Tories order veterans charter review ahead of critical watchdog report

OTTAWA - The Harper government tried Thursday to get out ahead of a potentially damaging report by the country's veteran's ombudsman by calling on a House of Commons committee to conduct a pre-ordained review of the oft-maligned new veterans charter.

Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino said in a statement that he supports a planned comprehensive examination of the marquee legislation, which was last updated two years ago.

The comment comes just days ahead of the release of an exhaustive six-year study that's expected to show the charter is leaving some of the most seriously wounded ex-soldiers out in the cold.

"We have already made dramatic improvements, and will continue to strive for enhancements, to ensure that the tools and assistance relied upon by Canada's veterans remain as effective, efficient and accessible as possible," Fantino said in a written statement.

An earlier version of his statement made it appear as if the government was ordering its own independent review, rather than asking a committee to conducted a legislated assessment.

The country's veterans ombudsman is expected to table his analysis next week — something that could spell trouble for a government that has staked its political credibility on supporting soldiers.

Fantino said he hoped the Commons veterans committee will look at the treatment of the charter's treatment of the most seriously injured, as well as enhancements that were part of the 2011 overhaul, which sprinkled more money and support for the most severe cases.

The review, which is mandated by legislation, will be undertaken once Parliament resumes on Oct. 16.

The minister's pleas for the committee to pencil it into their agenda is welcome, veterans ombudsman Guy Parent said in a statement. The new analysis will be accompanied by an actuarial study, which will project the impact of the charter on ex-soldiers far into the future.

"There are no hypotheses or speculations in my report," said Parent. "I will be presenting to the veterans community and to Canadians next Tuesday just evidence-based facts and analysis."

That kind of detailed number-crunching has been politically damaging to the Conservatives on other notorious files, such as the auditor general's review of the mismanagement of the government's plan to purchase F-35 stealth fighters.

The last time the charter was amended, former veterans affairs minister Steven Blaney said the government would not consider any further changes until 2016.

But since then, veterans from the mission in Afghanistan launched a lawsuit challenging the charter, characterizing it as unfair and discriminatory. A Federal Court judge recently rejected arguments by government lawyers who wanted to have the case thrown out.

One of the country's leading veterans groups weighed in late Thursday, saying it was concerned the minister was leaving the review to Parliament, and not undertaking it himself.

Gordon Moore, Dominion President of The Royal Canadian Legion, said the government had "no clear plan ...on how the review will proceed, what it will examine, who is to be involved, and what objectives are to be met."

He demanded that ex-soldiers be involved.

Since it was unanimously implemented by Parliament in 2006, the charter has been a lightning rod for ex-soldiers, who've seen the decades-old pension for life system replaced with a workers compensation-style approach of lump-sum awards and allowances.

Lawyers for the veterans argued that the federal government has a sacred obligation to care for those injured overseas — something the Justice Department attorneys denied in their written submission.

Three years ago, a previous study by the veterans ombudsman found that the lowest ranking, most severely disabled soldiers and their families were the biggest losers under the new charter.

The detailed actuarial report, commissioned by former ombudsman Pat Stogran, found senior officers, the ones at the highest end of the pay scale, benefited the most from the new system.

As a result, the Conservatives introduced a series of changes and allowances meant to offset the impact of the charter, but left the basic pillar of lump-sum payments in place.

The biggest concession made was to allow veterans the option whether to receive the payment all at once or in instalments over time. The dollar amounts, which many ex-soldiers complained were too low, were not adjusted.