It’s been just over three years since Veterans Affairs Canada released a strategy to tackle its 23,000 backlogged benefits applications, and that file has landed on the desk of a new minister for the first time.
Ginette Petitpas Taylor has taken over from longtime minister Lawrence MacAulay, and she says finishing the job by 2024 — the department’s stated target — is among her top priorities.
“We absolutely want to eliminate that backlog to make sure that we can meet our service standards,” she said in an interview.
Her other top issues: developing an employment strategy and commemorating the events of the past.
Advocates say they want Petitpas Taylor to tackle a range of other problems, from housing and education to the kind of culture change that’s underway at the Department of National Defence.
As for the backlog, the department’s service standard is to complete 80 per cent of benefits applications within 16 weeks, allowing more time for what it deems complex cases.
In 2020, just 23 per cent of cases were handled in that time frame.
That’s left veterans waiting months or even years for services.
The department has made progress, hiring hundreds of dedicated decision-makers and streamlining processes.
That has cut down the backlog by 75 per cent, Petitpas Taylor said.
A spokesperson for the department said 5,547 cases are still incomplete beyond the 16-week standard as of June 30, shy of the department’s goal to get the number of backlogged cases below 5,000 by the summer of 2023.
Concern over number of denied applications
NDP veterans affairs critic Rachel Blaney said she worries about the number of applications that are being denied outright.
“The former minister was in committee on March 20 and he stated that 20 per cent of applications for benefits are denied by the department, and I think that is a fairly shocking statistic,” she said.
Applications from French-speaking and female veterans are moving slower than those of English-speaking male vets, according to the department, highlighting the an ongoing struggle to integrate the women who have served in uniform.
“We know that the limited statistics that we have are telling us that women veterans are largely not doing as well as male veterans after service,” Blaney said.
She is a member of the House of Commons veterans affairs committee, which is in the midst of its first study about the experiences of women veterans.
It has heard from witnesses who have said the department’s list of approved disability claims fails to take into account unique issues for women who, for example, spent years using equipment designed for larger male bodies.
“There’s a lot of women [who] disproportionately suffer from osteoarthritis, back and hip issues,” said retired Maj. Donna Riguidel.
It’s a clear example of the way problems for women in the Armed Forces have become problems for veterans, too.
The departments of National Defence and Veterans Affairs are siloed, but Petitpas Taylor is also associate minister of defence.
She said she sees her role there as being focused on ensuring a seamless transition for Armed Forces members as they retire.
Her colleague, Defence Minister Bill Blair, is now in charge of implementing the recommendations from a 2022 report on the military’s toxic culture and issues of sexual misconduct.
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Call for culture changes
Riguidel, who is a survivor of military sexual trauma, co-founded a consulting company that trains people to properly support survivors of sexual assault and sexual misconduct. She said the changes in culture must include Veterans Affairs.
“We still are trying so hard to build toward a sustainable culture change,” she said. “And although naturally its focus remains on people who are active military, that still impacts veterans.”
Petitpas Taylor said a gender-based analysis of her department is important to ensure women and other equity-seeking groups are getting the support they need. She didn’t elaborate on what she considers to be the benchmarks of success.
Blaney said the struggles for the two departments are deeply entwined, and they have broad ramifications.
“When people see a lot of veterans hurting, angry, frustrated, unhoused, struggling — how are we supposed to get recruits on the other side of that?”