There is little doubt as to the good intentions of most veterans’ organizations in providing quotes to government. However, government has clearly been quite astute at using veterans’ good intentions to further a PR war that does little but says much about caring for veterans.
Media relations teams in the minister’s and Prime Minister’s Office as well as Veterans Affairs Canada have spun facts to portray government as doing more than it actually is. Take, for example, the $2-billion waved about in 2011 as government’s claimed commitment to ‘enhance’ the New Veterans Charter, the controversial veterans’ legislation. Closer examination revealed that $2-billion was actually $40-million annually over 50 years.
By SEAN BRUYEA
THE HILL TIMES Published: Monday, 02/24/2014 12:00 am EST
The current government has come under intense criticism for failing veterans while doggedly pursuing a relentless public relations campaign claiming the opposite. Sadly, veterans’ organizations have been unwittingly co-opted into this PR war, effectively supporting government propaganda.
Media relations teams in the minister’s and Prime Minister’s Office as well as Veterans Affairs Canada have spun facts to portray government as doing more than it actually is. Take, for example, the $2-billion waved about in 2011 as government’s claimed commitment to “enhance” the New Veterans Charter, the controversial veterans’ legislation. Closer examination revealed that $2-billion was actually $40-million annually over 50 years
Such audacious ‘truthiness’ has contributed to the increasing skepticism amongst the public, the media, and, hopefully, veterans about claims by elected and unelected officials about veterans’ benefits. Consequently, former Veterans Affairs minister Steven Blaney changed tactics in early 2012. Until that point, media releases from VAC contained scripted quotes attributed mainly to ministers. Veterans were rarely quoted.
The one exception occurred in the fall of 2010. Widespread privacy breaches targeting me became public just after devastating claims by the first veterans ombudsman of pervasive bureaucratic failures and just before the first nationwide public protests by veterans in more than 90 years. Government was losing the PR war badly. Ottawa quickly tabled three changes to the NVC, and included the following in a media release:
“Dominion President, Mrs. Patricia Varga, of The Royal Canadian Legion stated, ‘This bill, as a first step, makes great strides in improving the New Veterans Charter and encompasses many of the recommendations made by the New Veterans Charter Advisory Group and the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs.’ ”
And: “ ‘With this bill, we applaud the government for keeping its promise that the New Veterans Charter is truly a living document,’ said Ray Kokkonen, president of the Canadian Peacekeeping Veterans Association. ‘Naturally, we are pleased to have had a role in this matter and that our advice and recommendations have been heard.””
Two years previously, both organizations signed off on the Advisory Group report, which stressed urgent changes to the New Veterans Charter. The report contained 86 specific recommended changes in 17 areas. The standing committee stressed the urgency to act on the NVC report as well as 17 additional recommendations.
A June 2013 report issued by the veterans ombudsman concluded that the federal government failed to implement many of the Advisory Group’s recommendations (my assessment is that 100 recommendations remain[ed] unaddressed from these two bodies alone). In this context, three changes were hardly “great strides.” So few changes six years after the original legislation was passed hardly justifies the claim that “the New Veterans Charter is a truly living document” especially when the government had committed to reviews every two to three months and comprehensive reviews every two years.
Media, veterans, and most Canadians upon reading such quotes would be forgiven for believing that government had actually addressed complaints about the NVC. In effect, these two organizations helped the government in public relations victory, allowing the “living charter” to enter yet another coma of government inaction.
It would be almost 18 months before government would solicit another veteran organization’s quote. In 2012, the government was in the midst of an intense PR campaign. Called “Cutting Red Tape for Veterans,” the campaign claimed that cutting services in many areas was somehow an improvement.
On April 3, Veterans Affairs Canada included the following in a media release: “ ‘The changes to the VIP [Veterans Independence Program] program [sic] announced by Minister Blaney will make life easier for Veterans,’ said Gordon Jenkins, president of the NATO Veterans Organization of Canada. ‘Instead of having to submit individual receipts and burn up bureaucratic processing time, veterans will now receive a grant to cover the cost. This benefits everyone.’ ”
This was a new initiative and therefore impossible for anyone to know whether this change would benefit anyone, let alone “everyone.” The initiative has since caused problems for a growing number of veterans. Meanwhile, the public could be forgiven in forgetting the Conservatives have yet to fulfill their promise to make VIP available to all widows of war veterans.
Veterans Affairs Canada expanded the venues where veterans are quoted. The fall 2012 issue of the VAC newsletter to veterans, known as Salute, prepared the way for closing Veterans Affairs offices by sending veterans to Service Canada locations. Salute is often criticized for its PR and bureaucratic fluff. However, quoting veterans on any change usually lends more credibility: “ ‘Veterans now have much more access to services and information no matter where they are located,’ said Ron Griffis, national president of the Canadian Association of Veterans in United Nations Peacekeeping. ‘The ability to now receive assistance completing and submitting VAC disability benefit applications through Service Canada centres will benefit many.’ ”
More than a year later, most, if not all, Service Canada locations cannot provide any information to veterans about benefits. Service Canada personnel will not have the training to provide veterans with the “ability to now receive assistance completing and submitting VAC disability benefit applications.” Such applications are notoriously complex. Furthermore, most of the Service Canada locations are actually “outreach sites” which have irregular hours such that many are open only once a month.
In spite of widespread criticism of the recent federal budget’s failure to address veterans’ issues, the federal government looked to a statement by the Royal Canadian Legion to give the impression most veterans supported the budget initiatives.
Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino stood in the House the day after the budget under heavy opposition criticism: “In economic action plan 2014, we are expanding the funeral and burial benefits to ensure that modern day veterans of modest means can have a dignified burial. Do not only take my word for it. The Royal Canadian Legion just yesterday said that it was ‘…very pleased that the issue of a dignified funeral for the most vulnerable, low income Veterans has finally been resolved…. [T]he government lived up to their commitment.’ ”
There has been no change in the qualifying criteria: deceased married veterans cannot have more than $12,015 in their joint estate and single veterans must be absolutely destitute or government will deduct funeral reimbursement from any additional assets. The issue is far from “finally [being] resolved.”
There is little doubt as to the good intentions of most veterans’ organizations in providing quotes to government. However, government has clearly been quite astute at using veterans’ good intentions to further a PR war that does little but says much about caring for veterans. These quotes benefit government first, not veterans.
By contributing to such propaganda, veterans are influencing change that affects veterans who do not belong to their organizations. Quoted veterans become ‘pseudo-proxies’ convincing a public with a limited attention span that all veterans are happy with the change. However, 90 per cent of Canada’s almost 700,000 serving and retired CAF members do not belong to any veteran organization.
However, veterans can beat the government at their own PR war. First, veterans’ organizations can refuse to provide media quotes. Second, organizations, just like government, can stick to media lines such as: “until government enacts recommendations from the veterans ombudsman and veterans’ consultation group to improve the NVC, veterans will not provide positive quotes about government.”
Otherwise, by supporting government announcements, especially before the details of any initiative are known, veteran organizations only play into the hands of government’s long history of doing far too little, far too slowly, to improve the lives of veterans and their families.
Sean Bruyea is vice-president of Canadians for Accountability, a retired Air Force intelligence officer and frequent commentator on government, military, and veterans’ issues.
The Hill Times