Veterans feel betrayed by Harper

‘A huge part of the population that elected the Conservatives were veterans and soldiers hoping for a little bit more respect for the sacrifice that they endure,’ says Sean Bruyea


The Conservatives have made support for the troops an integral part of their party brand, but when the first ever veterans’ ombudsman recently blasted the government for denying veterans adequate benefits it exposed a sense of betrayal felt by soldiers and their families who thought they would be better off with Harper, said a Canadian Forces veteran and longtime advocate for disabled soldiers.

“There’s a huge outcry and sense of betrayal by the soldiers because a huge part of the population that elected the Conservatives were veterans and soldiers hoping for a little bit more respect for the sacrifice that they endure,” said Sean Bruyea, a retired Armed Forces intelligence officer and advocate for veterans. “When you include families, we’re talking over one million Canadians that are involved in this sense of betrayal. [The Conservatives] can use the soldiers at their own convenience, but there’s no doubt there’s going to be a long term political price.”

Since coming to power in 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) Conservative government has taken steps to elevate the place of the Armed Forces in the national mythology, such as updating the citizenship guide for new immigrants to include more about Canada’s military history. Many Tory MPs have “Support Our Troops” bumper stickers, and “Red Fridays,” whereby people wear red to show support for the military, are in effect in many Conservative MPs’ offices.

But Mr. Bruyea said the fact that many wounded veterans still have to fight to get adequate benefits from the government, as outgoing Veterans’ Ombudsman Pat Strogan recently drew attention to in an explosive press conference on Aug. 17, has left soldiers feeling used by the Tories. Of particular concern to Col. (Redt’d) Strogan is the government’s plan to replace the lifetime monthly pension for disabled veterans with a one-time lump-sum payment of a maximum of $276,089.

“It is beyond my comprehension how the system could knowingly deny so many of our veterans the services and benefits that the people and the government of Canada recognized a long, long time ago as being their obligation to provide,” said Col. Strogan, who is himself a veteran and like Mr. Bruyea suffers from post traumatic stress disorder.

Mr. Bruyea said the government has a “profound lack of understanding” when it comes to dealing with veterans suffering psychological injuries. He questioned whether Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn (Jonquière-Alma, Que.) was really in control of the file, and also whether civil servants in the department were using Col. Strogan’s condition to discredit his criticisms of the benefits system for veterans.

“I see a lot of the same messages coming out of the bureaucracy being mimicked by the political side, and I wonder if the politicians aren’t irrelevant in this whole issue,” he said. “The bureaucracy has an issue that they somehow think that veterans with psychological injuries view points are somehow less credible than people without physical injuries.”

The government has been measured in its response to Col. Strogan’s criticisms, although both Mr. Blackburn and Prime Minister Harper alluded that perhaps the ombudsman’s anger was partly fueled by the fact that he was not being reappointed to the position.

“There are no positions for life,” said Mr. Harper. “If the ombudsman has concerns, has suggestions, the government is open always to incorporate these suggestions in our future programs and I encourage him to work with us.”

The Prime Minister said a review of the system is currently underway.

Liberal veterans affairs critic Rob Oliphant (Don Valley West, Ont.) said in his dealings with veterans groups and individual veterans he hasn’t come across a detractor of Col. Strogan, and mused that perhaps the government decided that strategically it was better to not reappoint him than to endure his criticism. He said unlike other political appointees whose credibility the Harper government has attacked, such as diplomat Richard Colvin, and former nuclear watchdog Linda Keen, the Conservatives seem less certain of how to handle Col. Strogan.

“Normally they’re calculating and they’re good at spinning, this one I don’t even think they have the nerve to do it. I don’t know who made the decision to fire Pat Strogan, but I think it was the wrong decision and some people must know that they’ve really dropped the ball,” he said.

Mr. Oliphant said despite the Tory rhetoric on supporting the troops, in reality the commitment isn’t there.
“When I stand up and ask questions on veterans, they hate it,” he said. “I look at them and viscerally they get very upset because they have wrapped themselves in that flag, but I think the emperor has no clothes.”

Pollster Nik Nanos said the Conservatives definitely have to tread carefully on this issue, but said although Col. Strogan’s press conference generated headlines it’s not enough on its own to undermine the party brand.

“For the Conservatives, anything that undermines their ability to say that they are 110 per cent behind our troops and veterans is a bit problematic. That being said, one issue does not really define the Conservatives; if there was the perception of a pattern of behaviour then there would be a disconnect in a way that undermines them, but at this point in time it would be fair to say that people would generally think that the Conservatives are very supportive of our troops and veterans and one incident would not necessarily significantly change that attitude.”
The Hill Times