Canadian Veterans: Who Has Their Backs?
While the VA scandal simmers south of the border, Ottawa celebrates our vets, who still struggle for fair pensions and benefits
Roy Lamore is the kind of military veteran that you’d think would get a hero’s welcome on Parliament Hill. He’s a Second World War veteran from Thunder Bay, Ont., a chest covered in medals, but when he went to Ottawa in January, he was there to fight another battle. This one was for fair treatment of veterans.
He and his friends got to see Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino for a few minutes but, in the end, called the session a “damn disgrace.” Ron Clarke, a 36-year veteran of the Canadian Forces, said the meeting was “unbelievable, unacceptable and shameful.”
Fantino should resign, Clarke said, and if he didn’t, he and many other veterans across the country would work to get rid of the entire Conservative government.
These vets used to be part of the backbone of Stephen Harper’s base. They thought they had a deal. They’d go overseas and put their lives on the line. If they got killed, we’d support their families. If they got seriously hurt, we’d make sure they always had a comfortable living. If they needed doctors or psychiatrists, physical therapy or job training, we’d make sure they got it.
Then, veterans claim, they found they didn’t have a deal after all.
Many of the veterans, even those who fought Hitler, resent the Harper Conservatives’ military history commemorations – this year, marking the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War and the 70th anniversary of D-Day – saying the money should go to wounded and injured soldiers.
Gordon Moore, who was Dominion president of the Royal Canadian Legion last year, says, “They like to have those veterans in the photos,” he said, “but you won’t see too many from after the Second World War and Korea.” Last winter, Moore wrote to the government, demanding money that’s earmarked for commemorations be paid to veterans instead.
The vets are angry about a law that was supposed to help them. All of the parties in the House of Commons backed the 2007 New Veterans Charter, but the vets say that piece of legislation, combined with changes to the disability payment system and cuts to Service Canada offices, have left them in worse shape. The system ties veterans in red tape and prevents them from getting the financial and medical help they need and deserve.
Here was the deal we had with the vets. During the First World War, Conservative Prime Minister Robert Borden promised them: “You need have no fear that the government and the country will fail to show just appreciation of your service to the country and that no man will have just cause to reproach the government for having broken faith with the men who won and the men who died.”
Borden was wrong. Veterans and their families had to fight for pensions and death benefits. Veterans often couldn’t afford medical care for what were often horrendous physical wounds. And treatment for the psychological wounds did not exist, which is one reason why so many vets spent their evenings at the Legion with buddies who understood.
After the First World War, vets organized the Legion and protested. The Liberal regime did a complete turnaround. In the last year of the Second World War, when it was clear veterans would support the politicians who offered them the best deal, Ottawa developed one of the world’s most generous veterans pension, medical and job programs, enshrined in the first Veterans Charter.
Veterans got health care, help with homes, educations, preferred hiring for government jobs and help finding work. But as the World War veterans passed away, so did their political clout. Legion membership has tumbled. Its magazine carries pages and pages of obituaries of members of the Greatest Generation. Within a decade, nearly all will be gone.
Moore, the former Legion president, says reservists get an even worse deal. The minimum payment for reservists injured or wounded in Afghanistan was $24,000, while a Canadian Forces private qualified for at least $40,000. “We need to look after these veterans. We need to fix the system and get it done now,” he says.
Then, one year later, a new government took over. Stephen Harper’s campaign platform had called for an even better deal for veterans and, in April 2007, the minority Conservative government passed the aforementioned Veterans Bill of Rights. Six months later, Stogran was hired as the veterans ombudsman. Only he didn’t behave as expected.
Stogran trashed the government that hired him, saying Ottawa was not living up to its obligations and promises. Veterans Affairs (VA) bureaucrats, he says, have a “penny-pinching insurance company mentality.”
But the government wouldn’t listen. “It became clear they weren’t going to co-operate,” Stogran said. “It was a waiting game for me to leave.” Stephen Harper refused to renew his contract, and Stogran was out on the street by November 2010.
Jean-Pierre Blackburn, then Veterans Affairs minister, apologized to Bruyea, but the government has made a very articulate enemy who has loudly attacked the system ever since.
The attack on Bruyea won him support from Gulf War and Afghanistan veterans. Respected military historian Jack Granatstein wrote in the Globe and Mail: “The Kafkaesque breaches of faith in VAC are a blot on the department’s record and a stain on the Canadian government. If the public’s confidence is to be restored, if veterans’ confidence in the department of government created to assist them is recreated, there must be an investigation with punishment for those who tried to smear opponents.”
(Stogran has also applied to the Privacy Commissioner to find out whether his Veterans Affairs file has been accessed hundreds of times. He believes the information may have been used improperly, just as Bruyea’s was.)
Bruyea says he believes veterans won’t get a fair shake until they stop being polite. One way, he says, is to put veterans’ issues front and centre as the government commemorates the centennial of the
First World War and other military history milestones.
“A big focus of the Conservatives is military commemoration. They get a big PR bang for a relatively little buck compared to what it costs to look after a veteran. Those commemoration plans are absolutely cynical,” he said.
Can Robert Borden’s promise to the veterans, made nearly 100 years ago, become the law of the land so that the soldiers who were wounded in the last 50 years get the same deal as their parents and grandparents?