Delivering a personal letter to the minister of veterans affairs, er, not

It turns out that all mail addressed to the minister is filtered by four political staffers and distributed to one of the almost four thousand civil servants employed by the Veterans Affairs Department.

 By Sean Bruyea-THE HILL TIMES-August 20, 2007

It has become a not-so-funny joke for many disabled soldiers and their families. Upon entering their local office of Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) they see the following mission statement prominently displayed: To provide exemplary, client-centred services and benefits that respond to the needs of veterans, our other clients and their families.

I went to the Ottawa office of the minister of veterans affairs the other day to drop off a thank you letter. The letter concerned my disability pension, a matter that I brought to the minister’s attention 17 months ago. Part of the issue has been recently resolved.

So why would I be expressing my appreciation after a 17-month wait? Well, by current VAC standards I received a reasonable level of service. Typically the reported backlog in reimbursing disabled veterans for out-of-pocket expenses for medical care is a breakneck 10 weeks or more and initial pension decisions are running about four to six months! Each VAC caseworker has up to 1,400 veteran and widow clients.

In the meantime, veterans and their families, myself included, struggle to cope with our lives while trying to convince the bureaucracy to give us what they insist we are receiving.

My particular case would likely remain unresolved if it were not for the minister’s intervention. That is why I was bringing good news. I walked past one of the VAC posters promising “high quality services in a timely manner.”

I was buzzed into the minister’s office. The novice and confused receptionist said she had never received a letter that was destined for the minister personally.

It turns out that all mail addressed to the minister is filtered by four political staffers and distributed to one of the almost four thousand civil servants employed by the Veterans Affairs Department.

You see, the politicians don’t actually run the government. In the case of Veterans Affairs, the minister hired four political staffers, two administrative assistants, one executive assistant, one driver and seconded one bureaucrat from the department. Typically they have never spent a day in uniform (except for the driver) and have little if any experience in veterans’ issues. How can these four staffers and their support staff take on a department of almost 4,000 employees?

Well they can’t!

That is why the noble political initiative of creating a bill of rights and an ombudsman was hijacked by the very bureaucrats these initiatives were meant to oversee. The first ever Parliamentary Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs, created in 2006, released its unanimously endorsed report, A Helping Hand for Veterans: A Mandate for a Veterans Ombudsman. Admirably forthright and clear in its 22 recommendations, the report calls for an “independent, impartial and effective veterans ombudsman.”

The politicians strongly recommend that the office of a veteran’s ombudsman be enshrined in law so that the office’s very existence remains immutable and therefore independent. Unfortunately, the bureaucrats ignored all of the more substantive recommendations. Who wouldn’t if you were an inmate given the chance to run the asylum?

We do know the veterans’ ombudsman “will uphold the Veterans Bill of Rights and will review individual and systemic issues arising from it.” However, anyone who has taken the time to read the six rights in 80 words will tell you it is the most underwhelming of declarations which fails to contain anything not already guaranteed in statutes. The wishy-washy document completely omits any statement of equality in the treatment of veterans, nor does it honour the unique sacrifices Canada’s men and women in uniform have made for more than a century.

Much of what I feared and loathed in the VAC bureaucracy transpired on this particular encounter with the receptionist. First, she insisted that I bring my letter to the mail room on the 14th floor even though I told her it was an important personal letter. I looked at the plaque above her head: “Our Vision: To provide exemplary service which honours the sacrifice and achievements of our veterans and clients.”

I pleaded with her to take the letter and ensure that someone deliver it directly to the minister. She refused. I asked for her name at which point she threatened to call security.

Sadly, this is the way in which many meetings between disabled veterans and Veterans Affairs end. Thus have I unfortunately comforted many of my fellow soldiers who endured similar threats while cringing beneath plaques and posters lauding VAC values and ethics: We take pride in our role as public servants and are dedicated to service excellence. We are committed to responsive, quality service, delivered with timeliness, courtesy and fairness.

I surrendered in my attempts to ensure the minister received my thank you. I went down to the 14th floor (dropped off the letter) and asked for a receipt.

Understandably, I lost the goodwill to thank the minister. I left the ominous-sounding address of 16-66 Slater St. and walked up Elgin Street to my car, chuckling ironically to myself. I started to read the plaque engraved in my mind after 10 years of banging my head against the bureaucratic wall: That which War doesn’t take from us, Veterans Affairs is only too eager to humiliate.

Sean Bruyea is a disabled veteran who served 14 years with the Canadian Forces. He now volunteers as an advocate for disabled veterans.

The Hill Times