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.