Nearly two decades have passed since the federal government introduced the New Veterans Charter, which shifted away from traditional pensions to offering veterans lump-sum payments for service-related injuries, along with training and rehabilitation programs and re-establishment in civilian life.
But retired lieutenant-general and former senator Roméo Dallaire is calling for updates to the charter officially adopted in 2006 that he helped pass through the Senate. There has been progress toward helping veterans recognize and heal from their wounds — both visible and invisible — but there remains a gap in dealing with mental injuries, he said.
“These injuries will pop up mostly after the conflict when the adrenaline goes down and they will get worse and worse. And it’s like a cancer, it’ll grow and people will suffer all the more,” Dallaire said, speaking to Antony Robart on Global News Morning this past week.
“Unless you treat them as equal honourable, injuries that must be rectified and supported immediately, then you will always have that second look on those who are psychologically injured.”
In 2005, as the number of Canadian troops returning from Afghanistan with injuries started to increase, the charter was rushed through Parliament with unanimous consent from all parties but with what many now agree was insufficient vetting. Instead, Ottawa promised to revisit it regularly.
After it was passed, many veterans believed it was financially inequitable and lacked support for retraining, education and employment opportunities.
There have been multiple bills passed to try and help strengthen the charter throughout the years, such as creating an education and training benefit.
“The work that’s been done has been monumental since we realized that we had nothing to assist these people,” Dallaire said, adding that more needs to be done, especially when it comes to addressing psychological injuries.
“Even though we felt it was incomplete, we knew that ultimately we’d be able to amend it. And so, at the 20th anniversary of this coming in 2025, I hope that we will upgrade it to meet the needs,” Dallaire said.
About one-fifth of Canadian veterans experience a diagnosed mental health disorder at some time during their lives; the most common are depression, PTSD and anxiety disorders, according to Veterans Affairs Canada.
The risk for suicide in the Canadian military has been shown to be consistently higher than in the general population. Male veterans die by suicide 1.4 times more than other men, while the rate for female veterans is 1.9 times higher, according to a 2019 Veteran Suicide Mortality Study.
While the federal government has made efforts to address mental health issues, challenges persist in ensuring timely access to mental health services.
Dallaire expressed his hope that a restructured veterans’ charter will effectively tackle the mental health challenges confronting many Canadian Armed Forces members and veterans. He also hopes for a reduction in the stigma associated with “mental injuries” that are often experienced by veterans.
With a 35-year tenure in CAF, the former commander is internationally recognized for his pivotal role in the United Nations peacekeeping mission during the Rwandan genocide, and later dedicated his life to eradicating the use of children as weapons of war.
Dallaire has also been honoured for his impactful efforts in assisting soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and his unwavering openness about his personal mental health struggles.
“On a daily basis, I take my nine pills a day. And I did have the decades of therapy,” he told Global News. “We have to build our mental prosthesis … and that takes years of therapy and a lot of support to be able to know how to navigate through life without throwing yourself back into the horrors.”
When reflecting on Remembrance Day, Dallaire highlighted that the first person he will remember is his father, who joined the armed forces in 1929.
“The reason I think of him on this day is that he never really liked November 11th, because for him it wasn’t remembering. For him, it was reliving. And I think for many of the veterans, it is far more the fact that we are thrown right and often in slow motion,” he said.
“For those in World War II, they are back on the beaches, and for me I am back in Africa. And so those days become very difficult days for veterans because they’re reliving the horrors of the past and not simply remembering.“
He added that many soldiers returning from war with PTSD may perceive it as a weakness, but he maintains the perspective that these are “honourable injuries of conflict and war.”
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