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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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Virtual farmer’s market comes to Ottawa

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Ottawa first-ever virtual farmer’s market has begun delivering food from local farms straight to people’s homes.

Farm to Hand is making it easier for people who cannot access their local farmer’s markets to find local, fresh organic food by bringing ordered food right to their doors. 

“The difference between us and the farmers market is really just the convenience and the on-demandness,” Sean Mallia, the co-founder of the business, told CBC Radio’s In Town and Out.

“[Often times a] person wants to make the purchase but they don’t have the time on Saturdays to go to the farmers market. Everyone wants to eat local … so when it’s easy for them to do it, it just happens.” In Town and Out No time to drive to the farmer’s market but really want to eat local?

Connecting farmers with people 

The online platform allows farmers to list all their own products, and buyers can have the goods delivered. 

“What we really are trying to do is build that connection between farmer and consumer,” Mallia said. “When people fill up a cart … they’re not just filling a cart full of food, they’re filling a cart full of farmers and farms and their stories.”

Mallia said the aim is to connect people to the “vibrant food ecosystem” around them, and to local support farmers.

The virtual market is currently limited to the Ottawa area as a pilot project, but Mallia, 21, said the company is looking to expand.

“[We chose Ottawa because] Ottawa really cares. Ottawa really thinks about local [food] and thinks about sustainability,” he said. “It just made sense to come out of Ottawa.”

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Denley: Stonebridge and Mattamy show compromise is possible over development in Ottawa

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In Ottawa, development proposals too often end up in acrimony and trips to the provincial planning tribunal. That’s why it’s so refreshing to see Mattamy Homes and residents of the south Nepean suburb of Stonebridge work together to resolve a dispute in a way that’s likely to lead to a victory for both sides.

A little over a year ago, Mattamy created an uproar in the golf course community when it announced a plan to build 158 new homes on golf course lands and alter the Stonebridge course to make it shorter and less attractive to golfers. To residents, it looked like the first step in a plan to turn most, or all, of the course into housing.

It’s easy to see why residents were upset. When people pay a premium for a lot backing onto a golf course, there is certainly an implication that the lot will continue to back onto a golf course, but without a legally binding guarantee, it’s no sure thing.

Mattamy’s situation was understandable, too. This is a tough time to be in the golf course business in Ottawa. There are too many courses and not enough golfers so it’s no surprise that golf course owners would find the idea of turning a course into a housing development to be attractive, doubly so when the golf course is owned by a development company.

This is a tough time to be in the golf course business in Ottawa. There are too many courses and not enough golfers so it’s no surprise that golf course owners would find the idea of turning a course into a housing development to be attractive.

In the face of the local opposition, Mattamy withdrew its development application. When things cooled down, the company, the neighbours and the city started to work together on finding a solution that would satisfy everyone.

With the city-sponsored help of veteran planning consultant Jack Stirling, they came up with an unusual idea that will still let Mattamy develop its desired number of homes, in exchange for a promise to operate the course for at least 10 years and redesign it so that it remains attractive to golfers.

At the end of the 10 years, Mattamy can sell the course to the community for $6 million. To raise the money, the community working group is proposing a special levy to be paid by Stonebridge homeowners starting in 2021. The amount will range from $175 a year to $475 a year, depending on property values.

If the deal is approved by a majority of homeowners, Mattamy gets its development and a way out of the money-losing golf business. Homeowners get certainty about no future development. They can choose to keep the course going or retain the 198 acres as green space. It’s not a cheap solution, but it keeps their community as it is and preserves property values.

If a majority of homeowners backs the deal, both the levy and redevelopment will still need to be approved by the city, something scheduled for late this fall.

Stonebridge Community Association president Jay McLean was part of the working group that prepared the proposal and he’s pleased with the outcome. The community’s number one goal was preserving green space, and the deal will accomplish that, he says. Mattamy division president Kevin O’Shea says the deal “gives the community the certainty they are looking for.”

As useful as this deal could be for Stonebridge residents, it doesn’t provide a template to resolve a somewhat similar dispute in Kanata North, where the owner of the Kanata Lakes golf course wants to work with a group of local developers to replace the course with housing. In Kanata, a longstanding legal agreement saying the community has to have 40 per cent open space strengthens residents’ situation. In Stonebridge, there was no legal impediment to developing the whole course.

Golf course communities have become an anachronism in a city intent on intensifying within the urban boundary. Redeveloping those lands for housing is in sync with the city’s planning goals, but it’s not politically saleable to homeowners who thought they had a deal. If it goes ahead, the Stonebridge plan shows there is a reasonable middle ground.

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City eyes five big themes for Ottawa’s new official plan

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As Ottawa maps out its future for the next 25-plus years, city staff propose focusing on five major areas, including the places we live and the ways we move around the capital.

A staff report to the city’s planning committee lays out five themes for future public consultations, before city council finalizes the plan.

1. Growth Management: City staff say Ottawa should focus on building up, rather than out. Staff also suggest the city provide direction on the type of new housing developments, rather than focusing on the number of units in a development, to encourage a wider variety of housing types.

2. Mobility: Staff say the city should encourage active transportation — like walking and cycling — and transit use by better co-ordinating land use and transportation planning. The report also encourages designing streets to better accomodate pedestrians and cyclists, as well as improving connections to the O-Train and Transitway.

3.  Urban and Community Design: Because Ottawa is a major city and the nation’s capital, staff say the design of our city’s buildings and skyline should be a higher calibre to reflect that status. Staff also suggest the city provide high-level direction for better designed parks and public spaces.

4. Climate, Energy and Public Health: Staff say residents’ health must be foundational to the city’s new official plan, with policies contributing to creating more inclusive, walkable, and sustainable communities.

5. Economic Development: Because much of Ottawa’s employment is knowledge-based, the city suggests those employment spaces could be better integrated into neighbourhoods and along main streets and transit nodes, instead of being isolated in business parks. City staff also suggest the city encourage more business incubation and identify opportunities to increase local food production.

The city’s new official plan will map out the city’s growth to 2046. The five themes and the plan’s high-level policy direction will go before the city’s planning committee, next week.

Public consultation and fine-tuning is expected to happen before city council approves the final version of the new official plan in 2021.

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