LGBTQ veterans call for more inclusive access to federal services

When Sgt. Nina Usherwood joined the Canadian Armed Forces in 1979, she went by a different name and gender. 

During her service, the Comox, B.C., resident transitioned and legally changed her name. But she says when she went to apply for a medical discharge last year, it took “a number of months” for Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) to update her medical records to show her new identity.

Usherwood, who calls the process potentially “traumatic” for many LGBTQ veterans, is one of a group of voices calling for a more streamlined, organized and inclusive process to help veterans out of the Armed Forces and access VAC services.

“I phoned [VAC] a number of times, I sent them secure messages, I uploaded documents saying ‘yes, this is my legal identity,’ but it didn’t seem to get the records changed,” Usherwood recalled, adding that, in the following months, VAC would still send her paperwork addressed to her old identity.

“I can’t ask my doctor to say ‘this person has this medical condition’ if it’s got the wrong name on it,” she said. 

To make matters worse, Usherwood said, each time she called VAC a new agent would answer the phone, and she’d have to explain all over again that she’d transitioned.

She says, for some, it could be distressing to repeatedly discuss their life experiences, given she knows people who’ve been abandoned by their families and friends for coming out as their true selves. 

She said some veterans have been so upset by the process that they’ve given up on accessing financial services they may be entitled to, such as compensation for illnesses or injuries, education grants and income replacement benefits.

Victims of military purge also face barriers: MP

North Island MP Rachel Blaney brought some of these issues to the House of Commons Veterans Affairs Committee in late March, and says she’s pushing for government to bring about change — not only for transgender veterans, but all other LGBTQ members who were purged from the military during the Cold War era. 

In 1990, an historic court challenge, headed by former officer Michelle Douglas, led to the military reversing its practices in 1992, and allowed for these members to return. The federal government officially apologized in 2017.

Blaney told CBC that constituents have said it can be distressing for them to have been discharged dishonourably because of such a “discriminatory rule,” then invited back to the military only to find they have to explain to “caseworker after caseworker that that was the history.”

Sgt. Nina Usherwood joined the House of Commons Veterans Affairs committee virtually in late March to share her experiences trying to access Veterans Affairs Canada services. (Submitted / Nina Usherwood)

Call for sensitivity training, dedicated caseworkers

She said VAC employees should be given better sensitivity training and education on the military’s history, and veterans should be given the option to identify themselves as LGBTQ in their records so the military can collect useful data on the community.

Douglas, who attended the Committee meeting, said proper training would help workers “understand what basic human rights are” and “ensure respect is conveyed whenever you’re dealing with an [LGBTQ] veteran.” 

Douglas told the committee she’s heard from veterans who experienced doubt when their first phone call to VAC didn’t go well. Some even “felt humiliated and shamed” for who they are, she said.

Usherwood, who also shared her experiences with the committee, said that to have a dedicated caseworker assigned to a diverse veteran from the moment they apply to VAC would mean veterans would only have to explain themselves once, and their caseworker could stay on top of their file from start to finish.

In a statement, VAC said it’s offered its employees trauma-informed training sessions and, in 2019, created an “Office of Women and LGBTQ2 Veterans … to identify and address challenges” facing these veterans. 

“VAC is evolving our training and services … making our applications for services and benefits more inclusive and reflective of the needs of diverse Veterans,” the statement reads.

Blaney said recommendations will be made to the House of Commons in the coming weeks.

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