Promises Broken, or Politics as Usual?

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By Jonathan Scotland

Despite the Conservative Party of Canada’s fondness for promoting its support for Canada’s military, since assuming government in 2006 the federal government’s relationship with veterans has been rocky at best. By the close of last year’s parliament it seemed that new criticisms were being leveled at Julian Fantino, Minister of Veterans Affairs, on a daily basis. His department’s handling of the New Veterans Charter (NVC) and treatment of soldiers’ mental health came in for special criticism. Critics also added neglected war graves, unspent funds, cuts to the Veterans’ Affairs’ disability awards branch, and inadequate access to a growing list of complaints. Fantino, at least, was struck off that list early in the new year when he was replaced as Minister by Erin O’Toole, a sign the government is trying to repair its reputation with veterans.

In British Columbia wounded veterans have taken Ottawa to court over the change from life-long pensions to one-time, lump-sum payments. This shift, the veterans argue, amounts to a breach of trust between soldiers and the crown, a social contract that dates to at least the First World War.

Their suit builds on Aboriginal case law by invoking the honour of the crown. If it succeeds, it will be precedent setting. Veterans’ benefits will henceforth be enshrined as a permanent fiduciary responsibility.

With parliamentary sovereignty at stake, government lawyers are vigorously seeking to have the suit thrown out.

At the heart of the case are Prime Minister Robert Borden’s wartime commitments to Canada’s troops. In 1917, on the eve of the attack on Vimy Ridge, Borden assured the country’s soldiers that they “need have no fear that the government and the country [would] fail to show just appreciation of [their] service.” The Prime Minister considered it Canada’s “first duty” to support the troops and he promised them that none would have “just cause to reproach the government for having broken faith” with its men.

Later, the Union Government reiterated these commitments. It too supported Canada’s fighting men and their families. The “maimed,” “broken,” “the widow and the orphan” would each be protected because, the government re-assured its soldiers, “Duty and decency demand[ed] that those … saving democracy [should] not find democracy a house of privilege, or a school of poverty and hardship.” [1]

With what is perhaps the most cynical of defences, Ottawa now argues that Borden’s statements were merely political. They were never “intended as commitments or solemn commitments” claim the Crown’s lawyers, who further deny that Borden’s speeches implied any “alleged social contract or social covenant” with veterans. [2]

Borden’s statements in 1917 preceded much of the postwar assistance system, including the war veterans allowance and the soldier settlement scheme. But there is little doubt that he promised both social and economic assistance for the war’s disabled. If they needed to be “re-educated,” they would be. Able-bodied veterans were also supported, though to a lesser degree. Their postwar prospects included preferential hiring for the civil service and, for those wanting to, assistance with re-establishment “on the land.” There proved to be failures, of course, but the intent was clear and postwar fights over re-establishment were about whether the government was living up to its commitments, not whether it had made them at all. [3]

Certainly soldiers in the trenches took the Prime Minister at his word. Frederick Bagnall, for example, believed Borden. He served with the 14th Battalion, CEF, and when postwar life did not live up to his wartime ideals, he singled Borden out for making “impossible promises about the things the soldiers would get when they got back.”[4]

Borden visiting wounded soldiers overseas, March 1917.] [Source: Library and Archives Canada online database, MIKAN no. 3521817

Borden visiting wounded soldiers overseas, March 1917.]
[Source: Library and Archives Canada online database, MIKAN no. 3521817

Ottawa’s recent suggestion that the Prime Minister’s commitments amounted to mere politicking ignores that his statements were part of a much wider chorus of wartime voices. Each assured men that in return for their service they and their families would be taken care of. Such promises were uttered by politicians and bureaucrats alike. None suggests they were merely pandering to serving soldiers or veterans.

In 1915, nearly two years before his statements at Vimy, Borden called on the country’s premiers to establish the Military Hospital Commission (MHC). Its duties included the “provision of employment for returning soldiers and training of disabled soldiers.” The Prime Minister’s plan was not a public speech. It was a matter of government policy and Borden hoped the premiers could meet him in Ottawa to “consider and formulate” a scheme to help deal with the question of Canada’s veterans. [5]

Once established, the Commission became the earliest version of the Department of Veterans Affairs. It quickly assumed responsibility for “taking care of and providing for all returned soldiers who for any cause are incapacitated for employment, or who require special training or treatment before being able to undertake employment.” [6]

The Commission’s secretary, E.H. Scammell, was direct in his support for returned men. He believed that both the government and the public needed to do everything it could to “insure” that Canada’s veterans returned “to a means of livelihood.” For Scammell, this meant both the disabled and able-bodied and he considered the former an “obligation” which fell “primarily on the State.” Critically, the government’s duty for veterans’ care and livelihood went beyond a simple cheque and, in Scammell’s opinion, this responsibility could not be “extinguished by the award of a pension from public funds.” [7]

Ontario’s premier, William Hearst, summed up how clearly the relationship between politicians and their promises to Canada’s soldiers was understood. “As public men,” he told his fellow politicians, “we say to the Soldier,‘Go and fight for us and we will take care of you.’” He did not stop there, however, and his commitment to veterans demonstrates the historical ignorance of the Crown’s case. By making such promises to Canada’s soldiers, Hearst claimed, the state and its representatives were “fulfilling a compact, and a most solemn one at that, when we undertake to take care of them to the best of our ability.” [8]

Clearly Canada’s wartime bureaucrats, soldiers, and politicians all understood that winning the war required supporting the country’s servicemen.

Lately the government is attempting to distance itself from its own legal position. Ottawa’s lawyers, one Conservative MP alleges, are guilty of “legal speak.”? The government, after all, supports its troops. Even Minister Fantino eventually acknowledged that Ottawa does have a “social contract” with its veterans. These Public pronouncements have yet to alter the government’s legal position, however. [9]

If the crown still believes Borden’s commitments to veterans are so easily dismissed as the cynical politicking of yesteryear, it begs to question what we are to make of the Conservatives’ claims today?

Jonathan Scotland is a doctoral candidate at Western University. His dissertation examines Canada’s returned men in the aftermath of the Great War. is featuring this post as part of  “Canada’s First World War: A Centennial Series on”, a multi-year series of regular posts about the history and centennial of the First World War. 

[1] Scott v. Canada (Attorney General), 2013, BCSC, 1651, Amended Notice of Civil Claim

[2] Scott v. Canada, Written Statement of Defendant

[3] As the war progressed, and in a move prefiguring contemporary social and family assistance provide to the armed forces, Canada’s governments moved to provide additional assistance for serving soldiers’ families. Ottawa, in particular, directed significant financial and public support to the Canadian Patriotic Fund. After 1918 veterans fought hard to define these promises and to ensure they included all those who served, not just the disabled and ill. Their struggles are eerily similar to contemporary complaints and, outside of the literature on the pension system, remain largely ignored by historians.

[4] Frederick Bagnall, Not Mentioned in Despatches: The Memoir of Fred Bagnall, 14th Battalion, C.E.F., 1914-1917 (Ottawa: CEF Books, ), 78.

[5] AO, RG3-3-0-95, “Employment and Settlement of Returned Soldiers,” R.L. Borden to W.H. Hearst, 11 October 1915.

[6] AO, RG 3-3-0-106, War: Settlement of Returned Soldiers (1915), n.d.

[7] Sessional Paper No. 35a, 5.

[8] AO, RG 3-3-0-106, War: Settlement of Returned Soldiers (1915), n.d.

[9] Justin Ling, “Veterans Benefits,” National (12 November 2013)

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