The House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs heard from a Comox resident and former member of the Canadian Armed Forces about her experiences with Veterans Affairs.
Sgt. Nina Usherwood is a transgender member of the Canadian Armed Forces. Usherwood is soon to be released from the forces, and has started the process of applying to Veterans Affairs. However, Usherwood said she met with challenges in that process.
The committee is looking into fairness in services offered to veterans, particularly in regards to francophones, anglophones, men, women and the LGBTQ2S+ community. North Island-Powell River MP Rachel Blaney is the NDP Critic for Veterans and a member of the committee. Blaney invited Usherwood to speak to the committee.
In her testimony, Sgt. Usherwood described challenges in applying to Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) with medical and service records that were tied to her former name and gender. In addition, the lack of a dedicated caseworker at Veterans Affairs results in veterans having to retell their story numerous times. Usherwood expressed how this is particularly difficult for members who have to revisit trauma with each telling.
“Not having a caseworker means you have to go back over and over and tell the same thing,” said Usherwood. “Part of the trauma of the last thirteen years or so is doing exactly that — explaining who I am.”
“There’s always going to be some members of the community who do not want to be exposed,” Usherwood said in her testimony, when talking about her experience with VA. “There are still people out there who are not ready yet to be public about who they really are.”
“I had to isolate myself. I could not take part in any social events in the forces… At least in the past, most of the force’s social events involved drinking. I could not lose control,” she said. Usherwood said that she had friends who did come out while they were in the forces, but that those people were “forced out.”
“To serve in that kind of hostile environment is just unimaginable,” she said. “It’s not one thing. It’s the fact that it never stops… It’s the endless pinpricks. It’s just that it’s endless.”
Usherwood said that having a case worker would have cut months of the transition out of the forces.
Another witness to the committee, Michelle Douglas, agreed with Usherwood’s testimony. Douglas said that proper training and consistency of caseworkers was critical, and that “when that first, initial, phone call did not go well. There was doubt or even mocking in a couple of cases. They never called veterans affairs back again. They felt so humiliated and shamed and it was re-traumatizing.”
Douglas served in the CAF from 1986 to 1989, and was honourably released during the military’s “LGBT purge,” a press release from Blaney’s office said. Douglas filed a legal challenge of the military’s discriminatory policies at the time, and was successful. She now works as the executive director of the LGBT Purge Fund, which manages a portion of the results of a class action settlement.
“The issue of fair service delivery to veterans is a critical issue for Veterans Affairs to address,” said Blaney. “Members of the military who belong to the LGBTQ2S+ community deserve far better service from VAC when they transition out of the Canadian Armed Forces, and I will continue to press the Minister and his government to address their concerns.”
The committee will conclude its work on this matter after another meeting at the end of March.