Caring for our Veterans: The History of VAC

On 31 January, thousands of Canadian veterans gathered to protest Veterans Affairs Canada’s [VAC] decision to close eight offices across the country. As early as the First World War, local offices have been the primary point of contact between veterans and the government, allowing hundreds of thousands of ex-servicemen to access VAC’s client services in a direct, timely, and (most importantly) personable fashion. The Canadian government has justified the closures as a cost-saving measure in anticipation of declining demand from clients. The closures, however, will deeply affect thousands of Canadian veterans who frequent these outlets. Saskatoon’s regional office, for example, served some 4500 veterans with a staff of only 14. These men and women will now have to visit their local Service Canada center where a dedicated VAC representative will handle their queries. Prince Edward Island, where VAC’s head office is located, has also lost its regional office, leaving veterans with no direct access to frontline services on the island. Instead, as many as 2,200 PEI veterans’ files have been transferred to two caseworkers in Saint John, NB.

The closure of these offices has understandably raised the ire of Canadian veterans and their advocates. To place their discontent in context, we should explore the history and trajectory of VAC and its antecedents. How and why were these agencies created? How did they respond to changing fiscal scenarios and veterans’ needs? And how can these past experiences inform policy in a period of increasing fiscal restraint and uncertainty over what client services will be required for the future? Growth and retreat have always been a major theme in the history of Canadian veterans’ policy, but that same history also illustrates how reform and restructuring must be carefully weighed against the unpredictability of future conflicts and veterans’ needs.

Before the First World War, Canada lacked any significant infrastructure or extensive legislation relating to compensation and care for its comparatively small community of war veterans. A meager pension or gratuity for disability and a land grant were the extent of the state’s generosity, although members of Canada’s miniscule regular forces could access general service pensions. Pressure from the public and horrific casualties Canada suffered during 1915 forced the government into action. In the summer of 1916, the Borden government established the Board of Pension Commissioners to administer the country’s patchwork of wartime pension regulations. In 1919, these regulations were consolidated into the Pension Act, which offered benefits to disabled Canadian soldiers and the dependents of deceased members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force [CEF].

The Great War also transformed Canada’s approach to rehabilitation and re-establishment. In June 1915, the Military Hospitals Commission [MHC] – VAC’s oldest ancestor – was established through order-in-council. The MHC offered long-term medical care, rehabilitation, retraining, and social services (including employment counseling) to soldiers who had returned disabled from overseas. In 1918 a lingering conflict over medical jurisdiction between the MHC (which was a civilian agency) and the Army Medical Corps led to the creation of a new Department of Soldiers’ Civil Re-establishment [DSCR]. The core of the MHC’s personnel remained intact, but most of its active treatment facilities were temporarily transferred to the militia department. The DSCR would instead focus its efforts on vocational training, helping returned soldiers find employment, and treating the severely and permanently disabled, including the growing number of soldiers suffering from war neuroses and tuberculosis.

Between 1915 and 1919 Canada’s re-establishment system expanded exponentially. In October 1915 the MHC, relying primarily on donated homes from wealthy, patriotic Canadians, controlled 11 convalescent hospitals with room for a mere 500 patients. In just two years the system grew to include over 50 hospitals with space for 10,000 patients, extensive vocational training facilities (including district offices), regional offices, and a bustling headquarters based in Ottawa. At its peak in 1921, the DSCR employed some 9000 men and women, many of them veterans who had taken civil service courses for their vocational retraining. Postwar budget cuts, however, forced the system to downsize dramatically within a short time. By 1923, the DSCR had all but ended its vocational training program, limited its hospital network to a dozen facilities spread out across the country, and downsized its staff to just over 2000. Veterans’ benefits in 1919 accounted for 74.6 million dollars – over 21 per cent of federal budgetary revenue. By 1930, due to substantial cutbacks and pension reforms, this number declined to just over 50 million, or 11 per cent of budgetary revenue. Penny-pinching and an emerging scandal over political partisanship in the DSCR eventually led Mackenzie King’s Government to merge the DSCR and the floundering Department of National Health, effectively creating a new ‘super-department’, the Department of Pensions and National Health [DPNH].

Much like today, Canadian veterans’ were indignant over the federal government’s growing indifference and parsimony. The veterans movement, first led by the Great War Veterans’ Association, and after 1925, the newly formed Canadian Legion, pushed the King and Bennett governments of the late 1920s and early 1930s to introduce pension reforms as well as a new program for ‘prematurely aged’ and impoverished veterans called the War Veterans’ Allowance. These reforms offered little comfort to a veterans’ movement increasingly weary about the substantial bureaucracy of the pension system and the ongoing threat of destitution from unemployment or failing health.

As historians such as Peter Neary, J.L. Granatstein, and Desmond Morton have pointed out, the Second World War offered Canadians an opportunity to restructure existing veterans’ programs and implement new ones. Unlike the First World War, extensive planning for the return of wounded veterans, general demobilization, and long-term care began almost immediately after the declaration of war. The culmination of wartime policy reform came in 1944 with the creation of the new Department of Veterans Affairs [DVA] and a comprehensive re-establishment program eventually dubbed ‘The Veterans Charter’. Its key architects, Walter S. Woods and Ian Alistair Mackenzie, were both decorated veterans of the First World War and had both been involved in inter-war veterans’ politics. Mackenzie took on the role as the first Minister of Veterans’ Affairs, while Woods took the position of Deputy Minister.

The fundamental principles of the Charter were first laid out in October 1941 with order-in-council 7633, which declared that every Canadian veteran of the war would have equal access to rehabilitation benefits. This was a major departure from the previous government practice of offering rehabilitation only to the disabled and minors. Among other features, the Charter included a new system of service gratuities and re-establishment credits, entitlement to free vocational retraining or university education, loans for small-holdings farms, housing and consumer incentives, more generous and inclusive pension regulations. The ethos underpinning this landmark program in Canadian social policy was ‘opportunity with security’.

To facilitate this unprecedented expansion of the Canadian state’s role in the lives of its citizen-soldiers, the DVA went through massive process of expansion. In 1939, the DPNH employed a staff of about 2000, offering services to about 150,000 veterans or dependents of the deceased. By 1947, that number had increased more than ten-fold to 22,000. In all, Canada oversaw the demobilization and civil re-establishment of over 1 million soldiers, including over 50,000 wounded. In his 1953 study Rehabilitation: A Combined Operation, Walter S. Woods estimated that nearly 1.5 billion dollars had been spent on veterans’ rehabilitation up to 31 March 1951.

After the Second World War, the DVA transformed according to the changing needs of its clientele as well as the evolving character of Canada’s military role in the world. While ex-soldiers continued to access provisions of the Charter, the scope of the DVA’s work and its staffing requirements shrank progressively over the next two decades. In 1961 department’s full-time staff numbered some 13,000, but over 75 per cent were involved in treatment facilities which were caring primarily for Canada’s diminishing population of First World War veterans. With the introduction of Medicare in the 1960s, these hospitals were gradually transferred to provincial control. In the 1980s pressure from veterans groups led to a series new reforms that allowed Canada’s elderly and disabled veterans to live more independently and have their benefit claims processed in a much more timely and transparent fashion. With the DVA head office now in Charlottetown, the dozens of DVA district offices were more important than ever in helping aging veterans of the Second World War navigate these new protocols and the corresponding application process. In spite of earnest efforts to reform the system, the 1990s and early 2000s witnessed another wave of veterans’ activism, this time spearheaded by veterans’ of peacekeeping operations and, increasingly, soldiers suffering from war trauma. Their story is still unfolding and their future remains uncertain.

Today there are some 700,000 war veterans and retired Canadian Forces personnel living in Canada. VAC figures suggest that about 200,000 of them are clients who have active files, meaning they have recently accessed, or continue to access, some manner of veterans’ benefits or services. As the number of Second World War veterans continues to decline, that overall figure is anticipated to shrink. Still, the demand for services from a new generation of veterans remains high, and with introduction of new programs and regulations via the ‘New Veterans Charter’, veterans’ needs will also likely evolve along an uneven and unpredictable path.

The unenviable dilemma facing VAC today is the residue of nearly a half century of expansion and increasing bureaucracy in the aftermath of two world wars in which almost 1.7 million Canadians served. The history of the Canadian state’s relationship with its veterans, however, shows us that short-term fiscal imperatives must be carefully balanced with an understanding of the unique long-term requirements of men and women who are sent to war. Demographics and client numbers are only one piece of the after-care puzzle. A veteran’s health does not follow a linear curve, and authorities should shed any illusion that they can precisely forecast what services these men and women might require, and over what length of time they may need to access them. In an era when ‘invisible wounds’ such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD], Traumatic Brain Injury [TBI], and various forms of cancer are becoming more common amongst Canada’s ex-soldiers, we must give consideration to the idea of whether affording primacy to pecuniary objectives over infrastructure and personnel is the right thing to do. History cannot provide the answers to these problems, but it certainly offers us some revealing context.