When the Veteran Affairs forest falls to the budget axe, does anyone in government hear it?

The wider federal public service has grown by 34 per cent in the last 10 years, Veterans Affairs Canada staff has grown by a mere 12 per cent. The elimination of 500 positions alone will bring VAC to below its 2001 staffing levels.

Veterans Affairs Canada files: Why is Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney eagerly encouraging that his department be subjected to one of the largest proportional cuts of any federal government department, asks veterans’ advocate Sean Bruyea. Photograph by Jake Wright, The Hill Times

By Sean Bruyea

PUBLISHED : Friday, March 9, 2012 6:37 PM-THE HILL TIMES

OTTAWA—Veterans want it. Veterans Affairs employees want it. The opposition wants it. Canadians who understand the issues support it.

So why is the government, including Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney, ignoring everyone else’s call to exempt his department from the fast-approaching budget axe? And just why is Veterans Affairs Minister Blaney eagerly encouraging that his department be subjected to one of the largest proportional cuts of any federal government department?

On March 6, the opposition Parliamentary galleries were filled with veterans proudly wearing medals and supported by family members hoping for something good from Parliament. Sadly, they all looked on with dismay and palpable distaste as the governing Conservatives present unanimously rejected the opposition’s motion to exempt Veterans Affairs Canada from the upcoming budget cuts. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Veterans Affairs Committee member Rob Anders were noticeably absent.

The day before, the House of Commons debated the motion sponsored by NDP MP Peter Stoffer. It is a sound and logical request. Liberal veterans affairs critic Sean Casey pointed out that the U.S., Britain, and Australia have made similar exemptions for their veterans.

In spite of passionate pleas from the opposition parties, including heart-wrenching accounts of the individual suffering of veterans and their widows, the response from the government side was near robotic defending a department that has a long history of poor management practices.

“We are making life easier for them when they deal with the government and Veterans Affairs,”  said Blaney, claiming the government  “plan will reduce cumbersome red tape and provide our veterans with the hassle-free service they deserve.”

The first of many steps to the plan which will ostensibly provide  “hassle-free service”  is centred upon last year’s announcement to cut 500 positions, equivalent to approximately 600 jobs or almost 14 per cent of the 4,457 current employees. Whereas the wider federal public service has grown by 34 per cent in the last 10 years, Veterans Affairs Canada staff has grown by a mere 12 per cent. The elimination of 500 positions alone will bring VAC to below its 2001 staffing levels.

Just how fewer employees will make life easier and provide “hassle-free service” at VAC is a cruel riddle for injured soldiers and their families, as well as employees.

NDP MP Christine Moore put it succinctly, “budget and staffing cuts will inevitably compromise the department’s ability to deliver services to the country’s veterans.”

The national president of the Union of Veterans’ Affairs Employees agrees, “More job cuts but not less work,” said Yvan Thauvette to media recently. “Because people are stressed, tired and burned out, it’s not the time to cut additional positions within that department.”

How stressed are they? Frontline employees have an average of 1,000 individual veterans or widow clients for whom they are responsible. This gives the workers less than two hours per year to devote to each client.

Troublingly and unbeknownst to the most senior departmental officials, Veterans Affairs Canada head office has assigned many of the frontline staff who once helped out those applying for pain and suffering awards to do the work of the head office. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why thousands of applications are turned down annually, instead being forced to review and appeal hearings.

Too many employees is not Veterans Affairs Canada’s problem.

What the minister and government have grossly confused is the difference between red-tape bureaucracy and the number of bureaucrats. There is indeed far too much bureaucratic red-tape but there are also far too few bureaucrats to deal with the workload. Reducing the red-tape cannot come at the cost of eliminating the necessary one-on-one interface that all grieving widows and disabled military members require.

Where will the injured, confused and lost be forced to turn? Fully 80 per cent of Veterans Affairs Canada’s  “clients”  are expected to make first contact after such tragedies with the internet. Senior managers have concocted a plan which expects that everything from submitting disability applications to making appointments with therapists will be done online. Imagine confessing one’s most tragic suffering and sacrifice to Canada to an online service.

The latest quarterly financial statements confirm the “five-year transformation plan to deliver more timely and effective services to our aging traditional veterans, and to the ever-increasing number of modern-day veterans.” Except that the average age of traditional veterans is 88 years old. Most will lamentably but thankfully not see the five-year plan implemented.

Veterans are humiliated that their destiny is being unilaterally decided by senior bureaucrats in Charlottetown, not one of whom has ever served in the military or apparently suffers a serious disability. One of the key architects of the justly and widely maligned lump sum New Veterans Charter is Ken Miller who publicly points out that that the needs of the modern veterans are different from the traditional veterans.

He is wrong. The truth is that a bullet in Second World War tears flesh and bone as it does in Afghanistan. The difference being that today, more casualties live to tell their tale and consequently require far more care and treatment due to the seriousness of their injuries. For those leaving the military, full university and business start-up assistance is even more applicable today than in 1945 and yet all Second World War veterans had access to such programs. No similar programs exist for CF veterans.

And the long-term care needs for an 85-year-old Second World War veteran are the same as for an 85-year-old modern day veteran.

Part of the cut-the-red-tape plan also sloughs off veterans not just to Service Canada which also faces deep job cuts, but reportedly to a contract private company. Veterans Affairs Canada employees are already overwhelmed by red tape, struggling to fathom the military culture, dealing with disability issues and grieving family members as well as inundated by senior managers in head office who constantly invent new  “business processes”  which confuse both veteran and employee.

How will Service Canada, third parties or the internet make “life easier” as the minister claims, let alone treat veterans with dignity and respect?

What the minister failed to mention was the most important historical event to affect veterans in 50 years. Eleven organizations and four experts representing more than 500,000 veterans and their supporters came together last month. They unanimously and emphatically implored the minister to enact hundreds of languishing recommendations to thoroughly repair the trust between government and those who sacrifice in Canada’s name.

The minister sidestepped the issue with specious claims, “over and over in and outside this House: we will maintain benefits to veterans, because we believe in our veterans.”  Well before this year’s budget, senior VAC officials had already eagerly offered up to Treasury Board more than $223-million in cuts for each of the next two years.

Apparently no one told the minister of the details of the latest “Report on Plans Priorities” which clearly states that almost all the $223-million will be deducted directly from  “compensation and financial support”  programs.

It is true that ministers often have to read word-for-word what VAC senior officials write for them. It is also true that departments have very little latitude. It is the senior mandarins at Treasury Board, Finance, and PCO who really control the show. The already announced and looming budget cuts mean that PCO and company will have succeeded in reducing VAC to its smallest size in its 70-year history.

As NDP MP Peter Stoffer so colourfully lamented, “I would often like to put a prophylactic barrier around the Treasury Board so it would stop doing to Veterans Affairs what sometimes Veterans Affairs does to our veterans.”

Veterans and their struggling families wonder whether anyone in the PCO or Treasury Board really understands what it means to have given everything for one’s country, only to have Canada force veterans to beg for help to a computer or a contracted service provider.

Veterans have long accepted that a top-heavy Veterans Affairs Canada, whose management shows more loyalty to Treasury Board than to veterans, has very little understanding as to the urgency of disability, dramatic involuntary life changes, military culture and tragic loss.  These senior officials have even less of an understanding as to what assistance is needed to effectively guide and coach a military member to optimize their potential in a civilian world for which they gave everything of value.

The deep cuts at Veterans Affairs Canada will have ruptured further the widening gulf between the two different worlds of veteran and civilian, worlds which seem to understand each other less as time goes by. Regrettably, such insensitive and compassionless policy decisions have increasingly cultivated growing resentment, suffering and disaffection in truly good and selfless Canadians. Military members are brave Canadians who sacrifice all they know so we too could have a government system which fails to plan for a rainy day.

Sean Bruyea is a freelance columnist, retired Air Force intelligence officer and graduate student of a master’s in public ethics at St. Paul University.


The Hill Times