On May 9, 2014, amidst the pomp and circumstance of marching bands, dignitaries and aircraft buzzing overhead, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the crowds gathered on Parliament Hill that the names of the 158 soldiers killed in Afghanistan would be engraved “on the hearts of all Canadians who cherish freedom, justice and human dignity. These are the things they died protecting. Canadians are safer and Canada is stronger because of their sacrifice.”*
A noble statement but not as meaningful as the promise made by Prime Minister Robert Borden to Canadian troops preparing for the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Prime Minister Borden said “no man, whether he goes back or whether he remains in Flanders, will have just cause to reproach the government for having broken faith with the men who won and the men who died.”**
Prime Minister Borden was explicit: “The men by whose sacrifice and endurance the free institutions of Canada will be preserved must be re-educated where necessary and re-established on the land or in pursuits or vocations as they may desire to follow. The maimed and the broken will be protected, the widow and the orphan will be helped and cherished.”
The Canadian government enshrined this promise in legislation and honoured it for 93 years—until it was obliterated by Prime Minister Harper.
Harper betrays veterans
In 2006 the Harper government convinced the House that veterans would be better served by eliminating their access to benefits under the Pension Act in favour of “new” benefits under the New Veterans Charter.***
In fact the opposite was true. The New Veteran’s Charter reduced the compensation available to Afghanistan war veterans who went to war under the Borden promise and returned home under the Harper promise.****
This betrayal is the result of the Canadian Forces two-pronged strategy. First, instill pride in the Forces and provide a competitive quality of life and rewarding careers to its members and employees; and second, improve resource stewardship by balancing investments for current operations against investments in people, infrastructure and equipment required in the future.
Mr Harper’s New Veteran’s Charter demonstrates that soldiers who were grievously injured, but did not die in Afghanistan, don’t fit the second prong of the strategy. They are no longer “resources” meriting “investment” because they can’t be deployed in current operations and certainly can’t be used to fight future battles.
So Mr Harper simply kicks them to the curb and moves on.
The Honour of the Crown
Mr Harper forgot one tiny detail—he was attacking warriors.
In Oct 2012, six vets injured in Afghanistan started a class action against the Harper government.
The six include Mark Campbell, a 47 year old major in the Princess Patricia Light Infantry who was on his second tour of duty in Afghanistan when he got caught in a Taliban ambush and hit by an IED. The explosion blew off both of his legs. It took 90 minutes to evacuate Mr Campbell in the midst of an intense gun battle and an additional 25 minutes to helicopter him to the field hospital at Kandahar Airfield. A few days later Mr Campbell was flown to a hospital in Germany and from there to the U of A hospital.
Mr Campbell and his fellow litigants are relying on the government’s promise to help them put their lives back together again…and the New Veterans Charter simply doesn’t cut it.
The veterans are represented by Donald Sorochan, a Vancouver lawyer, who has taken on the case pro bono. Mr Sorochan says the Harper government is bound by “the honour of the Crown” and must honour the promise made by Prime Minister Borden in 1917. The New Veterans Charter violates this promise because it leaves injured veterans worse off than they were under the Pension Act. He wants the New Veterans Charter struck down and veterans’ benefits and compensations under the Pension Act restored.
Harper’s lawyers respond
Mr Harper’s lawyers’ responded with an application to kill the lawsuit on the basis that it failed to disclose any reasonable claim and was unnecessary, frivolous, vexatious or an abuse of process– legalese for the veterans don’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell.
Mr Harper’s lawyers also argued that Prime Minister Borden’s promise was nothing more than a “political speech” and was never intended to bind his or subsequent governments…something well worth remembering when Mr Harper starts campaigning in 2015.
The BC Supreme Court disagreed with Mr Harper’s lawyers. The veterans are free to proceed to trial with the “honour of the Crown” argument as well as Charter and Bill of Rights arguments.
Duty and decency
The veterans’ case is complex. It involves the principles of parliamentary sovereignty, the expansion of “the honour of the Crown” principle beyond the aboriginal law context and other significant legal issues. One way or another it will find its way to the Supreme Court of Canada—where Chief Justice Beverley McLachin (recently the target of a scurrilous attack by Mr Harper) will have an opportunity to consider the conduct of Mr Harper’s government.
Regardless of how the courts decide, the words of Sir Robert Borden ring true. “Duty and decency demand that those who are saving democracy shall not find democracy a house of privilege, or a school of poverty and hardship.”**
Duty and decency also demand that a prime minister who fails to honour the promises made by past prime ministers at least refrain from squabbling with the veterans over who should receive the last Canadian flag that flew in Afghanistan. Mr Harper appeared to be under the mistaken impression that he, not the Governor General, was the Commander in Chief of the Canadian Forces.
Mr Harper finally agreed to hand the flag over to Governor General, but only after he had received it first.
Duty and decency demand honour—a concept Mr Harper has utterly failed to grasp in his dealings with Canada’s war veterans and his bickering with the veterans charged with bringing the last Canadian flag in Afghanistan home to the Canadian people.
*Calgary Herald, May 10, 2014
**See the Miller Thomas website for the legal documents relating to the Scott v Canada (AG) class action http://equitassociety.ca/legal-action
***Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-establishment and Compensation Act SC 2011, c 12