The Trudeau government is hosting a ‘stakeholder summit’ May 9 and 10. But having a former general and federal government representative chair a group of often marginalized individuals who are highly indoctrinated to be subservient to authority is truly a farce of a most un-Canadian kind.
By SEAN BRUYEA
PUBLISHED : Monday, May 9, 2016 12:00 AM
OTTAWA—Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) is set to host their most elaborate dog and pony “consultation” show to date, all in the name of caring for veterans. Under the stewardship of Minister of Veterans Affairs Kent Hehr and deputy minister Walter Natynczyk, the Trudeau government is hosting a “stakeholder summit” May 9 and 10 with “broader representation” planned than three previous summits. Are these summits, along with the six announced policy groups, about meaningful stakeholder consultation that produces needed and timely change or merely public relations exercises to ensure media and stakeholder control?
The list of invitees for the summit is long and curious. Thirty-nine veteran-interested organizations, charities, not-for-profits, and support groups are invited along with a host of unnamed individuals. These organizations include the Royal Canadian Legion and VeteransCanada.ca, Canada’s two largest veterans’ organizations. Also included are veterans’ organizations that claim to represent veterans but do not appear to be registered entities and/or have more than two or three members and a Facebook page.
The previous and current summit, along with Trudeau’s mandate letter to Hehr, are predominantly limited to discussions about the injured and their families under the new Veterans’ Charter. Don Leonardo, president of VeteransCanada.ca, emphasized in a telephone conversation that “this stakeholder summit should invite only those directly affected by new Veterans Charter programs, meaning the injured CF soldiers and their families, not World War II and Korean War veterans organizations and certainly not civilian charities.”
But what is a stakeholder? Under the current Trudeau government’s promise of open and accountable government, “departmental stakeholders” are restricted to registered lobbyists, their employees, and corporations employing lobbyists. Also included: “individuals employed in, contracted by, or who otherwise represent corporations and organizations that have current or anticipated official dealings” with government.
Noticeably absent from such definitions are the vast majority of veterans. Approximately 90 per cent of Canada’s nearly 700,000 serving and retired Canadian Forces (CF) members do not belong to any veterans’ organizations. Furthermore, VAC has consistently resisted consulting directly with veterans affected by departmental programs. The last client satisfaction survey in 2010 indicated a response rate at 29 per cent compared to 54 per cent in 2007 while CF veteran client satisfaction among those few who replied was 67 per cent.
This didn’t stop former minister of veterans affairs Erin O’Toole from claiming during the last election that veterans are near unanimous and that “99 per cent of what I hear is positive.”
If these summits and groups are closed to most veterans, then participation should require a minimum of either an actively involved community directly affected by VAC policies and programs or a recognized expertise and/or knowledge-base to understand the importance and impact of such policies. Arguably, many invited organizations have neither.
As for open and accountable government, former chief of defence staff Natynczyk keeps tight control over participants. The agenda is unilaterally decided by VAC and published at the last minute, only available to participants when they arrive. Recording the proceedings is prohibited with cellphones often confiscated.
Those few veterans or individuals who have expertise in understanding veterans’ policies are diluted by pseudo-veteran representatives or organizations that receive funding from the federal government. Meanwhile, other invited “stakeholders” are employees of the federal government. Also present, representatives from the six VAC advisory groups that are reportedly bound by confidentiality agreements for no justifiable reason.
How willing are veterans to speak honestly, assertively, and meaningfully for timely change when government holds so many cards to ensure change is slow, incremental, and often insubstantial?
“The summits are a farce,” said Perry Gray, chief editor of VeteranVoice.info, Canada’s oldest open internet news and knowledge portal on veterans’ issues. In a telephone call he pointed out, “having a top general who is more loyal to the department than to veterans, who discourages participants from vigorous debate and urges them to raise problems only with VAC smacks of intimidation with a smile, not open discussion.” Gray acknowledged that, although a farce, he attends because veterans deserve to know what is being said on their behalf.
Hehr and former veterans affairs minister Erin O’Toole do have one thing in common: they employ the same bureaucratic rhetoric about “treating veterans with care, compassion, and respect.” For Canadian citizens who are willing to wear a military uniform and far too often die defending rights like freedom of expression, rhetoric without substance is demeaning enough. Having a former general and federal government representative chair a group of often marginalized individuals highly indoctrinated to be subservient to authority is truly a farce of a most un-Canadian kind.
Sean Bruyea, vice-president of Canadians for Accountability, is a retired Air Force intelligence officer and frequent commentator on government, military, and veterans’ issues.
The Hill Times