When I hear the Harper government use the slogan “Support Our Troops” these days, I feel only a mixture of anger and sadness. Its continuing mistreatment of our veterans is a disgrace, a shame, a bloody scandal, and it’s getting worse with every passing day.
Veterans are brave men and women who have served our country and sacrificed much. Not all of them are lucky enough to return home in the best of shape. They were promised benefits, and services to see them through.
But that’s all changed.
We have a new Veteran’s Charter now, in place of a pension-for-life system. It was supposed to be overhauled in 2011 to fix glaring inadequacies, but the Veterans Ombudsman, Guy Parent, is not impressed with the re-do. He’s just released a report that compares benefits and entitlements under the old system and the new Charter one. It makes grim reading.
Under the Charter as it now stands, hundreds of the most severely disabled veterans will be hit hard. When they turn 65, benefits will be cut off, and they may well spend the rest of their lives in poverty. Their survivors will take a hit as well.
Perhaps that can be quickly fixed, because the numbers are small. But Parent identifies other serious shortcomings in the Charter that affect far more veterans. The lump-sum payments that replaced pensions are inadequate. Compensation for pain and suffering doesn’t even amount to what Canadian courts award for personal injury. Access to benefits continues to be unduly restricted.
Meanwhile, military services for ailing veterans returning from Afghanistan are grossly under-resourced. The Joint Personnel Support Unit was set up precisely for this complex and demanding task, but is not remotely able to provide care for the flood of sick and injured assigned to it.
And now veterans can look forward to the closure of nine Veterans Affairs offices across the country, from Corner Brook to Prince George, by the end of next February. Our members in the Union of Veterans Affairs Employees have been providing desperately-needed front-line services in these offices and in the homes of veterans and their families. They help the vets adjust to independent living and offer assistance in filling out the endless forms required to keep their benefits. And they liaise with community services to obtain further essential support.
Yesterday I was privileged to attend a press conference called to protest these closures. A number of veterans and frontline workers spoke—you’ll see some of them in the video above. Please give them a hearing. It was a learning experience, and not a pleasant one.
What’s in store for the vets who used to get badly-needed one-to-one services in the nine regions where offices are under the axe? Well, they can make phone calls to a privatized call centre run out of Service Canada, whose employees have no special knowledge of veterans’ programs. Veterans report being passed from person to person until they just hang up in frustration.
Or they can go to a Service Canada office and be told to use a kiosk. Some of the more elderly veterans aren’t computer-literate, but help is not offered in filling out lengthy forms on-line.
Or they can make their way as much as 1100 kilometres to the closest remaining VA office. How many ailing veterans can do that?
The government points to the decreasing number of WWII and Korean veterans to justify cutbacks. But 680,000 veterans and current members of the forces didn’t serve in the Second World War. Nearly 10 per cent of them are disabled. Their needs will grow with age. Yet Veterans Affairs has already cut 470 jobs, and plans to cut 25% of its workforce by 2015.
Commentators and editorialists in the media are not being kind to the government. Right across the political spectrum people are realizing that something needs to be done, and pronto. There should be no us-versus-them in this. When it comes to our veterans, it’s just us and more us. Time to stand together.