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Article Date03-02-2014
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Article TitleVeterans ombudsman warns political parties not to play politics with vets
Article ContentCanadians should treat the needs of veterans as a “debt” that needs to be repaid and political parties should not use veterans’ issues for political purposes, says Canada’s veterans ombudsman.

“When we look at the obligation of the government or the citizens of Canada towards its veterans, it’s not a matter of a political issue, it’s a matter of a debt that needs to be repaid. So, if all the citizens of Canada are responsible for that obligation and all politicians are citizens of Canada, then it should not be a political issue,” said Guy Parent, a retired chief warrant officer who has been serving as Canada’s veterans ombudsman since 2010 to advance the issues and concerns facing Canadian veterans.

Mr. Parent said the Conservative government’s closure of eight veterans’ affairs regional district offices in seven provinces last week has become politicized, which he said is counterproductive. The New Democrats and the Liberals pledged that if their party leaders became prime minister in the next election, they would reopen the offices.

“We don’t want veterans’ issues to become part of the next election platform,” Mr. Parent told The Hill Times last week. “Discussion should be apolitical, should be based on needs of the veterans and their families, based on the fact that it’s an obligation, not a social program.”

Veterans Affairs Canada closed down eight of the 27 district regional offices across Canada last week. A ninth office in Prince George, B.C., was closed early last month. These closures are estimated to save the government $3.78-million annually. The offices that were closed last week were located in Corner Brook, Nfld. and Labrador; Charlottetown, P.E.I.; Sydney, N.S.; Windsor, Ont.; Thunder Bay, Ont.; Brandon, Man. Saskatoon, Sask. and Kelowna, B.C. As a result of these closures, 89 Veterans Affairs personnel lost their jobs, including client service agents, case managers, disability pension officers, nurses and administrative staff.

Veterans from across the country and some Veterans Affairs employees—who are also members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC)—who lost their jobs as a result of the office closures came to Ottawa last week to hold a media briefing and make one last attempt to urge the Stephen Harper government not to close the offices.

Veterans were scheduled to meet with Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino (Vaughan, Ont.) on Tuesday evening but the minister failed to show up because he said he was called to a Cabinet committee meeting that ran longer than expected. In his place, veterans told The Hill Times, Conservative MPs Laurie Hawn (Edmonton Centre, Alta.), Erin O’Toole (Durham, Ont.) and Parm Gill (Brampton-Springdale, Ont.), Parliamentary secretary to Veterans’ Affairs minister, and Jacques Fauteux, chief of staff to Mr. Fantino, came to meet the veterans to convince them that the closures were justified and that alternative arrangements would ensure veterans get all the services they need.

The MPs told the veterans that after the closure of eight offices, they could go to almost 600 Service Canada locations across the country for the needed services. They said that veterans could get help online and from mobile apps.

However, veterans were adamant that the Veterans Canada offices should stay open as they wanted in-person help and the Service Canada staffers were not as well-trained as the Veterans Affairs staff. Moreover, veterans said they had been working with Veterans Affairs Canada staff over the years and have developed a very reliable working relationship, and are unlikely to get the same quality of service. The meeting, which took place in Chief government Whip John Duncan’s (Vancouver Island North, B.C.) Centre Block office, ended with both parties failing to convince each other.

Following the meeting, the veterans went to the Charles Lynch Room of the Centre Block to brief the media about their discussions with the government. While they were waiting to start the press conference, Mr. Fantino showed up to talk to the veterans. In the presence of journalists and with TV cameras rolling, the two parties had a testy exchange over whether the offices should be closed or not.

Following this, Mr. Fantino left and during the press conference, veterans called for his resignation. One veteran said the “rude” treatment that he and other veterans had received from the government during their discussions had made him cry.

In an email to The Hill Times on Friday, Robert Mercer, a former assistant deputy minister at Veterans Affairs Canada from 2005 to 2008, said he was embarrassed by Mr. Fantino’s conduct.

“Was the man not embarrassed for having arrived so late for a scheduled meeting? What business is there more important to him, and for that matter, to all of us, than to hear veterans exercise their right of free speech?” asked Mr. Mercer in his email.

On Wednesday, during the daily Question Period, Mr. Fantino stood in the House and personally apologized to the veterans for Tuesday’s events.

“Yesterday [Tuesday], due to a Cabinet meeting that ran long, I was very late in meeting a group of Veterans that had come to Ottawa to discuss their concerns. I sincerely apologize for how this was handled. Today, I am reaching out to those veterans to reiterate that apology personally,” Mr. Fantino said in the House.

“I have been committed to having an open dialogue with the men and women who served Canada in uniform, but I realize that yesterday’s regrettable delay has brought that into question. Veterans across Canada should know that I remain deeply committed to meeting with them and listening to the issues that matter to them and their families, and to continue to do what’s right to support those who have stood up for Canada. Our country’s veterans deserve no less.”

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair (Outremont, Que.) and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) on Wednesday called on the Prime Minister to fire Mr. Fantino, which Mr. Harper dismissed out of hand. The Prime Minister blamed labour unions and the New Democrats for organizing the campaign against the office closures because of the job losses for their workers.

“The minister has apologized for the events of yesterday but the fact of the matter is that this government and this minister have increased services for our veterans without precedent. We have a small number—a small number—of duplicate veterans offices that have a very small caseload,” the Prime Minister said in the House.

“I know the unions don’t like it, it makes a lot more sense to have 600 points of service for veterans. I know why the unions and the NDP oppose that. This is in the best interest of veterans. They can play politics. We’re going to keep delivering for veterans.”

Veterans told The Hill Times that they do not accept Mr. Fantino’s apology and will accept it only if the Minister reverses his decision and reopens the closed offices.

“No, the only way we will accept his apology is if he does what we ask and that is open the offices. The apology is worthless. He obviously was told by his boss to apologize because it looks bad and he is doing that. So, the apology doesn’t mean anything to us,” Ron Clarke, a veteran who came to Ottawa from Cape Breton, N.S. last week, told The Hill Times.

Meanwhile, Mr. Parent said that he had not made up his mind on whether the government should have shut down the offices or not, as he would decide after getting evidence from veterans on how the closures affect them and their families. He added that he would encourage veterans and their families to submit their opinions based on their experiences to his office.

“We’re an evidence-based organization. We need to have evidence that veterans and their families will be negatively or [positively] impacted by the closure of these offices,” he said.

Starting this week, Mr. Clarke said he would try to get facts on whether veterans are satisfied with the services offered by Service Canada personnel. He said that he would submit his findings to the veterans ombudsman.

Mr. Clarke said that if the government still didn’t listen to the veterans’ demands, he would run a cross-country campaign to organize veterans and urge them and other Canadians to vote for any party but the Conservatives. It’s estimated there are about 800,000 veterans in Canada, including 207,000 Veterans Affairs Canada clients.

“Mr. Harper and his Conservatives had best be prepared for the next election. There are two [NDP and Liberal] parties who said they’d open our offices, and [veterans and soldiers] might want to think about voting for them, but not the Conservatives,” Mr. Clarke told reporters last week.
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