Below are excerpts from the transcript of debates in the House of Commons, January 30th, 2014

In Debate

Ms. Joyce Murray (Vancouver Quadra, Lib.):

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the minister for his words and the expression of the pride Canadians have in the service the men and women in uniform provide to us and to our country.
In his remarks, the minister mentioned, with respect to armed forces members who experience operational stress injuries, that the first step is for them to come forward and ask for help. I think it has been clearly identified that there are barriers. These barriers are real and are in the way of people coming forward, so they struggle with these injuries alone and with their families, sometimes for years, before they come forward.
The Minister of Veterans Affairs put his finger on one of those barriers, and that is the stigma that remains in the armed forces with respect to mental injuries.
There was a study done by the committee in 2009 on PTSD. It made an extensive series of recommendations that touched on actions the government itself could take to reduce and eliminate stigma in National Defence. I would like to ask the minister if he could tell Parliament what he and his ministry have done to address recommendations 15, 16, 17, and 18 in the 2009 report—

Hon. Rob Nicholson:

Mr. Speaker, I think the member may have been cut off near the end, but I thank her for the question.
Again, removing the stigma attached to those suffering from mental health is an ongoing process and is one that, quite frankly, I am pleased there is so much more awareness of among the public. We had the Bell call campaign in the last couple of days for people to come forward. It reached out to all of society.
Yes, we have to remove any stigma within the military. Again, the Chief of the Defence Staff and those working with him are actively working to make sure that there is no stigma for someone to come forward in the military, just as there should be no stigma for anybody outside of the military.
These are changes we have to bring about in society. There has been progress, but we want to continue to see progress in this society, in the armed forces, and among our veterans so that they come forward and ask for and get the help they need. We all have a stake in that.

Mrs. Cheryl Gallant (Renfrew—Nipissing—Pembroke, CPC):

Mr. Speaker, I have to provide the correct information to the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore.
When members come forward and ask for help for operational stress injuries, that does not mark day one of the beginning of the end of their careers. Any treatment they receive, be it through the military itself or through operational stress injury social support, OSISS, is kept completely confidential. The chain of command does not have access to their medical records, and the stigma that has to be overcome is a stigma within themselves.
Getting back to the motion of the day, the opposition motion refers to “outstanding boards of inquiry”. I would like the minister to comment on that aspect of the motion and share his views with the House.

Speech to the House

Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for Mississauga East—Cooksville.

As the member of Parliament for Renfrew—Nipissing—Pembroke and CFB Petawawa, the largest Canadian Forces Base in Canada and training ground of the Warriors, and as a 14-year veteran of the Standing Committee on National Defence, I welcome the opportunity to participate in any debate regarding the well-being of the women and men who serve Canada in uniform.

I mentioned my number of years in service on the Standing Committee on National Defence to highlight that I am not some Johnny-come-lately when it comes to interest in the care of our soldiers. I witnessed the decade of darkness first-hand, and I am proud to say that I voted with the Conservative government and Prime Minister to reverse that decade of neglect.

I have watched in disgust every time our soldiers and veterans have been made into political footballs and kicked around by the opposition. The worst example for our women and men in uniform was the decision by the Liberal Party to use military procurement for partisan purposes and send our soldiers into Afghanistan without the proper equipment. The cancellation of the EH101 military helicopter contract for partisan political reasons cost us the precious lives of Canadian soldiers. It is a fact that once our Conservative government provided the strategic lift for our soldiers to get them off the ground and away from the IEDs that lined the roads of Afghanistan the casualty rate dropped.

Let us be clear. On behalf of all Canadians, the current official opposition, regardless of what it says, does not believe that Canada should have an armed military, and pardon me if I sound cynical every time the Leader of the Opposition invokes the name of our soldiers and veterans and tries to embarrass our government. I am prepared to accept at face value the motion of the member for Châteauguay—Saint-Constant to work with all members of Parliament to improve the lives of our soldiers and veterans, as long as the politics are taken out of the discussion and facts are allowed to guide the way to our decision-making. I recognize that government is not perfect and there is always room for improvement.

My riding of Renfrew—Nipissing—Pembroke is served with a Veterans Affairs office in Pembroke, and a sister office, an integrated personnel support unit, IPSU, at Base Petawawa. Unlike the offices that are being closed, the Pembroke office is a very busy, high-tempo shop with 29 staff members. The caseload in this office is split between traditional Veterans Affairs clients and newer rehabilitation cases, more recent DND veterans. Veterans Affairs and DND work together through the integrated personnel support centre to help Canadian Armed Forces personnel, regular and reserve alike, and its veterans and their families, to achieve a successful transition from military to civilian life.

IPSCs were founded on the principle that early intervention makes a difference in recovering from illness or injuries and successfully re-establishing civilian life. The IPSC at Base Petawawa provides support to Canadian Armed Forces, ill and injured personnel and veterans and their families, with the focus on the following core functions: the return to work program coordination, casualty support outreach delivery, casualty tracking, casualty administration and advocacy services, support platoon structure to provide military leadership supervision, administration support, and a liaison for military family resource centres with local base support representatives and local unit commanding officers.

Veterans Affairs collaborates with the Department of National Defence to conduct outreach to Canadian Armed Forces personnel veterans and their families to provide them with a clear understanding of the number of programs, services, and supports available to them. This includes conducting transitional interviews with members before they leave the military.

Base Petawawa also operates an operational trauma and stress support centre. These centres were established to meet the needs of Canadian Forces members returning from overseas deployments and suffering from tour-related psychological problems. Operational trauma and stress support centres are an initiative designed to complement the full spectrum of high-quality health services that the Canadian Armed Forces provides to Canada’s military personnel wherever and whenever they serve.

This government recognizes the important and selfless contribution of our military men and women. That is why I worked hard, together with all of my colleagues, to provide them with the best health services possible. Because we understand they are more likely to suffer from operational stress injuries such as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, we know mental health services and support are critical. That is why Veterans Affairs Canada, the Department of National Defence, and the Canadian Armed Forces are working together to ensure that veterans and military members with mental health issues receive the help they need.
Significant investment has been made by the Canadian Armed Forces to ensure that our military members receive the highest standard of mental health care possible. Since 2006, the Canadian Armed Forces health care investment has increased, bringing our expenses in health care close to $420 million each year. There are no budget cuts when it comes to caring for our military.

In 2012, the government announced an additional $11.4-million investment, to enhance the armed forces mental health care system specifically. This brings the total amount of annual mental health investment for military members to $50 million. These investments translate to approximately 400 mental health professionals dedicated to our men and women in uniform, and we are currently working on bringing in additional qualified applicants to fill the spaces available.

One of the challenges of having a military base in rural Ontario is the shortage of health care professionals for the entire population. Even though the federal Conservative government has struggled to find mental health care professionals for Base Petawawa, we have successfully staffed five doctors for a base population of 6,000 soldiers; compare that to one psychiatrist for a local civilian population of 100,000 people. We have five doctors for the military population of 6,000 and one for the remaining 100,000 people in the civilian population. Is there a health care crisis in Renfrew County? Yes. Is the federal government trying to deal with the provincial shortage? Yes.

To the family and friends of the military members and veterans who have taken their lives in the past and in the recent months, I extend my sincere condolences. Every suicide is a tragedy. As Canadians, we are all affected when one of our Canadian Armed Forces members takes his or her life. We know how much they gave to this country.

Canadians are proud of our armed forces. The Canadian Armed Forces is among the best armed forces in the world. The health of our military members will always be a priority for the Conservative Government of Canada. The strength of our military organization is its people, and we need to continue to take care of them and their families.

Our government is supporting the men and women in uniform in the Canadian Armed Forces who are suffering from mental illness. However, I wish to reiterate the role we play in eliminating the stigma around mental health. Going through mental illness is very difficult, so let us encourage people to seek help, because seeking help is the first step to recovery.

Questions and Answers

Mr. Ryan Leef (Yukon, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I want to thank my colleague for her great speech highlighting investments that the government has made across all veterans services, and our record investment in the Canadian Armed Forces.
We have heard a lot of discussion throughout the day around the points of service for our veterans. I wonder what the member is experiencing in her riding and if she has heard across other ridings what I know to be the case with Service Canada and the expanded points of service in the Yukon Territory and Whitehorse. Our veterans did not have an office, and now we are going to receive services for our veterans, not only with all of the work that is currently being done, but through the addition of a Service Canada point of service for them. Indeed, I am sure a whole host of other Canadian communities are going to realize some advantages through one of the 600 offices that are being opened.
I am wondering if she could highlight areas in her region that are going to experience an enhancement of service where otherwise they had absolutely no office service delivery.

Mrs. Cheryl Gallant:

Mr. Speaker, in my riding of Renfrew—Nipissing—Pembroke, we are well served by Veterans Affairs, both in the city of Pembroke, where many retired people live, as well as on the base.
However, what I am learning from veterans in other communities is that where there was no official available to help counsel them with services, they will now have it available. They welcome that.
The closures are occurring where there were only 10 or maybe 20 visits per week at most, and in those areas the workers from Veterans Affairs will go to the homes of the people, or anyplace else the veteran would like to meet them. It will be better service one-on-one than before.

Hon. Jim Karygiannis (Scarborough—Agincourt, Lib.):

Mr. Speaker, I heard the member say that in places where these offices would close the veterans would welcome visits.
Let me give the member some facts and figures on these services that will close. In Corner Brook, the files will be transferred to St. John’s, an eight-hour drive. In Sydney, the files will be transferred to Halifax, a five-hour drive. Charlottetown files will not be transferred to the national headquarters; they will be transferred to Halifax, a five-hour to seven-hour drive. In Thunder Bay, they will be transferred to Winnipeg, a nine-hour to ten-hour-drive. In Windsor they will be transferred to London, a 2.5-hour drive. From Saskatoon they will go to Regina, a three-hour drive. Brandon will likely go to Shilo, which is a 45-minute drive, or to Winnipeg. From Prince George, they will probably go to Penticton, which is a 10-hour drive, and in Kelowna they will go to Penticton, which is a one-hour drive.
If we put the hours of driving to the hours of service together, there is absolutely no way that service managers will be able to look after all our veterans. As a matter of fact, it is estimated there will be one minute for looking at the files by the service managers

Mrs. Cheryl Gallant:
Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the member outlining all the different VAC offices that are closing and the distances. Those distances will now be travelled by the assisting Veterans Affairs officers. Much of the service is done by phone or over the Internet, but for those who need one-on-one service, we will now be going to them.
More to the point, when the member’s party was in power, the Veterans Affairs committee travelled to Base Petawawa. We had a group of people who were transitioning out due to operational stress injuries. I will always remember the last person who spoke. He came back from Afghanistan. All his buddies had been blown up in a transport carrier. He was the only survivor. He begged for a year for a psychiatrist to meet with him. It was not until that day, a year later, that he received his first psychiatric appointment.
If something like that were to happen today, it is either immediate or within two weeks that a person who requests a psychiatrist would get one. We have gone miles ahead of where the old government could not be bothered to tread.

Mrs. Djaouida Sellah (Saint-Bruno—Saint-Hubert, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my colleague opposite for her speech. I listened closely to the points she made.
Unfortunately, the facts are the facts. Since coming to power, the Conservatives have cut $225 million from the Veterans Affairs budget and have eliminated one-quarter of the department’s employees and services. In proceeding with those cuts, they froze hiring of medical staff for mental health.
I know that when our soldiers agree to be deployed, they accept the liability. They agree to unlimited liability and recognize that they could lose their lives. That is the ultimate sacrifice for Canada. Do these people not have the right to a minimum level of service? I would like to ask the member if she plans to vote for our motion to get things back on track. This is yet another opportunity for her to do that.

Mrs. Cheryl Gallant:
Mr. Speaker, what is happening is that if expenses are going toward brick-and-mortar offices that are getting fewer than a dozen visitors a day, we are taking that money and reallocating it to people who can counsel and provide health care for our veterans.

Let us talk about the facts. As far as health care goes, in one year alone we increased funding by $11.4 million. We continue to commit $50 million. There have been no cuts to health care, especially mental health care, for our soldiers and veterans.

The member who came in to make a point of order on an error made another error as well in saying that the first time a soldier goes for help is the first day of the end of that soldier’s career. That is absolutely false. Everything that is discussed between a medical professional and a soldier who comes for help remains absolutely confidential. The military chain of command does not have access to it.

Instead of spreading false information and causing harm to the people who need help by discouraging them from seeking it, I wish everyone could work together, including the sponsors of this motion, to ensure that people have the courage and the willingness to go ahead and seek help.

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