Ed Canuel doesn’t know how he’s going to pay his next heating bill, or make his next mortgage payment. Some days, he doesn’t even know where he’ll find the money for food.
The Afghanistan war veteran never once imagined he’d be where he is today.
He thought the army would have his back, he thought the government would take care of him, he thought he’d be given the tools to successfully transition from military life to civilian life when the time came.
Instead, he’s been turned on nearly every step of the way.
He’s not the only one.
When the New Veterans Charter was enacted in 2006, the disability pension that provided disabled veterans with a monthly pension payable for life was eliminated. Now, injured veterans receive a one-time, lump-sum pay out of their contributions.
Despite changes, there remains a growing chorus of complaints about the new charter.
According to Guy Parent, Canada’s veterans ombudsman, that system has left some of the country’s most severely injured and disabled veterans in dire straits.
A report released last month by Parent’s office, found that more than half of the veterans assessed as “totally and permanently incapacitated” can’t find work and are not awarded impairment benefits.
As well, the benefits that are supposed to help veterans transition from a military to civilian career were classified inadequate.
Canuel gave 14 years of his life to the army, employed both in the naval reserves and as a cook in the regular forces. He served a six-month tour in Afghanistan, worked on war ships, and took on various contracts, including the Vancouver Olympics.
But in 2003, Canuel suffered a back injury while on active duty on a naval ship in the Persian Gulf.
He’d been carrying an 80-pound box of rations up a ladder as the ship was battling a storm outside. The ship rolled, Canuel held on, and his back popped.
“I thought I was strong enough to hold on,” he said.
Four vertebrae in the mid-back region shifted, leaving Canuel with a permanent kink. He now has early stages of arthritis and chronic thoracic pain.
For nine years Canuel worked through the pain, remedying it through pain meds and sleeping pills prescribed by the hospital at CFB Esquimalt. But in September 2012, the reserves placed him on permanent medical category – making him “no longer employable.”
And for over a year, Canuel has been fighting a new battle.
He wants a proper pension and skills retraining, something he feels he’s entitled to, but keeps getting denied.
His skills as a cook are not transferable due to his injury, yet the only assistance he’s been provided with is help writing a resume and a cover-letter.
He doesn’t qualify for vocational retraining.
“I cannot cook on a civilian job site, I physically can’t do it, the hours are long, I can’t live on the pay, there’s no benefits,” said Canuel.
“This government believes the private sector will find jobs for veterans. I’ve never heard of a private job you can walk up to and say, ‘I’m an injured veteran with back problems, will you hire me?’
“They won’t hire you. Only government jobs and union jobs accommodate people with injuries.”
Canuel’s been working three jobs trying to make ends meet, but still walks a financial tight rope every month, pushing one bill to pay another, dipping into his overdraft and racking up credit cards bills. His debt, including a mortgage, is based on the $60,000 to $70,000 income he made while working full-time in the army, not the $13 an hour jobs he’s currently working.
“If things continue the way they’re going, I don’t know what my future holds,” he said. “I’m worried about becoming homeless.”
Last week, Canuel sought help from the Royal Canadian Legion’s Poppy Fund.
The organization’s generosity – a cheque worth $3,000 – shook him.
“The Royal Canadian Legion, for the first time in over a year, is the only organization that’s helped me in this entire process,” said Canuel, tears filling his eyes.
“The military system, the medical system out of CFB Esquimalt, my case manager, nobody has helped me.
“This whole thing has been a nightmare, an absolute nightmare.”
Canuel doesn’t understand why Afghanistan war veterans are treated any differently than Second World War and Korean War veterans.
They all fought for the same country.
“My story is not about me being a cook, or hurt on ship, but a story of a veteran, thrown away like trash after being injured by his employer,” he said. “I’ve been given no support financially, no retraining, no pension, and passed off to private sector for employment, which will not hire or accommodate injured vets.
“The bottom line is that Afghanistan war veterans are being mistreated.”