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PBO finds benefits overhaul will shortchange recently and severely wounded vets

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The Liberal government’s incoming system of benefits for injured veterans will be slightly more generous than the one it replaces, but it will leave the most severely disabled in worse financial shape, Canada’s parliamentary budget officer said Thursday.

The report from Yves Giroux is likely to add fuel to the heated (and sometimes nasty) political, legal and social debate about how adequately former soldiers, sailors and aircrew are compensated when they are wounded in the line of duty.

The analysis compared the three separate benefit regimes — the one that existed prior to 2006, the New Veterans Charter that replaced it and the new system being introduced by the Liberal government — and found soldiers were being better compensated by far under the pre-2006 system.

“From the perspective of the veteran, virtually all clients would be better off if they received the benefits of the (pre-2006) Pension Act,” the report says.

The budget officer calculated the value of each benefits system in current dollars and found the old Pension Act system was the most costly for the federal government, at approximately $50 billion. The New Veterans Charter, operational under the Conservatives, came in at $29 billion, while the new Liberal regime is projected to cost $32 billion.

The findings are expected to vindicate critics who have long argued that the old system of lifetime pensions, instituted following the world wars, was more generous.

The difference between that regime and the New Veterans Charter — introduced in 2006 by the Liberal government of Prime Minister Paul Martin and championed by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives — was the subject a major court case involving veterans of the war in Afghanistan.

Pensions for the wounded were replaced with workman’s compensation-style lump sum payments under the charter.

In a politically-charged Federal Court case, ex-soldiers claimed the system introduced in 2006 was discriminatory under the Charter of Rights because it didn’t provide the same level of benefits and support as the old pension system. Federal lawyers argued Ottawa had no special legal obligation to injured veterans and their families.

Many say the case swayed the veterans’ vote toward the Liberals in the 2015 federal election, when Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau pledged to give veterans the option of a pension or a lump sum payment.

That new system is due to be implemented on April 1 and the budget officer said most former military members in the system will see an increase.

To create the new system, the Liberal government rolled together a series of different benefits. Giroux found that one particular stipend — known as the Career Impact Allowance — is being eliminated entirely.

He said that will have an enormous impact on the most severely disabled veterans who join the new system after it’s implemented.

“The five per cent that have the most severe impairment, they’ll be the only, the main losers of the transition to the pension-for-life regime,” said Giroux, who added he’s uncertain whether it was an oversight on the government’s part or an intentional part of the redesign.

He said the system, even in its simplified form under the Liberals, is extraordinarily complicated and he can’t imagine how veterans feel when they’re faced with it.

“The suite of benefits available to veterans is very, very complex,” he said. “Myself, having a tax background, I find this more difficult than the income tax system.

“So it may be oversight. It may be intentional. I have no idea.”

Sean Bruyea, a long-time veterans advocate and frequent critic of the changes made in 2006, was largely satisfied with the report and said it proves what he’s said all along.

“When we have agencies like this, it renews my faith that government can work for veterans and Canadians,” said Bruyea, who got into a nasty public spat and a court case with former veterans minister Seamus O’Regan over the benefits numbers.

In article published on Feb. 26, 2018 in the Ottawa-based publication The Hill Times, O’Regan accused Bruyea of “stating mistruths” about the Liberal pension-for-life plan.

“Let me be clear— NO veteran will receive less than what they are receiving today and most will be receiving more,” O’Regan wrote.

Bruyea suggested the budget officer’s distinction between those who are in the system now and those who will enter in the future is important to remember when parsing O’Regan’s words.

“This independent report verifies for veterans that, contrary to what politicians and bureaucrats have said, veterans are not greedy. They’re not entitled. They’re not angry,” he said. “And if they are feeling angry, it’s justified.”

Another important point, Bruyea said, is the comparison with the pre-2006 system of benefits, which is at least $18 billion more expensive than the more recent benefits systems.

The report demonstrates governments of both political stripes were focused on saving money, he said.

Veterans Affairs “wanted to prove to Treasury Board that they could reduce the costs of this future liability,” he said.

Giroux would not comment on whether he believed the federal government set out in the beginning to save money, but noted the benefits defined for veterans following the world wars were instituted at a time when Canada’s overall social safety net was not as generous.

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Record one million job losses in March: StatCan

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OTTAWA — More than one million Canadians lost their jobs in the month of March, Statistics Canada is reporting. The unemployment rate has also climbed to 7.8 per cent, up from 2.2 percentage points since February.

Canada’s national statistics agency released its monthly Labour Force Survey on Thursday, using March 15 to 21 as the sample week – a time when the government began enforcing strict guidelines around social gatherings and called on non-essential businesses to close up shop.

The first snapshot of job loss since COVID-19 began taking a toll on the Canadian economy shows 1.1 million out of work since the prior sample period and a consequent decrease in the employment rate – the lowest since April 1997. The most job losses occurred in the private sector and among people aged 15-24.

The number of people who were unemployed increased by 413,000, resulting in the largest one-month increase in Canada’s unemployment rate on record and takes the economy back to a state last seen in October, 2010.

“Almost all of the increase in unemployment was due to temporary layoffs, meaning that workers expected to return to their job within six months,” reads the findings.

The agency included three new indicators, on top of the usual criteria, to better reflect the impact of COVID-19 on employment across the country.

The survey, for example, excludes the more commonly observed reasons for absent workers — such as vacation, weather, parental leave or a strike or lockout — to better isolate the pandemic’s effect.

They looked at: people who are employed but were out of a job during the reference week, people who are employed but worked less than half their usual hours, and people who are unemployed but would like a job.

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Employee at Ottawa’s Amazon Fulfillment Centre tests positive for COVID-19

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OTTAWA — An employee who works at Amazon’s fulfillment centre on Boundary Road in Ottawa’s east-end has tested positive for COVID-19.

Amazon says it learned on April 3 that an associate tested positive for novel coronavirus and is currently in isolation. The employee last worked at the fulfillment centre on March 19.

Two employees told CTV News Ottawa that management informed all employees about the positive test in a text message over the weekend.

In a statement to CTV News Ottawa, Amazon spokesperson Jen Crowcroft wrote “we are supporting the individual who is recovering. We are following guidelines from health officials and medical experts, and are taking extreme measures to ensure the safety of employees at our site.”

The statement also says that Amazon has taken steps to further protect their employees.

“We have also implemented proactive measures at our facilities to protect employees including increased cleaning at all facilities, maintaining social distance in the FC.”

CTV News Ottawa asked Amazon about the timeline between when the company found out about the positive COVID-19 case and when employees were notified.

In a separate email to CTV News Ottawa, Crowcroft said “all associates of our Boundary Road fulfillment centre in Ottawa were notified within 24 hours of learning of the positive COVID-19 case.”

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Ottawa facing silent spring as festivals, events cancelled

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This is shaping up to be Ottawa’s silent spring — and summer’s sounding pretty bleak, too — as more and more concerts, festivals and other annual events are cancelled in the wake of measures meant to slow the spread of coronavirus.

The province has already banned gatherings of more than five people, and on Monday officials announced city parks, facilities and services will remain shut down until the end of June, nor will any event permits be issued until at least that time.

“This leaves us with no choice but to cancel the festival this year,” Ottawa Jazz Festival artistic director Petr Cancura confirmed Monday.

This was to be the festival’s 40th anniversary, and organizers announced the lineup for the June 19-July 1 event the day after Ottawa’s first confirmed case of COVID-19. 

The Toronto and Montreal jazz festivals had already pulled the plug because of similar restrictions in their cities, so Cancura said the writing was on the wall.

“We have a few contingency plans to keep connecting with our audience and working with our artists,” Cancura said.

People holding tickets to the 2020 festival can ask for a refund or exchange for a 2021 pass.

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