The all-party House of Commons defence committee is calling on the Trudeau government to right a historic wrong done to former members of the military dishonourably discharged over 20 years ago because of their sexual orientation.
Being gay, lesbian or transsexual in the military meant automatic dismissal, prior to regulation changes in 1992.
NDP defence critic Randall Garrison called on the committee to ask Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan to instruct the military ombudsman to investigate and amend the service records of those kicked out prior to the policy change.
There could be as many as 1,200 people who lost their careers because the rules at that time labelled their conduct disgraceful in military terms and a potential security risk.
Gay and lesbian Canadians were driven out of the military and public service beginning in the 1950s because homosexuality was seen as a weakness that could make them vulnerable to the “enemy.”
The Liberal government announced in August it is planning an apology to the LGBTQ community for past wrongdoing, but the question of whether it will be tied to compensation is something that remains unclear.
Garrison’s motion was supported by both Conservative members and MPs belonging to the governing Liberal party.
“We have a mechanism that can right the injustice,” Garrison said Tuesday following the committee meeting.
The fact each party supported the motion is a step forward, considering the former Conservative government last year rejected a demand by the NDP for an official apology.
Having a dishonourable military discharge on their record affected not only future employment chances, but also access to veterans benefits, said Garrison.
“This has been going for almost 25 years and we didn’t correct the past injustice.”
Gary Walbourne, the Canadian Forces ombudsman, has been unable to take action until this point because the watchdog position did not exist until 1998 — and that means he requires special instructions from the minister to proceed.
The fact some people have been under a cloud is not fair and not right, he said.
“I think that it needs to be corrected,” Walbourne told CBC News.
The scope of his involvement has yet to be determined.
The ombudsman could simply be asked to change the service records to reflect an honourable discharge, but there’s also the possibility Walbourne could be ordered to investigate how the policy affected the lives of people.
“What impact has this had on an individual? That is a totally different realm of investigation,” he said. “It all depends on the instructions given by the minister and how far he wants to go.”
Sajjan sounded supportive but non-committal when asked in a conference call about the non-binding motion from the defence committee.
He suggested further action on his part needs to take place in lockstep with other ministers and departments.
“This is very important, not just to national defence but to a wider government context as well. More is being done,” he told reporters following a meeting in Paris.
“We in the government believe strongly that we should do this right. We will be looking at this in a much wider frame. Not just from our department, but from a much wider government perspective.”
Other ombudsman concerns
During the same meeting Tuesday, Walbourne also warned that Canada’s national security could soon be affected by ongoing systemic, legitimate complaints of soldiers and veterans.
He said easily addressed personnel problems — some of them long-standing — are the source of mounting frustration within the ranks and have started to affect the recruiting and retention of soldiers.
“I do believe recruitment is getting harder by the day,” Walbourne said in an interview. “If we are trying to generate a force of a certain size and we can’t get there, what do we do?”
He said outdated policies and procedures — some of them dating back to the Cold War and even earlier — are a burden that troops should not have to bear.
Walbourne repeated his call for a better system to ease retiring soldiers through the complex maze of defence and post-service benefits. Specifically he wants the military, not the veterans department, made responsible for determining whether a soldier’s career-ending injury is attributable to their service.
Addressing the cost of transfers
But Walbourne also says some military families face “unreasonable financial losses” when they are forced to sell their homes in a hurry because they have been forced to transfer to another part of the country.
The current program meant to cushion the shock “provides insufficient protection,” he says.
Another pocketbook issue, which has long been a lightning rod within the ranks, is the Post Living Differential program which helps offset the burden of being posted in high-cost regions of the country. The policy hasn’t been updated since 2008.
“Why?” Walbourne asked MPs.
“These problems are not beyond comprehension — nor are they too tough to crack. The military that landed on Juno Beach can surely figure out whether a loaf of bread costs the same in Shilo as it does in Esquimalt or Borden or Bagotville. We cannot keep playing musical chairs on this issue. We must sit and make a decision. Working together, we know what to fix and, in almost all cases, we know how to fix it.”