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Veterans get new option on pensions — and Veterans Affairs gets out of a cash crunch

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Wounded and injured soldiers — both serving and retired — have been given the option of postponing the filing of disability claims until after the Liberal government’s pension-for-life plan is implemented on April 1, CBC News has learned.

Those who file a disability claim before April 1 do not get to opt for a pension-for-life. They’re entitled only to lump sum compensation. Holding off until the new budget year begins gives them that choice between the pension and the lump sum.

And it turns out the delay also helps Veterans Affairs out of a budget jam, according to leaked Department of National Defence documents.

Deep backlog, shallow funds

One of those documents — an email dated Feb. 4, 2019 — stated there is a shortage of disability award funds “within VAC due to [the] increase of awards from [the application] backlog clean up.”

The bigger problem, according to a veterans watchdog group, is that the option to delay filing has not been communicated to the wider veterans community.

According to the documents, the process change has been passed along to those still in uniform through the military chain of command and support centres.

It’s another example of a double standard at work within Veterans Affairs, said Mike Blais, president of Canadian Veterans Advocacy.

“There’d be many who would want to avail themselves” of the pension option, Blais told CBC News. “I’m very disappointed. It’s supposed to be one veteran, one standard.”

Blais praised National Defence for being proactive but said Veterans Affairs is missing in action.

“It’s not fair for Veterans Affairs Canada to come forward with a program that benefits those who are serving while excluding and denying veterans in the wider community,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Veterans Affairs, Emily Gauthier, said in an email there have been “communications” with the veterans community and the department has “designed a process so a current application could be suspended and transitioned” to the new system.

National Defence, it seems, went to extraordinary lengths to get the word out among those still serving.

A spokesman, Maj. Travis Smyth, said late Thursday that 3,500 letters were sent in December to members who were scheduled to retire in the near future. Those letters were followed up with telephone calls and in-person interviews. 

All of it, Smyth said, was supported by Veterans Affairs.

During the 2015 election campaign, the Liberals promised to give injured military members the option of receiving either a lifetime pension or a lump sum disability award.

The plan, which involved a complex redrawing of the benefits system, was unveiled in December 2017 with a scheduled implementation date of April 1, 2019.

At the moment, military remembers are only eligible for a lump sum award to compensate for pain and suffering due to injuries.

Those veterans whose applications are now in the system — and processed before March 31 — do not have the pension option.

“Please note that the VAC (service delivery) team has just released a new directive to deal with those (Canadian Armed Forces) members (who are) applying for a (disability award/disability benefit) but wish to wait (hold) on their approval until after 1 Apr 19 in order to receive a monthly payment vs. lump sum award,” reads a Feb. 4, 2019 email obtained by CBC News, written by Lt.-Col. Trevor Campbell, a liaison officer to Veterans Affairs.

“There has also been a lot of discussion here lately on temporary shutdowns and delaying of adjudication decisions until post [pension for life] implementation.”

Veterans Affairs asked for more money

Part of the reason for offering veterans the option of delaying disability claims is the administrative and information technology changes the new pension-for-life will require. But the other — and more significant — reason for the policy shift is the budgetary crunch at Veterans Affairs created by an enormous backlog of disability applications.

As of last December, Veterans Affairs had 27,107 disability claims registered in the system. Of those, 15,421 — 57 per cent of the total — had been waiting in the queue for more than four months.

Veterans Affairs officials recently went before Parliament to ask for a budget top-up of $323.2 million.

“The requested funds are to support increases in some programs which stem mainly from an increased number of veterans accessing support, such as the Disability Award and the Earnings Loss grant,” say the supplementary budget estimates tabled Jan. 29, 2019.

Blais said the department should have had a better handle on the numbers.

“I think they underestimated the ability of the community to get veterans to come forward, particularly on mental health (claims), and that their projections were woefully inadequate,” he said.

Gauthier insisted the department “has sufficient funds to meet disability award demands” in the current budget year.

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List of Tourist Attractions Open Now in Ottawa

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With Ontario now in Step 3 of 2021 three-step plan for reopening, museums and other indoor attractions are allowed to reopen with capacity limited to not exceed 50 per cent capacity indoors and 75 per cent capacity outdoors.

Here is a list of Ottawa attractions you can visit starting July 16th.

Do remember to wear masks and buy tickets in advance.

Parliament Hill

Parliament’s Centre Block and Peace Tower are closed for renovation.

You can join for tours of the Senate of Canada Building (2 Rideau Street), House of Commons at West Block (111 Wellington Street) on Parliament Hill, and East Block at East Block (111 Wellington Street) on Parliament Hill.

When: Grounds open; guided tours of Parliament are suspended through the summer of 2021.
Where: 111 Wellington Street, Downtown Ottawa

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Ottawa performer leapfrogs from gymnastics to Broadway to TV

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A new AppleTV+ series set in a magical town that’s stuck in a neverending 1940s musical includes a pair of Ottawa siblings in the cast. 

Warren Yang and his sister, Ericka Hunter, play two of the singing, dancing residents of the village portrayed in Schmigadoon!, a small-screen series that takes its cues from classic musicals like Brigadoon, Wizard of Oz and Sound of Music, and skewers them with the offbeat comedic mastery of Saturday Night Live. 

In fact, you’ll recognize many of the names from SNL, starting with executive producer Lorne Michaels, creator of the late-night, live-comedy sketch show. Schmigadoon! also stars SNL cast member Cecily Strong and comedian Keegan-Michael Key, who hosted SNL in May. They play a New York couple who get lost on a hike and stumble into a strange town where everyone sings and dances. 

For Yang, a relative newcomer to show-biz, the series marks his television debut. For Hunter, the younger of his two older sisters, it’s the latest in a career path that began with dance lessons as a child more than 30 years ago. She attended Canterbury High School, Ottawa’s arts-focused secondary school. 

“Her dream was always to perform,” said Yang, 34, in an interview. “But that was never the path I thought was an option for me.” 

While his sister studied dance, Yang did gymnastics. He was an elite gymnast throughout his youth, ultimately leaving Merivale High School at 16 to train in Montreal, finishing high school through correspondence courses. He was a member of the Canadian National Team and received a scholarship to study at Penn State, majoring in marketing. 

A few years after graduation, Yang was working at an advertising agency in Toronto when he got a call from a Manhattan number. To his astonishment, they asked if he would be interested in auditioning for a Broadway revival of Miss Saigon.

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COVID-19: uOttawa to require vaccination for students living in residence

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Vaccination will be mandatory for students who want to live in residence at the University of Ottawa this year, with proof of vaccination and at least one dose required before move-in, or within two weeks of doing so if they can’t secure a shot before arriving.

Those who can’t receive a vaccine for “health-related reasons or other grounds protected under the Ontario Human Rights Code” will be able to submit a request for accommodation through the university’s housing portal, according to information on the university’s website.

Students with one dose living in residence will also have to receive their second dose “within the timeframe recommended by Ottawa Public Health.”

People who haven’t been granted an exemption and don’t get vaccinated or submit proof of having done so by the deadlines set out by the school will have their residence agreements terminated, uOttawa warns.

“Medical and health professionals are clear that vaccination is the most (effective) means of protecting people and those around them,” reads a statement provided to this newspaper by uOttawa’s director of strategic communications, Patrick Charette.

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“It is precisely for this reason that the University of Ottawa is requiring all students living in residence for the 2021-2022 academic year to be fully vaccinated. The University recognizes that some students may require accommodations for a variety of reasons and will be treating exceptions appropriately.”

Faculty, staff and students are also strongly encouraged to get vaccinated, the statement notes.

“Ensuring a high vaccine coverage in all communities is critical to ensuring an ongoing decline in cases and ending the pandemic. This will be especially important with the return of students to post-secondary institutions in our region in the fall of 2021.”

Neither Carleton University nor Algonquin College is currently mandating vaccination for students living in residence, according to the websites for both schools. But uOttawa isn’t alone in its policy – Western University, Trent University, Durham College and Fanshawe College have all implemented similar requirements. Seneca College, in the GTA, is going even further, making vaccination mandatory for students and staff to come to campus, in-person, for the fall term.

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