Feds love veterans for photo ops, but not so much as ‘a budget line’

By SEAN BRUYEA-THE HILL TIMES- Published: Monday, 06/16/2014 12:00 am EDT

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has expressed his admiration for America. Explosive scandals in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the rapid response provide a powerful teachable moment for the PM and the “hero” of Canada’s own veteran scandals, Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino.

Although longstanding, wait times for health care from the U.S. Veterans Affairs exploded over the past two months. Veterans Affairs medical doctor turned whistleblower Dr. Sam Foote came forward with allegations that certain Veterans Affairs medical facilities were “cooking the books” resulting in much longer than reported wait times and at least 40 veteran deaths. The scandal quickly widened. The powerful oversight body, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), sent investigators to 69 of the 152 hospitals and approximately 800 outpatient clinics managed by the U.S. Veterans Affairs.

Washington is not waiting. Under Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Robert Petzel quickly resigned. The American Legion played a key role in having Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resign shortly thereafter also calling for criminal investigations. The FBI initiated those investigations last week. Other veterans’ groups have widely condemned Veterans Affairs, organizing public demonstrations and speaking to the media.

Meanwhile, an otherwise deadlocked Capitol Hill rapidly pushed through numerous pieces of potent bipartisan legislation. Proposed measures would hire new medical professionals, open new facilities, allow veterans to seek outside medical care and increase powers to fire and demote poorly performing bureaucrats. Both parties agreed that Washington will find a way to pay for these new measures such as the money saved in suspending all bonuses paid to Veterans Affairs bureaucrats.

Back to an ambivalent reality in Ottawa. Canada’s veterans have endured repeated national scandals since the Conservatives came to power. Replacement of lifetime pain and suffering pensions with one-time lump sums in a meanly-written New Veterans Charter (NVC) was the spark. Serving military rightly fearing the lesser benefits and a difficult bureaucracy at Veterans Affairs Canada, have spoken publicly. Some started a class action lawsuit taking the lesser standard of the New Veterans Charter to court.

What has been called Canada’s single largest privacy violation against an individual, me, was initiated by designers of the NVC and other senior VAC bureaucrats. They didn’t like my criticisms of the parsimonious lump sum program. Each year, the largest public demonstrations in support of veterans continue to grow while veterans and family members come forward with stories of being dismissed and stonewalled by not just an uncaring senior bureaucracy but by what journalist Tim Harper has called “an inept” and “ham-handed” Minister Julian Fantino.

Rather than listen to veterans, Conservatives have labelled veterans as “NDP hacks,” union puppets and “threatening violence against…the Prime Minister and vandalism.”

Fantino accused the union representing dedicated frontline employees of “lies” while claiming that veterans can receive $10,000 monthly from VAC. Fantino take note: it is impossible for veterans to receive $10,000 per month in income from VAC although U.S. VA does offer this level.

Recently, a desperate spouse of a veteran publicly described her family’s suffering. When Jenny Migneault attempted to politely speak to Minister Fantino, national news media recorded the minister and his entourage fleeing the lone woman. According to Jerry Kovacs of Canadian Veterans Advocacy, fleeing with the minister were four political staffers, Parliamentary Secretary Parm Gill as well as deputy minister Chaput, assistant deputy minister general Semianiw and a director general. No one stopped to talk to Migneault. Two staffers watched her in the scrum later.

“It was like she had leprosy,” Kovacs said to me in a telephone interview.

During most of these scandals, Canada’s Royal Canadian Legion has limited its infrequent input to widely ignored letters. The non-existent powers of the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman have proven largely ineffectual.

In spite of her many failings, the U.S. honours her veterans in a multitude of ways that Ottawa does not. The director of the Phoenix Veterans Affairs where the scandal first broke was immediately placed on leave and had her bonus rescinded. Washington’s legislative proposals would hold Veterans Affairs employees accountable to implement reforms with substantive disciplinary measures.

Meanwhile, bonuses continued to be paid to Canada’s senior bureaucrats to viciously cut workers and close offices. Chaput has received her bonuses every year since she arrived at VAC.

Rick Mercer sarcastically calls Fantino “a hero in this covert battle” against veterans. Fantino has vividly shown what many veterans and their families have long known about senior VAC bureaucracy and politicians. They love veterans for photo ops, to blindly implement foreign policy and otherwise endure their neglect and suffering in quiet. They do not like veterans, Mercer says, “as a budget line.”

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


The Hill Times