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Mr. Dave MacKenzie (Oxford, CPC): Mr. Speaker, it has long been known that the Liberal government invited the United States to use CFB Gagetown to experiment with the toxic and deadly agent orange in 1966. Press reports this weekend indicate the Department of Veterans Affairs has recently admitted that agent orange was responsible for the death of veterans who were stationed there.
In light of the government's inaction on this tragedy, can the minister inform the House why many other sick and dying Canadians have been ignored?
Hon. Albina Guarnieri (Minister of Veterans Affairs, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, there is no greater priority than serving those who have served the country.
Pensions are granted by Veterans Affairs for a service related disability with a pension process designed to give applicants every chance to show that their disability is related to military service.
We are investing heavily in ensuring that all veterans are treated fairly by the country for which they fought.
Mr. Dave MacKenzie (Oxford, CPC): Mr. Speaker, for decades the Canadian military refused to acknowledge the Gagetown horror ever happened.
The government is currently addressing volunteers of chemical warfare testing, but it is silent on its involvement for those who were tested unknowingly. Will the minister now explain the government's shameful denial in assisting these affected members of our Canadian Forces?
Mr. Gordon O'Connor (Carleton—Mississippi Mills, CPC): Mr. Speaker, in 1966 the Liberal government authorized the spraying of agent orange on forests in CFB Gagetown. At or about that time, thousands of troops were serving in Gagetown, including me.
Recently it has been confirmed that agent orange can cause cancer and other medical problems. Will the minister detail what action the government is taking to address this serious and tragic health problem?
Mr. Dave MacKenzie (Oxford, CPC): Mr. Speaker, the Minister of Veterans Affairs and the Minister of National Defence have stated that Canadian Forces veterans exposed to agent orange qualify for disability pensions if they can make a medical case.
These ministers miss the point. Most veterans have no idea that they were exposed to agent orange and that their illnesses are related to their military service. Can the Minister of National Defence explain to the House why he has done nothing to reach out and help those exposed to agent orange at CFB Gagetown?
Hon. Bill Graham (Minister of National Defence, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, I totally reject the suggestion of the hon. member that the department is doing nothing to help those who have been exposed to agent orange. We regard this as a very serious matter. We are working with everybody we can in the Canadian Forces who has been exposed to this. This happened over 45 years ago.
I know that the hon. member and other members in the House want to make sure that the department is spending its money in ways that are responsible. We are doing that. We will help to make sure that anybody affected by this matter in our forces is properly compensated and will work with them to do it.
Mr. Dave MacKenzie (Oxford, CPC): Mr. Speaker, last week the Minister of National Defence acknowledged that deadly toxic agent orange was used some 40 years ago at CFB Gagetown. Military records show that the most dangerous ingredient of the herbicide agent orange was sprayed on unsuspecting Canadian Forces personnel at CFB Gagetown 10 years earlier.
The government is rapidly losing credibility on the issue. Why did the minister choose not to inform the House last week that the Canadian military had been spraying this deadly toxic chemical for an additional 10 years? Why the secrecy?
Hon. Bill Graham (Minister of National Defence, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, as I sought to explain to the hon. member in the House last week, these are events that occurred over 45 years ago. We are making strenuous efforts to obtain the appropriate records, work with those who were exposed, and work with anyone in the community who knew anything about this.
We have already given compensation through veterans affairs to various members who were exposed. We will work with all those who were exposed to these chemicals to ensure that they are made whole as much possible.
However, hon. members must recognize that what occurred 45 years ago presents a real challenge in terms of getting records and being able to find--
Mr. Peter Stoffer (Sackville—Eastern Shore, NDP): It is unbelievable, Mr. Speaker. The government likes to hide information from everybody.
During the 1960s, under Conservative and Liberal governments, we found that agent orange was sprayed upon unsuspecting civilian and military personnel.
Now we hear that agent purple, a carcinogen three times more lethal, was also used against unsuspecting military and civilian workers.
My question for the Minister of National Defence is quite clear. Instead of having to file freedom of information requests, will you now release all the information you have on these two agents that have been--
Mr. Claude Bachand (Saint-Jean, BQ): Mr. Speaker, in response to my question yesterday concerning agent orange testing in Gagetown, New Brunswick during the 1960s, the Minister of National Defence said that what the department is trying to do today is reconstruct the facts, establish the connections, and look at the type of compensation that could be offered those affected.
How can the minister explain that the government is still engaged in fact finding when there have been claims for compensation for the past 15 years, and when the highly toxic nature of agent orange has been well known and documented in a number of studies since its use in Vietnam?
Hon. Bill Graham (Minister of National Defence, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, as I explained yesterday in the House, these events and the use of these products date back 45 years. We are trying to reconstruct the facts and the consequences. We will be contacting all those affected in order to determine how we can ensure that justice and equity are served in this matter, as we have in numerous other similar cases. We just need the time to see that this is done properly and scientifically.
Mr. Greg Thompson (New Brunswick Southwest, CPC): Mr. Speaker, in typical Liberal fashion, the government speaks out of both sides of its mouth on agent orange. On the one hand it blames other jurisdictions, other governments and agencies. On top of this, it suggests more study and more consultation, in the meantime quietly compensating at least two victims.
Is the government now indicating that due diligence was not followed in these cases? Where does this leave the 300 or more outstanding claims presently on the minister's desk, in addition to the civilian cases?
Hon. Albina Guarnieri (Minister of Veterans Affairs, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, it is never easy to correct the errors of history, but this is a government that has always put the interests of veterans first. There was nothing quiet about delivering pensions for three veterans who were affected by agent orange. We will deliver for Canadians who are suffering from decisions of the past, and that is a record we will maintain.
Mr. Greg Thompson (New Brunswick Southwest, CPC): Mr. Speaker, the government has known about this file since 1981 and has done nothing. It has been in power, I want to remind members, for 12 years. We want action, not platitudes.
This minister is the master of platitudes. We want action on this file. Never once has she ever mentioned the word civilian either, in addition to the military files out there. When is she going to do something?
Hon. Albina Guarnieri (Minister of Veterans Affairs, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, Canadians can expect that this government will treat our veterans fairly and with proper due diligence. We will take the time necessary to review the cases so that we can be accurate and fair and not a minute longer.
Mr. Claude Bachand (Saint-Jean, BQ): Mr. Speaker, former defence minister Paul Hellyer has said he was misinformed, deceived even, by the military of the day, and was not told the whole truth about the use of agent orange, an extremely harmful defoliant, at CFB Gagetown during the 1960s.
Does the present Minister of Defence intend to take action and to intervene with the military authorities in order to ensure that they give him all the information they have available? How, in particular, does he intend to ensure that what they are telling him is true?
Mr. Greg Thompson (New Brunswick Southwest, CPC): Mr. Speaker, the Minister of National Defence continues to deny any link between agent orange and cancer related diseases. I refer to yesterday's testimony by his officials. In fact, they dismiss medical evidence from the United States and other jurisdictions which acknowledge that link.
Having awarded two compensation packages in at least two cases, the Minister of Veterans Affairs recognizes that link. Why does the Minister of National Defence continually deny that link? Why is there the disagreement between the two ministers?
Hon. Bill Graham (Minister of National Defence, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, we are not denying the link. What we are trying to do, despite the efforts of the hon. member, is to get some facts into this debate so we can understand exactly what happened some 40 years ago.
We know there was a limited amount of testing over seven days, over the course of two years, in certain areas within Gagetown. We are seeking to find out exactly all those who were exposed.
As the hon. member said, the Minister of Veterans Affairs has ensured that anyone who shows their exposure has been compensated with pensions. We are working on this. We do not minimize anything. We will find solutions and we will work with everyone to find the proper solution.
Hon. Bill Blaikie (Elmwood—Transcona, NDP): Mr. Speaker, I want to congratulate the minister for almost getting that out with a straight face.
My second question is for the Minister of National Defence. He will know that the people of Gagetown today are expressing their anger at his department for the way in which it has handled the agent orange issue over the years, particularly lately.
I want to ask the minister a question because I am sure he must wonder as well. Given the fact that this issue was first raised on the floor of the House of Commons by NDP MPs in January 1981, why is his department acting as if it only discovered this to be the case a few years ago? Why has it not done things over the years instead of visiting Gagetown--
The Speaker: The hon. Minister of National Defence.
Hon. Bill Graham (Minister of National Defence, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, I cannot speak to decisions, to which the hon. member refers, that were taken over 20 years ago, but I can speak to the decisions that are taken today.
This government is determined that the individuals in the region will understand the facts, will know what took place there and will be able to judge for themselves what they should be searching for as a way to enable them to have their rights dealt with.
I can assure the hon. member that we will provide the information and we will provide a solution to this very difficult problem.
Mr. Greg Thompson (New Brunswick Southwest, CPC): Mr. Speaker, the Department of National Defence continues to downplay the effects of agent orange on our military personnel and completely dismisses the impact on surrounding communities and civilians. DND has already prejudged the outcome of any future investigations, suggesting nothing new will be found.
How can the minister claim any legitimacy on this file when his officials have already predetermined the outcome?
Hon. Bill Graham (Minister of National Defence, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, I totally reject the premise of the question. We have not predetermined anything. I have been very clear with the House. These are events that took place a long time ago. We do know for a fact that these events took place over three days in one year and four days in another year, 1966 and 1967. There were a limited number of acres that were sprayed with agent orange and agent purple.
We are working with the communities. We will work with all Canadians who risk having been affected by this. We do not minimize it. We recognize this is an important issue. We want to make sure that Canadians are dealt with properly in this and we will do so.
Forty years ago after planes took off from the Gagetown airstrip, nearby communities had no idea what chemicals were being sprayed. People say they were kept in the dark and they doubt the chemicals that were sprayed stayed put.
Ken Dobbie has been sick for more than 30 years. It began with liver problems when he was a young man. The 57-year-old has been sick for more than 30 years. He never understood why until a few years ago.
It escalated to cirrhosis, pancreatitis, diabetes and brain atrophy. “I have type II diabetes; I have micro nodular sclerosis of the liver; idiopathic chronic pancreatitis; I'm in constant pain;” Dobbie says. “One of the questionnaires I remember had said ‘Have you ever worked with a chemical in your past?’ That's when it hit me.”
Dobbie remembered a summer job on the military base near his home in Oromocto, N.B. He was hired to clear brush that had been sprayed with a herbicide. That summer, 1966, the Canadian military sprayed Agent Orange at Gagetown.
Dobbie worked that summer with other local teenagers clearing and burning the contaminated brush. He says they had no protective gear.
Tempers flared at a military base in New Brunswick on Thursday as former military personnel and civilians hurled accusations at federal officials who were trying to relay information about the testing of the defoliant Agent Orange in the 1960s.
While federal officials stressed that the powerful chemical was used for only a few days in 1966 and 1967, members of the audience came forward to suggest Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals were used for a much longer period of time.
While Ottawa has said only a few barrels of Agent Orange was sprayed on the base, one member of the audience produced documents that suggested more than 6,000 barrels of various defoliants was sprayed, starting in the 1950s.
"We were poisoned by it," said a man who identified himself as a resident of Ontario who used to work at the base. "We ate our lunches with our bare hands and we ingested it. . . . I'm dying. I have to have a cancer test every three months."
Others stepped up to microphones to recount the various ailments they and their friends and relatives have suffered over the years.
A handful of military personnel have received compensation for ailments linked to the spraying program, but the Defence Department says it's unclear how many received payments because of lost records.
However, the department has confirmed that it has assessed about two dozen applications for compensation since 2000. Only three were approved.