is keeping up with the events of the day.
Partnered with that, I think, in this section you see we’ve built in the ability for the minister to respond to those ongoing changes in need. That’s why, Speaker, a lot of the program details will be set out by regulation, which the minister is hard at work on. I think it’s necessary, as new events happen, for us to not have to bring a bill into this Legislature every time to make sure a new category of veterans is continuing to be honoured. So that regulation-making ability is very important for us to achieve a modern commission.
I also want to highlight that Ontario, as I mentioned, is actually the only province with this kind of financial support for veterans. That’s because most of that responsibility for veterans’ assistance programs lies primarily with the federal government. The Soldiers’ Aid Commission is the only provincially funded financial assistance program in Canada specifically serving veterans. The Soldiers’ Aid Commission works alongside other programs that are provided by Veterans Affairs Canada to make sure the needs of our veterans are met.
This work today that we’re debating is building on those supports. It’s building on the supports available to veterans through Veterans Affairs Canada. Those programs include the Veterans Emergency Fund and Assistance Fund, as well as the Legion’s poppy fund, and other funds that are available under Veterans Affairs.
I do want to make clear that we by no means are here debating that the federal government should move out of their responsibility in any way. It’s very important that they continue to provide that assistance. We’re pleased to provide additional assistance specifically related to things that maybe are more local in nature, like employment services for our veterans.
Now, Speaker, I do want to go back to the topic of honouring our veterans. I spoke of John Greenfield and how he’s not only a man of words and talk but a man of action. I think it’s easy for us—don’t get me wrong; I do think it’s meaningful that as members, we all appear at Remembrance Day ceremonies every year. I think that’s very meaningful to our communities and our veterans. But our work must go beyond talk. We must, as legislators, be people of action, especially as people who are given the power to take action. And so I’m so pleased—and I want to give special recognition to our Minister of Children, Community and Social Services for being the first minister in 18 years to take action on this. The need has been highlighted over and over again, and our Minister of Children, Community and Social Services is finally taking action to honour our veterans in a very practical way.
If you look at some of actions we have taken since we formed government—I remember we were expanding supports to help families relocating because they had a family member who was serving. I’m very proud that we have a government that has not only honoured in our words but honoured in the actions we have taken. I think that’s very important, and this must not be the end of that, Speaker. I hope all members of this Legislature continue to think of ways, practical ways, in our actions, that we can honour our veterans. It’s a duty we have as part of our remembrance of what they’ve done.
Again, I want to thank the minister and I want to thank his parliamentary assistant, who I know is here joining us for the debate today, because I know his parliamentary assistant was very involved in the consultations around the modernization, and those consultations will continue as the regulations are unfolding. I, as the member for Durham, as I’m sure many of us are in this place, am eager to support the minister in those consultations to make sure we get the regulations right and that we’re supporting our veterans in the most practical way with that financial assistance when they need it most, with those employment services.
I’m honoured to be a part of it, I’m honoured to join the debate, and I think we should all support this bill, Speaker.
I turn to member from Algoma–Manitoulin.
It’s more of a comment that I want to make: We’re not going to be opposing the bill, we’re actually going to be very supportive of this bill, and I’m hoping the member—I’m always one to take my place and give credit where credit is due, and I want to give credit to one of our members, Jennie Stevens, who fought for the Soldiers’ Aid Commission, has been highlighting this and has been a champion of this—
So absolutely, as the opposite member said, credit where credit is due, and credit to all parties, including our Minister of Children, Community and Social Services, who was the first one to put that increased funding behind this commission, in addition to modernizing it. I want to highlight that he has made a commitment of $1.5 million annually to support this work, up from $250,000 annually.
Could the member advise whether this funding should be exempted for the purposes of social assistance?
What’s important, and I think this actually will make the investment go further, is that social assistance—work is ongoing right now to make amendments to the social assistance regulations that, if approved, would exempt this funding for the purpose of social assistance. So I think that will make that $1.5 million annual investment go a lot further for the people it needs to serve.
I would submit through you, Speaker, to the honourable member: Given what was said and what this effort seeks to accomplish, Mr. Schwenzer needs this government’s support. He built a massive company, and because of a very awfully flawed construction process, Mr. Schwenzer’s life, his family, his business have crumbled. He has PTSD, as do many brave folks who serve. We need to stand by folks. We need to make sure that in every single effort, we stand by folks. This gentleman has a legal case, but I would invite the honourable member and her government to contact Mr. Schwenzer to see what they could do by way of this bill and other measures to support him.
The changes we’re debating today—I think you highlight the need for them to move forward as quickly as possible and get this legislation through. The plan is for the new, modernized commission to start providing assistance January 1, 2021. Hopefully, we can all work together to make sure we’re ready for that date so that members who have served in Afghanistan can now be eligible for the commission.
I want to also give a shout-out to some of the branches in the Brampton area: Branch 609 and Branch 15. I just wanted to let people know that we are thinking about you as well.
The only concern I have with this bill is it always appears that we’re nickel-and-diming our veterans. I’m hoping, and I’ll ask the question to the member opposite, whether this $2,000-a-year emergency fund—which comes out to, I think I calculated, $5.47 a day—is available for veterans. I’m also concerned that they will have to go through other funds before they can access this commission fund. They’ll have to go through the poppy fund and several others, so I want to make sure that that’s not going to be an issue.
Once again, I also want to thank our member from St. Catharines, Jennie Stevens, for bringing this forward and all the efforts she’s made lately.
I was reading through this, and it says that veterans and their families can make applications through Veterans Affairs or their Royal Canadian Legion. There’s another organization in this province which is a lot of times forgotten about, and it has been around longer than the Legion; in fact, it was put in place before the veterans act came in. It’s called the ANAVETS. It’s the Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans association. I have a branch in Stratford. They’re just like a Legion. But they come to me every once in a while and say, “Nobody mentions the ANAVETS.” So I think that’s something that we need to be cognizant of, because they do a lot of great work that the Legions do. And I don’t want to shortchange the Legions, but the ANAVETS is an organization throughout Ontario, so I think we need to recognize that.
I see here that the ANAVETS could apply through Veterans Affairs Canada. I guess that’s what they would have to do. But I think they would feel snubbed if they had to go through the Legion, because of their organization. So I just wonder if we could be cognizant of that when this legislation goes through.
Yes, I think it’s important for us all to remember that this is first a federal responsibility to provide assistance to our veterans, and that’s absolutely appropriate. We’re not here to debate our Constitution. But again, we’re really proud to have this program in Ontario that provides additional supports to Ontario veterans.
I want to begin by acknowledging the advocacy of my colleague the member for St. Catharines who really brought this issue to the attention of the government and is the impetus for the legislation that we see before us today. Of course, MPPs will recall that last March, there was a shocking story of an Afghanistan veteran, Phillip Kitchen, who was homeless, living in a tent with his infant child, his wife and his dog. He had returned home from Afghanistan suffering from PTSD, and yet discovered that he was not eligible to access any support from the Ontario Soldiers’ Aid Commission. When that story emerged in the media, for one thing, it made people aware that there was a Soldiers’ Aid Commission, because there wasn’t a lot of recognition of the work of that body; but for another thing, it raised the question: Why are modern-day veterans like Phillip Kitchen not eligible to access funding from the Soldiers’ Aid Commission?
This legislation deals with that issue. It enables veterans of more recent conflicts like Afghanistan and Rwanda and others to access funding from the Soldiers’ Aid Commission, because at the time that we learned of this situation, it came to light that the commission had a $253,000 budget and more than 60% of that was unspent. It was money that was allocated to support veterans, and it was just not being spent, because there were over 200,000 veterans in this province who were deemed not eligible to access or apply for those funds.
The mandate of the Soldiers’ Aid Commission had not been updated since 1970, and this legislation updates that mandate and is an important step forward. But of course, as my colleague the member from St. Catharines pointed out in her remarks when this legislation was first brought forward for second reading debate, this is enabling legislation. Much of the effectiveness of the new processes, the new mandate of the Soldiers’ Aid Commission, will be linked to the application processes that are put in place. We certainly do not want to see a cumbersome process that will require veterans to jump through hoops or navigate bureaucracy in order to access the funding that is available. These $2,000 grants could make a real difference for a veteran who is struggling with PTSD, who needs access to support for medications, for housing, for clothing, for a number of things, so we want to make sure that the application process is as seamless and easy to navigate as possible.
Speaker, one thing that remains the same with the mandate of the Soldiers’ Aid Commission is that the funds that are available are only to be accessed after other sources of funding have already been pursued. Of course, a very significant source of funding is the Royal Canadian Legion Poppy Fund, so I want to give shout-out to all the Legions across this country that participate every year in the poppy drive and raise those critical funds to support veterans and their families.
In particular, as the member for London West, I want to recognize the Byron-Springbank Legion Branch 533, which is the only Legion that is located in my riding. But it is one of the largest Legions, certainly, in London and I suspect across the province. The Byron Legion was chartered in 1952, so it has a long history in our community. There are more than 600 members, and I am proud to call myself a member of the Legion. Those members support the really vital fundraising efforts that the Legion undertakes. Just in last year’s poppy campaign, the Byron Legion raised $43,000. In the last five years alone, the Byron Legion has been able to raise $240,000. That is money that becomes available to support veterans and their families, to support youth education programs and other services in our community.
I just want to give you a sense of the breadth of support that is available because of the efforts of the Byron Legion in the London area. Donations have gone to support the Veterans Care Program at Parkwood Institute and helped with the purchase of specialized beds, mattresses and lifts. Funds have also gone toward the Operational Stress Injury Clinic and the virtual reality therapy equipment that is available at Parkwood.
There has been support available for veterans who live in retirement homes and long-term-care facilities. There has been emergency financial support made available for veterans. There have been student bursaries provided for children of veterans to attend post-secondary institutions, and of course the very important youth education programs that are delivered in elementary and secondary schools. So we are very grateful in the London community for the work of the Byron Legion in supporting veterans who live in London.
But the Byron Legion, like many Legions across this province, is struggling and there are real concerns about the poppy campaign this year and what kinds of funds will be able to be raised with physical distancing and the impact that will have, especially after Legions have gone through a period of COVID-19 lockdown. The Byron Legion was in the fortunate position of having a comfortable reserve, but even those reserve funds have been depleted significantly because of COVID-19, because like all Legions, the Byron Legion had to cancel any booked banquets or events in its reception halls and no longer was getting revenues from bar sales. As a result, they were down significantly in revenues but they were still paying bills, Speaker. They had utility bills; they had insurance bills. In my conversation with the Byron Legion, they estimate that they’re down about $25,000 that has been taken out of their reserves to deal with the impact of COVID-19.
Now, the Byron Legion is not at risk of closing, which is a very positive thing for our community, but we know that across the province, there are an estimated 124 Legion branches that are at risk of closing permanently, and an estimated more than 350 Legions that are facing financial hardship as every Legion, regardless of the size of their reserves, still had to access that reserve funding in order to make those payments—the rent, the mortgage, the hydro—those other hard costs that you have to keep paying during COVID-19.
And while the government’s program that was announced in the summer to help Legions fundraise so that they can bring some much-needed revenues in—while that was welcomed, there are real concerns that this money is not being directed to enabling Legions to pay those bills that they must continue paying. That’s why in London, another branch of the Royal Canadian Legion which is located in the riding of my colleague, the member for London–Fanshawe, the Victory Branch, this summer started a bottle drive just to try to bring in some much-needed funding to pay those bills, to pay the utility bills, the insurance bills. The Victory Legion estimated that they needed about $3,000 a month. That was their basic costs. They started this bottle drive and I understand that they have been able to raise, since June, $35,000, which I think speaks very much to the fact that people want to support Legions. They want to make sure that Legion services are there for veterans who are struggling and who turn to a Legion for support.
The other thing I wanted to talk about that’s specific to my community but also very much related to the Soldiers’ Aid Commission is the fact that London, also this summer, in July, was the first community in the country, the first city in the country, that undertook to create a database on homeless veterans. This database will provide real-time information to track homeless veterans. The database was undertaken with support from Built for Zero Canada, which is an organization that is focused on addressing veteran homelessness and chronic homelessness and is working with various municipalities across Canada to develop by-name lists of homeless veterans. In July, when this database was created in the city of London, 20 veterans were identified as being on the list of veterans who are homeless. Those 20 are part of a much bigger list of 1,000 people in London who are experiencing chronic homelessness.
We know a report from the Canadian Press said that there are more than 2,250 veterans country-wide across Canada who are homeless. So the problem of veteran homelessness is very real. It is real in London, it is real across Ontario and it is real across Canada.
One of the comments that was made by the director of Built for Zero Canada, the organization that is working to create these databases, is to emphasize the fact that the list itself is not going to address the problem of veteran homelessness, but it does give a sense of where people are coming from prior to their not being able to find stable housing.
In a comment from the London Free Press, somebody from the city noted that, “While there are a couple of veteran-specific resources in the community, most housing placements for veterans look the same as housing placements for other people experiencing homelessness. Right now, units are a scarce resource.”
I think that this really highlights the fact that although the budget for the Soldiers’ Aid Commission has been increased, and that’s a welcome increase for all the veterans who will now be eligible to apply for that assistance, there is still much, much more that is needed to actually support veterans in our communities.
Finally, Speaker, before I close, I wanted to share with this Legislature the story of a very important and significant former member of the London community, and that is Trooper Mark Wilson. Trooper Wilson was a veteran of Afghanistan, born and raised in London. He was killed in 2006 in Afghanistan. He was the 40th Canadian soldier to die in Afghanistan. He was also a husband, Speaker. He was a father of two sons. He was a loyal son to his mother Carolyn Wilson, London Silver Cross Mother, and his father Carl Wilson. He was a brother to his family as well.
He joined the military in 2001 at the age of 35, so he made a late career entry into the military, and he was deployed to Afghanistan in the summer of 2006. In a recent biography of Mark’s story, they say, “Mark had a burning desire to serve his country as part of the worldwide action to combat terrorism, tyranny and oppression in that war-torn land.” He was motivated by the desire to serve his country and to help people in Afghanistan. He was deployed in the summer of 2006.
The story goes on to say, “It wasn’t long, however, before the truth smacked Canadians squarely between the eyes, as the number of soldiers returning in caskets began to increase steadily. For the Wilson family, the real eye-opener came in early October when they received a call from their shaken son. It was the first time they’d heard distress in his voice.”
Trooper Mark Wilson died in service in Afghanistan, but others who served with him came back. They came back to Canada, they came back to Ontario; they came back to the communities that all of us represent. They deserve to be able to access the kind of support that is provided by the Soldiers’ Aid Commission.
This is a positive step forward, Speaker, the updating of the mandate, the modernizing and enabling of legislation, so that all of those veterans—93% of veterans in Ontario had previously been excluded from accessing support from the Soldiers’ Aid Commission and now they will be able to apply. So that is a positive step forward and it is certainly something that all of us on this side of the House, wherever we sit, can support.
But at the same time, as I mentioned, funds from the commission are to be used as a last resort, so we must make sure that those supports are available for Legions, who provide funding through the poppy campaign to support veterans, and for housing, given the number of veterans who are living in homelessness. That is a much broader issue that this government has to acknowledge. We know that veterans have been disproportionately impacted by cuts to the homelessness prevention initiative, and we have yet to see the kind of investment in housing that so many people in our communities deserve and have not been able to access.
With that, Speaker, I look forward to questions and comments from members in this Legislature.
I understand that from the point of view of the opposition, the respected member was trying to refer to the amount of the money. I understand that, but does the member agree with me that this is the first time a recognition to the veterans and their families—and the changes will open the door for more to come?
I appreciate the government’s commitment to increasing the amount of funding that is allocated to the Soldiers’ Aid Commission, but I am also concerned about the lack of supports that veterans continue to experience in our communities, especially around homelessness. We know that veterans make up a much larger proportion of the people who are living in chronic homelessness than others.
I’d actually like to ask the member to speak more about the need for additional support, to see this as a starting point to ensure that we don’t have more veterans that are experiencing homelessness. I know that in the Street Needs Assessment in 2018 in the city of Toronto, they found that 13% of the people that were experiencing homelessness were veterans. So I really do want to give the member some time to speak about the importance of seeing this as a starting point and not as an end point.
PTSD is not something that is easily resolved with a $2,000 grant. PTSD can result in people becoming chronically homeless, which is what had happened to Phillip Kitchen, the Afghanistan veteran whose story came to light last March. He returned from Afghanistan, he was struggling with PTSD and he was not able to access the support from the Soldiers’ Aid Commission.
I note that in other jurisdictions such as New Brunswick, Alberta and Saskatchewan, they also have programs, but the programs are all non-financial programs for veterans for such things as family settlement programs and a veterans’ information line; they’re not actually financial programs. Do you have any other suggestions that you think we ought to be including going forward in terms of improving what we’re doing here today?
This is a good step forward with the Soldiers’ Aid Commission program, but I wanted to ask the member if she could speak to the Soldiers’ Aid Commission program and how it could be improved, so it is a smoother process with the effectiveness to actually help veterans and their families, because there is the one piece where they’ve got to exhaust so many funds. Would that be helpful, if there was a smoother process to get the resources they need?
I would like to ask the member opposite: When the veterans come back, what kind of employment support can we give to them?
We need to have programs that are specific to the needs of veterans, that understand their experiences, to help them re-enter the labour market, because homelessness is related not only to some of the mental health challenges that veterans are experiencing but also the lack of access to income. If they can’t get employment, if they can’t return to education, they can’t get housing, and then they end up in chronic homelessness.
It’s an honour to speak about the valued role that members of the Canadian Forces and our veterans play in our country, and in particular what has become affectionately known as “CFB Orléans.” So many families from the community that I grew up in, that I call home and have the honour of representing here in this Legislature, have sacrificed in ways that we can only begin to imagine. They have sacrificed time away from their family. They’ve sacrificed the stability of their family. They’ve sacrificed their bodies and their minds, and some, of course, have given the ultimate sacrifice. We owe it to members of the Canadian Forces, and our veterans and their families, to ensure that their bodies and souls are cared for.
I still remember very clearly, Mr. Speaker, the Sunday dinner when my brother told us he was going to Afghanistan. That was a very difficult night. It was filled with lots of emotions, but of course, pride being the one that came to the forefront.
Continuing and modernizing the Soldiers’ Aid Commission is important, and we must ensure that Ontario supports this new generation of veterans in the ways that we always have. I want to thank very much my former council colleague Deputy Mayor Matthew Luloff from the city of Ottawa, who is city council liaison for military and veterans’ affairs, who is also an Afghanistan veteran, for calling attention to a very important issue CAF members and veterans are facing here in Ontario.
Mr. Speaker, as you may know, regular force and full-time employed Canadian Forces reservists benefit from the full range of health care services provided by the Canadian Forces medical services, and they are not entitled to provincial health benefits. This creates some challenges for many military families. While the CAF members themselves receive excellent medical care through the armed forces, their families don’t. They access these services through the provincial health care system. Military families often find it difficult to secure a family physician as a result of multiple relocations across the country. Without a family physician, families face lengthy wait times for referrals, prescription refills and other specialist care. Military families can miss periodic health assessments, routine screenings, immunizations and preventive care.
For military families with children with special needs, the challenge of not having a family doctor can have extreme consequences for timely diagnosis, referrals to other specialized care, and educational supports.
The families of military members with physical or mental illness may have to deal with changing behaviours and intense relationship dynamics. Family members are also often the primary informal caregiver, which can lead to negative physical and mental health consequences for them as well as for the ill or injured military member. As we all know, Mr. Speaker, in rural locations, specialist care, if available at all, may be hours away.
Five thousand members of the armed forces retire each year, and most of those retirees live here in Ontario. For years, these brave men and women have served our nation and received medical care as part of their service. As they integrate back into the community, they now require a family physician to take care of their sometimes—often—complex health needs. What’s not widely known is that when they are released from service, these Canadian Forces members are on their own to try to find a family physician and access the provincial health care system. This often means that after years of serving their country, perhaps suffering from some form of physical or mental injury, these brave men and women now have to search for a primary care physician, with many of them ending up on a wait-list.
I mentioned the 5,000 members of the CAF that retire each and every year, many of whom end up in Ontario, and there are another 1,000 members of the forces that are released for medical reasons, mostly due to permanent employment limitations of a physical nature, but about 40% are released because of employment limitations of a mental health illness. So imagine now, you’ve served your country bravely for years, perhaps decades, and as a result of your service, you have a physical or mental health condition that limits your ability to remain employed, and now we ask you to go out and find your own family doctor and wait on a wait-list.
I want to make it clear, Mr. Speaker, that these are not criticisms of the bill or the government. These issues have been around for a long time. Rather, I’d like these concerns to be taken as a call to action as we continue to look for ways to improve Bill 202 as it makes its way through the process to engage with veterans, to engage with members of the Canadian Forces and their families, to understand how their day-to-day health and medical needs can be addressed through the provincial health system, to ensure that the gaps that military families and veterans are facing today can be addressed, whether it’s through the Soldiers’ Aid Commission or by any other means. Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker.
The expansion of the criteria mirrors what has happened in Ontario in long-term care—which is the definition of a “new veteran.” For the longest time, the only people who could get into long-term care were active combat veterans in World War I, World War II and Korea. You can imagine there weren’t a lot of those, so those beds were going unused. I was pleased, when we were in government, when we moved forward to work with the federal government to do that.
One of the challenges here—and I don’t want to say it’s a pox on all our houses, but it’s the incremental movement towards what’s needed in areas like this. It’s often slow. I don’t know if people or members would remember that 13 years ago we actually had a 90-day waiting period for military families. So if you came back to Ontario, you didn’t get OHIP for 90 days. That’s incredible. That got waived in 2007. It was the right thing to do. That was actually the member’s predecessor in Orléans, Phil McNeely. It was an important initiative. Again, our work wasn’t done.
So when the member’s talking right now about primary care and the importance of ensuring that military families have access to a primary care practitioner when they come to Ontario, or when a military member, a veteran, who is out of the forces and requires primary care and mental health care—things like mental health care and access to other services—that it’s there for them. This is one of the things that is going to require work with the federal government. It’s really very important. It’s just like that hole that existed in 2006 where families couldn’t get coverage. Often, when transfers were happening, people were scrambling.
We’re going to pass this. We all agree. We all know that we have to recognize the contribution and the service of our veterans and members of the military. So we’re going to do this, there’s no question about that. But we need to move on to other things, as the member for Orléans has suggested, and that issue around primary care and access to care for families is a critical one for them.
As you can imagine, if you’re moving into a community that may not be like Ottawa or London, and you’re transferred to a base that’s maybe more remote, something like Petawawa, or another base in Ontario, it’s hard to find a primary care practitioner even if you’re not someone who is just transferring in, if you’re a resident there. So there’s a lot of work to be done there.
I think there is a lot of good work to be done with the federal government. I encourage the government to do that work, and I also want to thank them for bringing this forward. It’s something, I would have to say, that should have been done, we can all agree, sooner rather than later. But let’s not forget that once this work is done, there’s a lot more work to be done to recognize, acknowledge and, quite frankly, protect our veterans and our service members who sacrifice so much for our communities.
My question, Mr. Speaker, is: I wondered if the member for Orléans could discuss his thoughts on us adding in employability readiness as one of the things that folks can apply to the Soldiers’ Aid Commission for assistance with. Do you think this is a good thing to be adding to the list of eligible things that veterans and their families can get support with through the Soldiers’ Aid Commission?
In the city of Ottawa, we developed a priority program, working with the Helmets to Hardhats group to ensure that Canadian Armed Forces veterans were given priority for certain job classifications. I think that’s the type of program that I would encourage across Ontario.
Second reading debate deemed adjourned.top | new search