OTTAWA — The Harper government has spent nearly $8 million fighting veterans and their families seeking compensation for exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange at CFB Gagetown in New Brunswick.
Documents recently tabled in Parliament show four departments have been involved in battling the class action suit with Justice spending the most at $5.8 million followed by another $1.5 million spent by National Defence. Health Canada and Veterans Affairs have paid about $445,000.
Liberal Senator Percy Downe who requested the tab on legal costs said $7.8 million in legal fees are “beyond the pale” especially when, he said, veterans exposed to Agent Orange are being denied what’s owed to them.
The tally includes outside legal fees and departmental costs between July 2005 and March 2010.
“These surviving veterans and their families have waited long enough: it’s time to stop paying lawyers and start paying our veterans the debt to which they are owned.”
Downe said veterans and civilians were forced into a law suit for compensation after the Harper government failed to honour an election promise to compensate anyone affected by the spraying of the powerful defoliant on the base between 1956 and 1984.
The tight restrictions of the $96-million compensation plan the government eventually introduced is a far cry from that election promise, said Downe.
The spraying began in the 1950s to clear dense brush and continued into the mid-1980s. The U.S. military tested Agent Orange and other chemical defoliants on a section of the base for a few days between 1966 and 1967.
The government’s compensation package was only offered to veterans and civilians who lived, worked or were posted at CFB Gagetown or resided within five kilometres of the base between 1966 and 1967 when the Americans sprayed. They must also have developed illnesses related to Agent Orange exposure as of February 2006 when the Conservatives were elected.
The Agent Orange Association of Canada Inc. has been fighting the restrictions, which president Carol Brown Parker said is only aimed at limiting the numbers who qualify for compensation and the government’s liability.
The association is now racing to get information out and help people with their paperwork and medical testing for the new Sept. 17 deadline to apply for compensation. The original deadline was April 1.
Veterans railed against the tight restrictions for only offering the $20,000 payments to those exposed between 1966 and 1967. Some 4,000 veterans and civilians are involved in a class action suit against the government, along with the companies that manufactured Agent Orange.
By late May, the government said it paid tax-free $20,000 payments to 2,800 victims and more than $79 million was paid to veterans and their families.