The upcoming Veterans Stakeholder Summit on Oct. 29 is the summit of bureaucratic insensitivity when it comes to accessibility. Our disabled veterans and their families deserve more. More voice, more consequential input, and more dignified treatment.
OTTAWA—One thing consistently flies over the heads of Veterans Affairs Canada’s senior mandarins: the concept of accessibility for disabled veterans and their families.
The upcoming Veterans’ Stakeholder Summit on Oct. 29 is the summit of bureaucratic insensitivity when it comes to accessibility. Disabled veterans and their families will once again be denied accessibility to having a meaningful and substantive say in how their government treats and mistreats them.
The news cycle over the past decade has seen a constant stream of stories about veterans suffering VAC’s odd notion of accessibility. Whether it is arbitrary decisions, arbitrary dates and years of service to qualify for benefits, wait-times to receive decisions and benefits, closing and opening of offices, or the reduction and then the lacklustre increase in numbers of frontline and adjudicating employees while protecting positions in the head office.
The bogus claims of consultation culminate in next Monday’s feel-good and consequence-free Veterans’ Stakeholder Summit.
The problem: who or what is a stakeholder? According to Veterans Affairs, “Stakeholders are individuals, groups or organizations: who are affected by changes to VAC programs, benefits and services; and/or have an interest in Veterans [sic] issues.”
Every veteran is affected by VAC services. Commemorating military service is one of the department’s responsibilities. All Canadians should have an interest in veterans’ issues. Military service and sacrifice, after all, is in the name of Canada and all Canadians. The definition needs work.
For most of the past six decades, Veterans Affairs interpreted policy change as sacrosanct, like speaking to a deity: communication with the divine department about program changes had to pass through a handful of priestly veterans’ organizations.
That is why VAC ordained that representatives of just six veterans’ organizations, sworn to confidentiality by bureaucrats, would endorse the replacement of lifelong pensions with one-time lump sums in 2005. Organizations principally composed of World War II and Korean War veterans supported less for Canadian Forces veterans than war veterans received or were receiving.
Much has changed in the past 13 years but the goal of controlling the message has not. Agnostic veterans like me, Luc Levesque and Louise Richard began speaking out in the late 1990s. After 2005, the irreverent veterans who dared criticize VAC mismanagement and insensitivity increased.
In fact, the only movement in the lethargic bureaucratic beast at Veterans Affairs has been sparked by public outcry. The source of the outcry: the unaffiliated veteran or those willing to break ranks with their veterans’ organizations, tragically many of whom have been too timid and loyal to openly criticize government.
In February 2012, a minor miracle occurred. VAC was forced to invite some of those impertinent veterans to one of the first broader stakeholder meetings at a public venue, promising two such meetings per year thereafter. The result: the vast majority of participants signed a clearly-worded resolution to implement all recommendations from three advisory groups. The next summit was held behind the high security gates of the Citadel in Québec City. Impudent veterans were not invited.
Not until, “Uncle Walt” Natynczyck became VAC deputy minister in late 2014, did we see some of the more vocal veterans invited. Keeping tradition, the summit in 2015 saw veterans’ cellphones “voluntarily” confiscated. Attending were organizations that had no veterans or family members in their ranks.
Yet the summit was principally about caring for the most disabled veterans and their families. Many organizations invited do not publicly divulge their membership numbers let alone if they actually represent any disabled veterans. A photo-op with a minister and a free trip can mean the world to veterans who have long been neglected by government.
Kudos to the Royal Canadian Legion as it has been, up until 2017, the most transparent in making publicly available their membership composition. VeteransCanada.ca also publishes its numbers and has repeatedly surveyed its members as to their disabilities, benefits from, and concerns about VAC. Most organizations should not attend until they can prove they represent the views of disabled veterans and their families, the focus of all summits thus far. VAC has refused to provide me with the invite list thus far but it will likely include the same well-meaning organizations. VAC can then dilute the views of those disabled veterans and their families most dependent upon VAC’s programs.
The last summit was in October 2016. Approximately 120 participants were surveyed, but only after many civilians had left. Even then, only 74 per cent were veterans, 44 per cent had never deployed outside of Canada, and a mere 47 per cent were receiving benefits from VAC.
We also saw some repugnant displays of intimidation. Some of the most disabled grappled with their anxiety in such a large setting. They were keenly aware that most participants did not understand the struggles of the disabled, especially in dealing with VAC. It was overwhelming to be subjected to two days of a bureaucratic shut-up-and-listen agenda. Nevertheless, these brave veterans spoke up in an understandable manner given their disabilities: with frustration and hurt.
Sadly, they were silenced by insensitive bureaucrats or worse. Audience members including medical practitioners and ombudspersons watched as some Ministerial Advisory Group participants stepped in to do the bureaucrats’ bidding by rudely dismissing other disabled veterans’ concerns.
The bottom line to VAC’s message control: not one clear and substantive resolution or commitment has emerged from six years of stakeholder meetings. As one internal document from an earlier summit instructs bureaucratic organizers, “participants are thanked for their contribution. They feel their input and presence is valued.” Government follow-up not necessary.
Our disabled veterans and their families deserve more. More voice, more consequential input, and more dignified treatment. If they are to make their lives whole again, disabled veterans and their families need accessibility to fulsomely deciding their future. Perhaps government will remember that instead of holding yet another “Summit for Bureaucrats” to tell veterans what a wonderful job Veterans Affairs is doing.
Sean Bruyea, vice-president of Anti-Corruption and Accountability Canada and author, has a graduate degree in public ethics, is a retired Air Force intelligence officer, and frequent commentator on government, military, and veterans’ issues. Mr. Bruyea filed a $25,000 defamation lawsuit against Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan on May 11, claiming the minister had defamed in a column published in The Hill Times on Feb. 26, which was a rebuttal to Mr. Bruyea’s Feb. 12 column also in The Hill Times. But an Ontario judge dismissed the case, saying the need to protect the freedom of expression is more important than any harm alleged to have been suffered by the outspoken veterans’ advocate, who represented himself in Ontario Superior Court. Mr. Bruyea is appealing the ruling.
The Hill Times