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Discrimination complaint for single soldier tossed after spouse appears

A discrimination case involving the family of single soldier killed five years ago in Afghanistan was thrown out when Veterans Affairs abruptly declared Cpl. Matthew Dinning had a previously unrecognized common-law spouse and child.

The revelation shocked his parents and brother, who were challenging the federal government's policy of paying a $250,000 lump-sum death benefit only to the families of married soldiers.

The case was dismissed by a human rights tribunal last Friday in a written decision.

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Lincoln Dinning, Matthew's father, said he would never have filed the human rights complaint, which alleged the government discriminated against single soldiers, had there been a spouse in the picture at the outset.

The decision by Veterans Affairs to recognize Tanya Lowerison as an entitled spouse occurred in June, well after the conclusion of a public hearing into the discrimination case last spring.

Lawyers for the federal department subsequently argued that there was no basis for the complaint since Matthew Dinning was technically no longer a single soldier.

The tribunal agreed.

"I am disappointed by the ruling of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal dismissing my case, but I am not at all surprised," said Lincoln Dinning, who was required to keep silent about last summer's decision until the commission had ruled.

Ms. Lowerison had been Matthew Dinning's girlfriend at the time of his death in an April, 2006, roadside bombing in Kandahar. The two had been living together, but her initial application for the benefit was turned down by the department.

It was reconsidered five years later when it appeared the tribunal was about to side with the Dinning family.

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"In the view of this Commission, it was a discriminatory practice to exclude from the payment of the death benefit family members such as parents who also suffer grief from the loss of a son or daughter in the military who dies as a result of a sudden service related injury," said tribunal member Edward Lustig, in the written ruling.

But since Ms. Lowerison had been officially recognized, the commission had no choice but to toss the complaint.

Common-law marriages fall under provincial jurisdiction, but a couple must have lived together for one year to be legally recognized.

Lincoln Dinning said his son and Ms. Lowerison had not lived together that long.

"I have written and DVD proof that they did not," he said.

Mr. Dinning, a veteran Ontario Provincial Police officer, wrote to Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney last summer, asking for a meeting to show him the evidence.

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"One hour with the father of a fallen soldier ... what do you have to lose?" said his Aug. 25 letter.

Mr. Blaney responded on Nov. 4, saying the case was closed and he couldn't discuss the particulars, citing privacy laws.

Mr. Dinning filed a complaint with the Mounties in Kitchener, Ont., but was told that "at this time Veterans Affairs Canada doesn't consider themselves a victim and as such has not requested the RCMP to investigate."

Paying the benefit to the families of single soldiers would be expensive. According to federal documents, it would have cost about $3-million per year during the course of the five-year war in Kandahar to expand the payment to families of all 158 soldiers killed overseas.

The majority of soldiers who died in Afghanistan were single.

Veterans Affairs officials declined to comment when asked on what basis and when Ms. Lowerison's application was re-considered. The department also refused to respond to the tribunal's view that the practice of singling out married soldiers was discriminatory.

"We have just received the Tribunal's decision and it is currently under review," department spokeswoman Janice Summerby said in an e-mail response. "Privacy legislation does not allow us to comment on the specifics of any case."

Veterans Affairs has been particularly sensitive about discussing personal information since being slammed by the country's privacy watchdog last year for rifling through the medical files of a veteran's advocate and slipping references into ministerial briefing notes in a political smear campaign.

The department has defended the lump-sum payment – which is granted on top of whatever life insurance a soldier may carry – in the past by saying it is meant to help the families of dead soldiers make the transition to civilian life.

It was one of the lightning rod issues since the revised veterans charter came into force in 2006.

Under the old system, the federal government paid a supplementary death benefit, calculated at two times the member's annual earnings.

The cash went to the spouse, or another designated beneficiary of the soldier. If there was no beneficiary, the money would go into the estate.

The $250,000 payment under the new charter was described as an improvement, but in order to implement it, federal officials had to narrow the existing definition of eligible survivor.

The fight is not the first for Mr. Dinning.

In 2007, he and his wife were at the forefront of an effort to get the Defence Department's funeral stipend increased to $12,500. At the time, Ottawa only covered $4,695 of the estimated $10,000 cost of burying a fallen soldier.

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