The South Surrey-based Equitas Society – currently representing Canadian armed forces veterans suing the federal government to have their full disability pensions reinstated – is organizing and underwriting the costs for this weekend’s first annual Canadian Walk for Veterans.
Sunday’s event will take place simultaneously in seven major cities coast to coast, including a Metro Vancouver walk from 9:15 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Lafarge Lake at Coquitlam’s Town Centre Park (for more details, visit equitassociety.ca/walk-for-veterans).
But Equitas president Marc Burchell said the focus of the event is far broader than a single legal issue.
“This is an opportunity for average Canadians to walk shoulder-to-shoulder with our veterans,” he said. “Remembrance Day is an important, solemn event marking the sacrifice of veterans, but this a chance to celebrate them, to thank them for their service and listen to their stories.”
The purpose of the walk – an outgrowth of a Metro Vancouver walk in Central Park, Burnaby last October – is two-fold, Burchell said. For the general public it will help raise awareness of veterans and veterans’ issues, he noted. But for the veterans themselves, he said, it’s an opportunity to come together and speak with a unified voice – to experience the sense of family and camaraderie they left behind in the service, and, most importantly, to know that they’re not alone in their struggles with post-service life.
Burchell said veterans – trained by the military to follow orders, and bolstered by the support of its extensive logistical organization – find it hard to cope independently with the red tape and “hundreds of pages” of paperwork required by the Department of Veteran Affairs, which he describes as a bureaucracy with “an insurance company mentality of approval and denial.”
“There are some veterans waiting up to 30 months to get compensation and benefits which they are entitled to,” he said.
Judging by response across the provinces to the current plans – which include interconnected live-streaming gatherings in Victoria, Edmonton, Ottawa, Kingston, Fredericton and St. John’s – Burchell has no doubt that the walk is gathering the momentum needed to grow it into a major national event.
“It’s already happening,” he said, adding that interest from other cities is running high.
“We were able to pull together seven cities for this walk, but we’re hearing from Quebec, from Saskatoon, from Brandon, Manitoba – even Kamloops, B.C. – that they all want to have walks.”
Veteran volunteer organizers have told him, he said, that the event will “save lives” and that it is giving them “a sense of purpose.”
While Burchell insists Equitas is firmly non-partisan, he doesn’t deny there is a deeper political message to an event that gives a higher profile to veterans, as well as opening dialogue between them and the public.
All participants in the first walk, he notes, are to receive a commemorative coin that bears the inscription “Dedicated to the duty of care Canada owes to all veterans disabled in service to Canada.”
The phrase “duty of care” is a key one to Burchell and Equitas members – Burchell said lawyers for the Justice Department have stated, in their fight against reinstating the old Pension Act, that “Canada has no duty of care to its veterans.”
“It’s almost surreal that somebody would say this,” he said.
Equitas has been battling Ottawa since the Pension Act – which had given veterans disability pensions since 1919, just after the First World War – was replaced, in 2006, by the Harper Government’s New Veterans Charter. This instituted lump-sum payments that many veterans claim leave them considerably worse off and without a dependable month-to-month income supplement.
While a 2015 motion from Fin Donnelly, NDP MP for Port Moody-Coquitlam – calling for the government to recognize a covenant of “moral, social, legal and fiduciary obligation” to provide compensation and support services to veterans injured and disabled as a result of military service – was passed unanimously in the House of Commons, it did not formalize that support with legislation, Burchell said.
Nothing has changed since the Liberals came into power, he added.
The BC Court of Appeal dismissed the veterans’ class-action in December, noting that it can only enforce actual legislation – a decision that for which Equitas is seeking an appeal from the Supreme Court.
“Justin Trudeau said during his election campaign that they were going to reinstate the lifelong pension – that our people should not have to take the government to court,” Burchell said. “But there are still 73 outstanding court cases with veterans.”
But Equitas’ position is gaining support from across the political spectrum, including federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, Burchell said. And he feels that other politicians will find it difficult to ignore a burgeoning social movement – something he sees as a natural progression of the walk.
“There comes a point where the pressure from the public on politicians exceeds the resistance they encounter from the bureaucrats,” Burchell said.
“(The Prime Minister) has made the comment ‘you’re asking for more than we can give,’” he added. “The veterans were asked for more than they could give, too, but they gave it anyway.
“I think it’s the responsibility of every Canadian to get involved and solve the problems and improve the lives of all our veterans,” Burchell said.
“They did it for us.”