VANCOUVER - Veterans deserve special treatment under the constitution in the same way aboriginals are guaranteed unique rights, a lawyer for six soldiers injured in Afghanistan has told British Columbia's top court.
The federal government is obligated to make good on nearly century-old promises to care for the only citizens it orders into possible death while fighting to make "our country possible," Don Sorochan told a trio of judges as he disputed that aboriginals are the only extraordinary case.
"The politicians acknowledge this. They stand by the cenotaphs," Sorochan said Thursday in the B.C. Court of Appeal.
"And yet we have an argument raised here ... that veterans are only entitled to whatever benefits the Parliament of the day may deem to be necessary."
Sorochan was responding to an attempt by the federal government to block the certification of a class-action lawsuit for injured soldiers who apply for disability benefits after April 2006, an application already approved by a B.C. Supreme Court judge.
The current and former Canadian Forces members are challenging changes to the compensation regime under the New Veterans Charter, brought into force by an all-party vote in Parliament. The individual plaintiffs represent "hundreds, if not thousands" of other potential claimants upset with their treatment by the federal government, Sorochan said.
None of the claims have been tested in court.
The veterans contend the new scheme is inadequate for supporting their families and substantially reduced from what is granted to other generations of injured soldiers. The predominant change involves doling out lump-sum payments in lieu of disability pensions.
One former soldier lost both legs above the knees in a Taliban ambush in Afghanistan. Retired major Mark Campbell says not getting a medical pension means he will get about $35,000 less a year.
Lawyers for the Attorney General of Canada have argued the government's duty to give special protections to one citizen category only applies as a legal principle in the aboriginal context. They maintain that issues raised by the veterans should be addressed by Parliament and not in court.
Veterans Affairs has been under fire in recent weeks, and Minister Julian Fantino was pressed by members of the Opposition in Question Period on Thursday.
The government is "profoundly proud and honoured" for veterans' services, he replied, before stating he would not comment during the court process. "Except to say that this matter deals with something that both parties agreed to under the previous government," Fantino said, adding "it was the Liberal government that initiated much of what today is in debate."
Sorochan told court that passage of the controversial legislation in 2006 was "a Kumbaya moment," according to a federal minister involved at the time.
He said the minister told him all parties thought they were benefiting veterans, having been reassured by bureaucrats who dealt with the fine details.
Instead, the resulting changes obliterated decades of renewed promises, carried forward from one government to the next starting before the First World War, he said, adding that "social contract" helped build Canada's democracy.
"You come forward and fight for your country and save it — and give your life if necessary — and what's the other side? If you die, we'll look after your family. And if you're wounded, like Major Campbell here, and lose your limbs, we'll look after you."
Justice Harvey Groberman urged the lawyer to stay focused several times during bouts of impassioned "rhetoric."
"We understand the nature of the Armed Forces, the sacrifices that each of the individuals in this room and the entire class have made, the expectations that they have," Groberman said. "And we understand the position the government is taking. But you're going to have to adopt an analytical approach."
Richard Blackwolf, CEO of the Canadian Aboriginal Veterans and Serving Members Association, also supports the class action.
"The government is here basically to say they want Parliament to be supreme," Blackwolf said. "But on the other hand ... not all laws that are passed in Parliament are just laws."