Don’t let Ottawa make financial scapegoats of our veterans

A veteran is any Canadian who wore a military uniform; their average age is 54 and they are being marginalized

By Sean Bruyea-Special to Globe and Mail Update Published on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2010

As Canada attempts to remain buoyant after the recent economic flood, Ottawa’s rush to cut the cost of government has one very large but often silent group on the chopping block: disabled veterans and their families.

When Canadians hear the word “veteran,” we quickly imagine a blazer-and-beret-clad senior, wavering at attention in the November cold of so many Remembrance Days past. Canada’s Second World War veterans were once more than a million, but their numbers have dwindled with time.

The 165,000 who remain are passing away at the rate of about 1,700 a month. This is the pretext for Ottawa’s planned cuts to Veterans Affairs Canada, the federal department that cares for our injured soldiers and their families. The Minister of Veterans Affairs, Jean-Pierre Blackburn, was quoted as remarking: “I’m just saying that if we have less veterans, we should have less employees, too.”

Is this sound logic or the leading edge of how statistics are to be manipulated at the expense of marginalized Canadians such as disabled veterans?

To answer this, we need to start off understanding the term “veteran.” Contrary to popular belief, in Canada, a “veteran” is any Canadian who wore a military uniform. As such, there are almost 600,000 veterans living among us who never served in the Second World War.

Wherever or whenever those Canadian Forces (CF) veterans served, all agreed to an unwavering willingness to die, as far too many have, in Canada’s name. Today’s reality for our veterans is that almost 10 per cent – 55,000 vets – live with lifelong disabling injuries and their numbers are growing.

But it took almost 50 years for CF veterans to earn the official designation “veteran” from our government. Such petty negligence of our bravest over the past five decades was reflected in an accompanying dearth of programs and benefits for these multiple generations of veterans. Whereas Second World War vets enjoyed a host of programs, such as college and university training, low-interest loans, as well as monetary, farm, land and training grants to help them transition back to civilian life, CF veterans were not so respected. It was not until 2006 that Veterans Affairs began offering but a pale and inadequate reflection of similar programs to CF veterans. And those programs are geared principally toward individuals in the process of leaving the military.

There is still very little assistance for the 600,000 Canadian Forces veterans who have an average age of just 54, and almost nothing for their families, which conservatively must number more than one million Canadians in total.

Currently, front-line workers in Veterans Affairs, such as case managers, have an average of 1,200 to 1,500 disabled clients each, without any significant programs to assist the majority of the large CF veteran population. Case managers in the private work force will attest to the reality that any case load greater than 100 jeopardizes quality of care. And the government is considering cuts to employee numbers at this time?

There is a greater issue here and that is Canada’s willingness to make fiscal sacrifices to care for those injured soldiers or veterans who have already sacrificed so much in Canada’s name. Why is it that the total veteran population in Canada is twice that of Australia, yet Australia provides benefits for twice as many veterans and dependents as Canada? At $12-billion, Australia’s budget for veterans is almost four times as great as Canada’s.

Why is it that Canada’s veteran and aboriginal population are similar in numbers but the budget for Canada’s veterans and their families is almost one quarter of that paid out to support our aboriginal population?

Veterans have run out of answers as to why their sacrifices are treated with such neglect or even cavalier disregard.

Perhaps it all comes down to controlling the message by playing with words. By not defining the word “veteran” in the media, ministers and bureaucrats can erase not just the existence of Canada’s collective memory of what was accomplished and sacrificed by our 600,000 CF veterans, but the government can save money by not funding programs or keeping employees to care for and assist so many veterans who have been forgotten for far too long.

Understandably, most veterans are too proud to protest the government for which they were willing to die. The government knows this and sadly, that is why the cuts have every chance in succeeding.

Sean Bruyea is a retired Canadian Forces intelligence officer.