Late last winter, Veterans Affairs Canada mistakenly issued T4A tax slips on behalf of hundreds of deceased veterans across the country, CBC News has learned.
The income benefit notices landed in the hands of nearly 700 dismayed survivors and loved ones. Some of them lost loved ones in Afghanistan more than ten years ago.
“My first thought was shock and surprise to see a letter addressed to Matthew by Veterans Affairs that arrived in an official Veterans Affairs envelope,” said Lincoln Dinning of Wingham, Ont., whose son, Cpl. . Matthew Dinning died in a roadside bomb attack in April 2006.
“And the very organization that is supposed to look after veterans and their families. You would think the Department of Veterans Affairs would know that Matthew was killed in Afghanistan and has been dead for 16 years.”
The envelope arrived at the Dinning house at the end of February. His parents initially thought that Matthew’s identity had somehow been stolen and that his benefits had been collected by a criminal.
This was not the case. Although the Department of Veterans Affairs – citing confidentiality concerns – declined to comment on Matthew Dinning’s case, it admitted after several email exchanges with CBC News that the tax slip was issued due to an error. computer and was part of a much larger problem.
A “defect” in the online portal
The online portal where ex-military personnel access their accounts was updated in January. That’s when a “flaw” was introduced, department spokesman Josh Bueckert said in a written press release.
This failure caused the department to issue 687 tax slips on behalf of 417 deceased veterans. They include soldiers killed in Afghanistan and those who served in peacekeeping missions and during the Cold War – and may include soldiers who served as early as the Korean conflict.
Veterans Affairs declined to explain how the error was made, other than that it somehow related to the income replacement benefit.
That does not explain cases like Matthew Dinning, who was not receiving veterans benefits when he was killed.
A preliminary internal investigation was opened by the department in late February and the federal Treasury Board and Privacy Commissioner have been notified, Bueckert said.
Two formal complaints and one privacy complaint have been filed by the families of deceased veterans, he added.
“Of course, we’re sorry”
Asked by CBC News about the incident this week outside the House of Commons, Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay said his officials were still trying to figure out what happened. He also apologized.
“Of course we’re sorry, and of course that shouldn’t happen,” MacAulay said. “I apologize… We are aware of the situation and the breach is being handled appropriately to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
The Office of the Veterans Ombudsman said it received a complaint about tax slips. A spokesperson released a brief two-line statement on behalf of the Ombudsman, Retired Colonel Nishika Jardine: “We recognize that this error is upsetting to families. We understand that VAC has corrected it and has apologized.”
Lincoln Dinning said his family has yet to receive an apology.
He also struggles to understand how the software was able to pull Matthew’s name from the benefits database when he was not receiving benefits.
“Why weren’t the names of the 158 fallen soldiers [in Afghanistan] reported in the Veterans Affairs system?” Dinning asked. “You think they would know who the fallen soldiers were. And why weren’t they red flagged [for the developers]?”
“Heartbreaking and horrific”
The founder of the Afghanistan Veterans Association, retired Corporal Bruce Moncur, said the experience was “heartbreaking and horrifying” for the families who are still dealing with their losses.
The fact that it took questions from the media to shed light on the matter and get a public apology from the minister speaks volumes about the culture of indifference within Veterans Affairs, Moncur said.
“The department’s insurance company mentality has proven time and time again that we’re just numbers to them,” he said. “And it’s all well and good to make a mistake and blame it on a computer, but unfortunately these computer errors seem to happen over and over again.”
Almost a dozen years ago, Veterans Affairs noticed that it had made a $165 million accounting error in calculating benefits for more than 272,000 former soldiers, sailors and aircrew – for mostly older WWII and Korean War veterans.
This error, which stemmed from a miscalculation of disability awards, went unnoticed for almost eight years.
When the department discovered and corrected the indexing error in 2010, it did not notify any affected veterans and effectively buried the case.
It only became public when former veterans ombudsman Guy Parent spoke out just before he retired in the fall of 2018.
The federal government compensated surviving veterans and the estates of those who had died in the meantime.
Moncur said that last mistake could also have been swept under the rug. At the very least, he said, the department should offer counseling to affected families if they need it.