‘What the Frig is Wrong with that Guy?’

Without the Veterans Affairs Canada offices, political rhetoric about recognizing sacrifice and the debt owed to our military become as meaningless as graphic designs on cereal boxes.

The Hill Times photographs by Jake Wright and Abbas Rana
Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino. Veteran Ron Clarke, pictured on the Hill on Jan. 28.

Published: Monday, 02/03/2014 12:00 am EST

Military veteran Alfie Burt recently questioned Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino’s insistence on closing nine Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) offices: “What the frig is wrong with that guy?”

To be fair, the same question can easily be asked of various ministers and of the most senior VAC bureaucrats over the past eight years. However, closure of VAC offices has become another incendiary device condescendingly tossed into the national outrage as to how Canada’s veterans are mistreated by government.

At issue is Ottawa’s effort to balance the books irrespective of veteran outcry. Problematically, Veterans Affairs, unlike most other federal departments, did not have a significant hiring surge when the Conservatives took power in 2006. In fact, VAC has not only experienced one of the largest employment cuts of any department but the assault on its frontline employees began in 2011, a year before the government-wide downsizing.

At its peak in 2009, VAC was authorized a mere seven per cent increase in employees from 2006 levels. Since that time, employee positions have been consistently cut. Today, the department has almost 10 per cent fewer positions (3,370) than when Harper became Prime Minister. When the axe stops swinging in 2016, VAC will have lost more than a quarter of its workforce or 1,000 positions since the Conservatives took power, not including 800 further positions to be lost when Ste. Anne’s Hospital, the last remaining VAC medical facility, is transferred to Quebec.

After the smoke clears, Veterans Affairs will be the smallest it has ever been since it was formed in the midst of World War II.

However, government assertions of a declining veteran population don’t justify the cutback carnage. VAC’s veteran and family client base has remained about 210,000 over the past decade with department estimates predicting a 10 per cent decline over the next five years.

Government desperately clings to the argument that ageing World War II veterans require fewer VAC workers. Meanwhile, Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) veteran numbers, at nearly 600,000 with at least as many family members, continue to grow. Citing the rapidly disappearing war veterans requiring geriatric care sidesteps the reality that CAF veterans have an average age of 54 and a large cohort now has geriatric care needs.

The media deluge reporting suicides and the suffering of young and old CAF veterans appears to be lost on Treasury Board and senior VAC officials. Currently, VAC recognizes more than 17,178 veterans with mental health conditions but just 3,829 are case managed. And VAC only “monitors” those who are case managed. More than 13,349 veterans with mental health conditions (that we know of) are not being monitored.

How will a smaller workforce begin monitoring these veterans, let alone deal with the 89 per cent of CAF veterans who are not receiving any benefits or assistance? The closure of nine offices and losing 80 highly-skilled VAC workers will definitely exacerbate an already worsening situation.

What solution does government offer? According to Fantino, veterans can access 24 joint DND/VAC Integrated Personnel Support Centres and 17 Operational Stress Injury Clinics. These centres could offer some assistance to the almost 20,000 veterans who will no longer have access to the closed offices. Except these centres do not operate anywhere near the closures.

The minister also claims generic Service Canada locations will offer superior service to that which VAC provides. The minister has claimed there are variously 560, 600, 620, and 650 Service Canada locations. The Prime Minister puts the number at 584 and admits they are “less specialized” than VAC offices.

A Saskatchewan resident living in Tisdale used to travel 210 km to the now closing VAC office in Saskatoon. Now, that veteran need travel only 51 km to the Zenon Park Service Canada location. The only problem is Zenon Park is only open every second Thursday of the each month from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. and is closed during lunch.

In fact, the vast majority of so-called Service Canada centres to which politicians refer are not actually centres but “outreach sites,” often operating infrequently or, with no published hours, like Attawapiskat in Ontario. As for quality of service, veterans will discover that Service Canada is little more than a brochure and referral service for veterans. The workers will not know how to fill out forms, access veterans’ case files, or apply for benefits and treatment.

Meanwhile, VAC client service agents and case managers must be familiar with dozens of acts and regulations. They personally assist veterans through complex VAC bureaucracy. Employees must navigate 59 policy manuals such as the 418-page Table of Disabilities, crucial to ensuring adequate awards for pain and suffering. The Veterans Program Policy Manual, with five volumes and about 2,500 pages, is essential to receive medical and other benefits.

How will the Service Canada employee, knowing nothing of PTSD, military culture, or employment conditions in the military, comfort a distressed veteran? Where will the veterans speak about their suicidal thoughts, erectile dysfunction, marital breakup, need for compression socks, or purchasing adult diapers when some Service Canada locations require three months’ notice to book a private room? All this must be discussed in public cubicles while the veteran awaits his or her number to be called only to find out that the well-intentioned Service Canada worker is no more effective than the confusing VAC website.

Veterans understand calls to make VAC more efficient. What perplexes many is why frontline workers were the first and still the only area to experience significant cutbacks. Since 2011, service delivery positions have been slashed 17 per cent. The nine offices represent a further five per cent cut. Significant cuts have yet to occur in VAC’s head office. In fact, the deputy minister has not lost a single position but has increased her head count by a whopping 500 per cent. The minister’s office has increased his head count 63 per cent since 2011.

In speaking out, Ron Clarke, Paul Davis, Roy Lamore, Bruce Moncur and Alfie Burt must overcome a most intense military indoctrination, which cements the idea that veterans cannot criticize government. The media and unions are agitating, former military MPs such as Laurie Hawn claim. Hawn was a senior military officer and levelling such accusations reeks of intimidation. Equally appalling is how government has belittled and refused to act on the cries for help from not just veterans, but even the Royal Canadian Legion.

Jerry Kovacs of Canadian Veterans Advocacy puts Hawn’s accusation into context: “pretty soon the communist party will be accused of agitating the veterans for political gain.” Kovacs, also a veteran, was present at the now infamous Jan. 28 meeting between Fantino and these veterans when the minister exchanged testy words, attempting to do damage control on the office closures. Kovacs approached the minister with his experience of receiving no help at multiple Ottawa Service Canada locations. While on camera, the minister brushed aside the veteran.

In the face of cutbacks, frontline employees have shown an unusual and touching loyalty to veterans. In Sydney, N.S., not one of the five qualified VAC workers accepted a temporary stopgap measure to be placed with Service Canada. They reportedly believe that this will do more harm than good. Given that Cape Breton has a winter unemployment rate of about 16 per cent, this is not about unions, employment, or media.

The one accusation on many veterans’ minds: why do Hawn and the rest of the Conservative caucus allow Treasury Board and VAC senior bureaucracy to run roughshod over veterans’ rights to “be treated with respect, dignity, fairness and courtesy?”

There are two likely answers to this. In spite of Harper’s reputation of stepping all over the bureaucracy, he has been troublingly incapable of standing up to the most senior planners in all departments, but especially VAC. The other possibility is an ideologically disturbing one: that the Conservatives believe disabled veterans are milking the system. By making programs increasingly harder to access, as veteran Bruce Moncur laments, government has a policy of “delay, deny, and die” for veterans.

Veterans Affairs offices offer more than just nuts and bolts services. For Canada’s veterans and their families who sacrifice careers, families, control over their futures as well as broken bodies and broken minds, these offices and workers are tangible commitments from Canadians to repay our debt to veterans. Without such offices, political rhetoric about recognizing sacrifice and the debt owed to our military become as meaningless as graphic designs on cereal boxes.

Sean Bruyea is vice-president of Canadians for Accountability, a retired Air Force intelligence officer and frequent commentator on government, military, and veterans’ issues.


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