An Introduction to the Veteran Disability Pension Files at LCMSDS
By Michelle Filice
When veterans of the First World War returned to Canada in 1918, more than 170,000 came home with physical and psychological disabilities. Finding it difficult, if not impossible, to return to their prewar jobs, many veterans applied for disability pensions. This was not necessarily an easy process, nor was it a comprehensive solution to veterans’ financial struggles. Fearing the “pension burden” – that veterans would become too reliant on government hand-outs – the federal government put limits on who could receive pensions, how much money they could receive, and for how long. Exploring Canadian veterans’ disability pension files reveals much about interwar pension politics, as well as veterans’ health and re-establishment.
The disability pension files at LCMSDS are extensive collections that include information about veterans’ medical history, from the time of soldiers’ discharge to their death. Searchable by first and last name, these files include a variety of medical and military records, including discharge papers, medical examinations, pension applications, vocational training records, letters of appeal for declined pensions, death records, applications for survivor benefits, and more.
Three of the most common types of records in these files are veterans’ medical history, the rulings of the Pension Board, and veteran appeals. All of these records provide information about veteran’s medical and military history from various perspectives: physicians filled out medical history records, government officials made the final decisions for the Pension Board, and, at times, veterans and their families wrote petitions asking the Pension Board to re-evaluate their applications. By exploring these records in detail, researchers can better understand what the pension process was like.
Veterans’ Medical History
Veterans’ medical history record – also known as the “Medical History of an Invalid” – is a 26-question form, filled out by medical examiners, that details any injury or illness sustained by a veteran during the war. The first set of questions, numbers 1 to 12, provides basic information about the soldier and his medical history. Questions 1 to 9 , for example, ask about veterans’ height, weight, birth date, mailing address and occupation. This section also provides information about where veterans served during the war, when they were first injured, and why they were considered “medically unfit” for duty.
Following a thorough medical examination, questions 9 to 12 provide detailed information about veterans’ disabling condition and overall health. If they wished, veterans could request to see this section of the application, in order to confirm that the information recorded was accurate. This was important because any errors or omissions might delay or even prevent their receiving a pension.
Questions 13 to 22, the second part of the form, were to remain secret from veterans. Only medical examiners could review this section because the questions asked were deemed to be ones that only doctors could answer appropriately. Questions in this section asked whether the injury was in fact caused by war service, how long the disability was expected to last, whether the disabled veteran could return to work, and what types of treatment were appropriate. Answers to these questions weighed heavily on the decision of whether or not a veteran would receive a pension.
The final section of the form, questions 23 to 26, was completed by a medical board that decided whether or not they agreed with the original examiner’s evaluation. This was to ensure accuracy and serve as a check on the first examining physician. More often than not, the board agreed with the original examination. If they had any hesitations or differing opinions, the board could overrule the decision of the first examining physician.
Rulings of the Board of Pension Commissioners
When the medical board was finished with their section of the form, they passed it along to the Board of Pension Commissioners (BPC). Created by the federal government in 1916, the BPC made the final decision about what type of pension, if one at all, a veteran would receive.
The BPC awarded pensions based on a percentage of disability. Total disability – defined as acute heart disease, “insanity,” or the loss of two hands, legs or eyes – was assessed at 100 per cent. The majority of disabilities rated far lower. For example, the loss of a single arm or leg was assessed at 60 per cent. Hearing loss in one ear was not awarded anything more than a one-time gratuity.  A veteran’s assessment would determine how much money per month they would receive. Pension payments were related to employment in the general labour market, rather than a veteran’s pre-war occupation or income. This system was meant to enable pension examiners to rule on a case based solely on “scientific” fact rather than bias or sentiment. It was also meant to reduce or prevent the long-term influence of the pension burden.
After the veteran’s assessment, the BPC recorded and mailed out their decision to the veteran. For successful applicants, medical re-examinations were required every few years. Subsequent exams would determine whether a veteran’s pension needed to be increased, decreased, suspended or canceled. The death of a veteran also generally stopped pension payments, unless dependent family members, such as wives, children, and in some cases, parents and siblings, had filed separate applications for survivor benefits.
BPC records reveal much about government views on pension politics and veteran re-establishment. Rigid definitions of disability and mandatory re-examinations suggest how fears about the “pension evil” influenced the structure and mandate of the BPC. Though the BPC held much power in the pension process, veterans could appeal their decisions if they felt as though their case had not been justly evaluated.
Veterans’ appeals are not the most common types of files in the LCMSDS collection, but when they do appear, they demonstrate how and why veterans became vocal about pension politics in the interwar period. Having “done their bit” in the war, these veterans felt as though they deserved adequate compensation.
Veterans often filed appeals themselves, but family members, friends, and even former employers, usually provided supporting documentation. At times, physicians who had different opinions than the original examiner or local medical board would also file an appeal on behalf of their patient. These cases suggest that it was not just veterans and veterans’ groups that raised questions about the pension process.
Despite these appeals, most of the files seem to suggest that they often made no immediate difference. While the BPC reviewed all appeals, it very rarely reversed its decision. However, even unsuccessful appeals are significant because they illustrate growing opposition to inadequate pension awards. The most common reason pensions were denied was because the medical board had found that a veteran’s disease or injury was not “attributable”—that the disability was presumably not caused or aggravated by military service.
The disability pension files at LCMSDS provide a rare and interesting glimpse into the medical history of First World War veterans. Researchers can learn more about veterans’ medical history, the process of re-establishment and rehabilitation, and the way that pension politics influenced veterans’ lives. Documents from various perspectives provide information about the military, the medical profession, interwar politics, and First World War veterans themselves.
 Desmond Morton, Winning the Second Battle, preface, ix.
 Morton, 55.