Policies and Precedents: Veterans Affairs Canada

The plight of Canadian veterans suffering from mental health issues is gaining a lot of publicity as of late. Several programs exist to support these men and women, however, and it is not my intention to discuss their effectiveness and legitimacy. Instead, I intend to focus on recent revelations about the structural inconsistency of Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) and its handling of disability payments to former veterans.

Following the suicide of Leona MacEachern, a twenty-year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces, the VAC requested that her husband return a portion of her last disability payment. The notice letter, which also condoled MacEachern’s husband, indicated that “Earnings Loss benefits paid under the Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Reestablishment and Compensation Act are payable up to the day of Mrs. MacEachern’s death. Therefore, an overpayment of $581.67 has been created for December 2013.” Since the letter became public, it has generated a significant amount of interest and, as a result, Minister of Veterans’ Affairs Julian Fantino withdrew the request this past week.

While Fantino’s annulment managed to contain the public outcry, controversy remains about whether issuing the request was right in the first place. Others are dissatisfied still with VAC’s reversal and consider the apology inadequate, such as Liberal Veterans Affairs critic Jim Karygiannis, who remarked that the letter “only shows the callousness of this government.” The request’s withdrawal, however, is more discerning than the government’s decision to issue it following MacEachern’s tragic death in December.

Most pension payments, in addition to other support payments, include provisions regarding the recipient’s right of remuneration following death. In the instance of Leona MacEachern’s suicide, although unfortunate, VAC was following a standard claw-back clause included in the Veteran’s Reestablishment and Compensation Act, which outlines how the $581.67 overpayment is calculated. The decision to recover overpaid Earnings Loss benefits reflects these provisions, which are included to ensure that the government allocates its payments efficiently.

For these reasons, it is understandable that VAC sought recompense. It was following standard procedure intended to protect programs from abuse and ensure fair access for those eligible to receive government assistance. Discontent regarding VAC’s request, though, overlooks the fact that there is arguably never an optimal time for these things and waiting may have enflamed the situation, creating more confusion.

VAC’s decision to cancel the request, however, does not show “compassion” or “genuine remorse.” Instead, it illustrates political inconsistencies that threaten to plague future programs.

The government’s willingness to modify policy according to individual circumstances, for instance, highlights a much larger issue plaguing government institutions: precedents. When the government curtails policy to accommodate specific circumstances, it must continue this trajectory for each individual situation.

Embedded constitutionally and conventionally, the rule of precedence is a major component of the Canadian legal system and the federal government, in addition to its provincial counterparts, should yield to its importance. The rationale for establishing policies and procedures is to avoid confusion and eliminate excess bureaucracy. Of course, amending these institutions to reflect new developments should remain possible, although undermining them on a case-by-case basis is problematic.

In the case of Leona MacEachern’s suicide, if the government decides that Earnings Loss benefit payments should not be subject to the claw-back clause outlined in the Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Reestablishment and Compensation Act, it should amend the Act to reflect this cases’ precedential influence. However, if the Act remains unchanged, as it does currently, and similar circumstances arise in the future, the VAC will likely create even greater public dissatisfaction.

Regardless of how the public feels about VAC’s request, it is clear that reliable policies and procedures reduce the likelihood of conflict for all parties involved. Common law systems function in a way that establishes predictability in outcomes and consequences. The government should do the same.

Rachel Lowe is a 2013-2014 Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ Student Fellow. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the Institute

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