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The Globe and Mail

Government set to announce improved benefits for wounded soldiers

Veterans Ombudsman Patrick Stogran speaks during a news conference in Ottawa, August 17, 2010.


The Harper government will offer an olive branch of expanded benefits to angry war veterans, whose escalating criticism of "penny-pinching" bureaucrats threatens to derail their fall political agenda.

Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn and Defence Minister Peter MacKay are expected to hold an unusual Sunday news conference, one day ahead of the resumption of Parliament, where opposition parties will almost certainly zero in on the Tories' handling of the veterans file.

The changes are not expected to address the central complaint of veterans, who argue the new system of lump sum payments and income replacement pales in comparison to the post-Second World War practise of granting lifetime pensions.

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That revision could come in December when Veterans Affairs Canada completes a comprehensive review of its future, said defence sources.

Political insiders were quick to pledge that a "fix" was under consideration.

"It will come later," said one official, who did not want to be named.

But veterans who have been waging a campaign against the government say they have been ignored and held out little hope that the real issues at play would be tackled by the Conservatives.

Ron Cundell, a retired sergeant and a disabled veteran said he didn't have high expectations for Sunday's announcement.

"We're putting a little bit of lipstick on the pig called the New Veteran's Charter," Mr. Cundell said in an interview from Angus, Ont.

Mr. Cundell was one of the former soldiers who spoke out against the government in August when it was announced the veterans ombudsman's contract was not being renewed.

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"It's all a cat-and-mouse game because they're going back to Parliament so they're giving us a few bread crumbs," Mr. Cundell said.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said the Tories move comes late in the game.

"They're playing catch-up here," Mr. Ignatieff said before a Liberal fundraiser in Montreal.

"It's late and veterans all across the country . . . are angry at the way this government is treating veterans."

Mr. Ignatieff questioned the timing of a government announcement after a summer of missteps on the file and what he says amounted to the firing of popular veterans ombudsman, Pat Stogran.

"There's question about their good faith," Mr. Ignatieff said of the Conservatives.

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A study commissioned by the veterans ombudsman and obtained by The Canadian Press last month, took aim at existing lump-sum payments, which can be up to $276,000 for the most severe injuries. It concluded that the one-time payments - the hallmark of the New Veteran's Charter - short-changed low-income soldiers and the most severely disabled veterans.

Injured soldiers are given a lump sum cash pay-out and a monthly income replacement cheque while they are in rehabilitation. The cheques stop when they transition to a civilian job.

It's been suggested in order to help soldiers of the lowest rank, the size of the monthly income replacement could be increased. The replacement cheque amounts to 75 per cent of a soldier's pre-injury salary.

A spokesperson for Mr. Blackburn wouldn't confirm media reports that the measures to be announced Sunday will include a bigger allowance for privates as they recover from their wounds.

Last month veterans ombudsman Pat Stogran held a news conference, flanked by veterans, where he accused government officials and bureaucrats of letting down those who are sacrificing life and limb for Canada. He accused federal bureaucrats of "penny-pinching" veterans and blocking his efforts to improve their benefits.

Mr. Cundell said Saturday that he and others who fight for veteran's rights "hit a wall" after that news conference, with no response from the government.

But the Conservatives were clearly unnerved after the vets news conference. The sight of maimed soldiers pleading for help from the government threatened to cut into bases of support they had built among right-leaning Canadians and traditional conservatives who support a strong military.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper invited Mr. Stogran to bring his suggestions forward and work with the Conservatives to incorporate them in future policy.

Insiders say Mr. Blackburn was summoned to a cabinet meeting with his senior bureaucrats and dressed down after the news conference.

The criticism came around the same time that the Conservative government notified him that he would not be reappointed when his three-year term ends in November.

Another disabled veteran who stood with Mr. Stogran said he had a cautious approach to the Tories.

Dennis Manuge said he "hopes for the best but plans for the worst," when dealing with the Conservative government.

Mr. Manuge is the lead plaintiff representing 6,500 disabled veterans fighting the clawback of long-term disability benefits all of the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

"I would hope they would give veterans a choice of whether they want an equivalent monthly Pension Act payment under the old system, or if they would prefer to have the lump sum then give the individual the choice as to what works best for them," Mr. Mangue said from Nova Scotia.

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