Statement made on 26 March 2009 by Senator Joseph Day
Click play to listen to the audio of this speech
Hon. Joseph A. Day:
Honourable senators, the term "Agent Orange" became almost a household expression in Canada during the Vietnam War. Honourable senators will know that Agent Orange is a toxic defoliant used by the United States military. However, many of us did not know and do not know that the U.S. military was using Agent Orange at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in New Brunswick during the 1960s.
Agent Orange contains a chemical called dioxin, a known carcinogen that has been linked to various types of cancer. Scientific testing in New Brunswick into this matter has not been consistent.
My main focus today is not to dissect this matter from a scientific standpoint but from a human standpoint. The fact is that during the 1960s, soldiers, their families and civilian employees at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown, as well as civilians living in the neighbourhood, were all exposed unknowingly to Agent Orange.
On September 12, 2007, the Minister of Veterans Affairs, Greg Thompson, announced the government's plan for payments to certain individuals who had been exposed to Agent Orange. An amount of $96.5 million was set aside for payments of $20,000 each to eligible military and civilian personnel. The government has decided that "eligible" means that the applicant must be living, and diagnosed with, at least one of 12 diseases identified by the U.S. Institute of Medicine. Furthermore, the applicant must have been living on the base or within a five-kilometre radius during the summers of 1966 and 1967. If the person died from cancer, the spouse or caregiver would be entitled to claim in their stead.
However, Minister Thompson announced that the program would be effective only after February 6, 2006 — the day that the Harper government took office. Honourable senators, to be eligible, veterans or civilians would have to be living on or after February 6, 2006. If they died before the Harper government took office, the caregiver would not be eligible for payment.
Military Widows on a War Path is a group founded in New Brunswick that is fighting to correct the inequities of the Harper government. The members are widows whose husbands were confirmed to have been living at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown during the time of spraying, and have the medical documentation proving that they were negatively affected by the dioxins in Agent Orange. Most of the members of Military Widows on a War Path have applied for the ex gratia payments but have been denied on the grounds that their husbands died before the cut-off date of February 6, 2006. They argue that the surviving spouse of a serviceman who died before February 6, 2006, is as entitled to payment as a surviving spouse of a serviceman who died after February 6, 2006, all else being equal.
Another qualifying date looms, honourable senators. The deadline for the application process under this program expires on April 1, 2009, which is next week. As of the end of February, Veterans Affairs Canada had approved $41 million in payments. That figure is less than one half of the allotted amount. Once the program has ended, the unused money will return to general revenue, and not to Veterans Affairs Canada. If there are funds left in the program, why not relax the restrictions? Why are the only eligible years 1966 and 1967 when the spraying of Agent Orange took place at other times as well? Why is it only a five-kilometre radius from the base? Why are only 12 diseases addressed, as outlined by the U.S. Institute of Medicine? Why must a soldier who was serving in 1966-67 have been alive on February 6, 2006, when the Harper government was elected?
In a pre-election speech in Woodstock, New Brunswick, on January 11, 2006, Mr. Harper made a promise. He said:
A Conservative government will stand up for full and fair compensation for persons exposed to defoliant spraying during the period from 1956 to 1984.
Honourable senators, this promise has not been kept. We have seen the Main Estimates for this fiscal year and there is no provision to continue this program. I can assure honourable senators that despite these artificial deadlines set by the Harper government, the damage done to civilians and to military personnel in New Brunswick by Agent Orange is an issue that will not disappear.