Tag Archives: Veterans Affairs

How Veterans Affairs fails Canada’s heroes

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For a government that applauds its military’s service and prowess, lauds its warriors’ nearly mythological battlefield achievements and routinely augments its own fat-bellied, peacetime ambitions with the hard sinew and patriotic service of its men and women in arms, Harpertown has a strange way of displaying its appreciation to its avowed friends.

Some truly intrepid, hard-slogging reporting by Murray Brewster of The Canadian Press paints a tale of stunning incompetence at Veterans Affairs of late – a record that does not evidently stem from, as the Prime Minister’s Office wishes it might, the bureaucracy, but from the political office, itself.

As Mr. Brewster reported on December 11, “The inability of Veterans Affairs to spend $1.13 billion over the last eight years should have come as no surprise to the Harper government, which was warned two years ago that the department was struggling to forecast the needs of its clients.”

That might have had something to do with the fact that this government’s widely publicized exercise in public-sector pilates since 2008 (18.5 per cent staff cuts across the board or go home and cry into your mama’s pea soup) has effectively eliminated 900 full-time positions at Vets.

Still, Mr. Brewster relies on an unimpeachable source for his conclusions: Auditor-General of Canada Michael Ferguson’s report on the subject in 2012.

“Buried deep in. . .(this) report,” the reporter states, “was a warning that Veterans Affairs was producing inaccurate forecasts of future client needs that were based on historic data, rather than current information. The same report also took aim at the case management and referral system for operational stress injury clinics, which was the focus of (November’s) much-hyped $200-million overhaul.”

Predictably and nastily, the Harper government has chosen to defend itself by laking the low road.

As Mr. Brewster reports, a class-action lawsuit in British Columbia brought against the federal government for its ham-handed implementation of a veterans charter it has endorsed since 2005 (when the former Liberal government of Paul Martin first flew it up the flag pole) met with this spicy bit of disingenuity from Mr. Harper, himself, earlier this month:

“It (the legal action) is actually a court case against the previous Liberal policy. . .In any case, we have repeatedly enhanced the benefits under that policy to the tune f $5 billion, opposed every step of the way by the Liberal party, who has voted against all those benefits. They can keep voting against those benefits for veterans. We will keep bringing them forward.”

And what do Canada’s actual servicemen and women believe? That entirely depends on whom you ask, but if you ask the Canada Coalition for Veterans, they’ll have this to say: Fire Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino immediately, and, next fall, kick the Tory bums out of office.

According to a CBC report last month, “A group of angry veterans, who want the Harper government defeated in the next election, is appealing to serving members of the military to join them in protest. Ron Clarke, a member of Canada Coalition for Veterans who has been campaigning against the closure of Veterans Affairs offices, made the appeal Wednesday during a Parliament Hill news conference. It may put those in uniform in an awkward position, but Clarke says they need a government sensitive to veterans and their needs. ‘We need a government that looks after our veterans,’ he said.

“The plea is just the latest move in what is a major rift in the veterans community, one that has the potential of undermining the coalition’s aim of galvanizing votes against the Conservatives. Last week, a group of outspoken veterans advocates announced that six organizations had formed a coalition that would, at a minimum, boycott government announcements and photo-ops.”

All of which has cast the worst possible light on a government that has clearly failed to fulfill its responsibilities to thousands of discharged soldiers, untold numbers of whom continue to suffer from untreated physical and mental battlefield injuries.

Indeed, with friends like this, who needs enemies.

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Canadians say ‘ho hum’ to federal priorities

 

Sleeping giants, like the electorate, wake up...don't they?

Sleeping giants, like the electorate, wake up…don’t they?

Certain enclaves of the federal government have long suspected that Canadians are far less enamoured of their cherished policies than they have otherwise propagandized. 

Their buoyant rhetoric about the nation’s proud military tradition, bolstered by tens of millions of dollars for war memorials and stagy commemorations, have struck many citizens as crass testimonials to a certain prime minister’s preoccupation with battlefield derring do. 

Meanwhile, thousands of veterans needlessly do without – victims of red tape, official neglect and outright disinterest among corps of bureaucrats whose members have never, and likely never will, lace up an army boot.

Equally, Canadians are, in increasing numbers, dissatisfied with Ottawa’s leadership (or lack, thereof) on education – both pre-school and K through 12. Public school is properly the purview of the provinces, but a sense of national purpose is sorely lacking – a fact manifested in the hodgepodge of early education, primary and secondary programs across the country.

And then there’s health care, another provincial responsibility that could use some sage advice from federal policy makers and office holders. Still, Ottawa’s diffidence regarding long wait times for several medical procedures and widely divergent catastrophic coverage regimes virtually guarantees the nation’s mediocrity in this crucial service on the developed world stage.

In fact, in almost every way, the Government of Canada’s ‘jails and jobs’ agenda has failed to impress the general public. 

The wholesale flight of the feds away from things Canadians actually care about – the environment, hard science, and, of course, the social safety net – to things that merely bewilder them – fighting crime at a time when crime rates are at historic lows; taking credit for creating jobs while repeatedly reminding everyone that only the private sector can and should generate new employment opportunities – has conjured an atmosphere of ennui from coast to coast.

Now, some research commissioned by the federal Department of Finance confirms officialdom’s worst suspicions. 

According to a Canadian Press story this week, public opinion surveys conducted last winter, “suggest key government policies are out of step with Canadians’ priorities, including the Northern Gateway project. . .Members of focus groups. . .had ‘little enthusiasm’ for the proposed bitumen pipeline to the British Columbia coast – even those who said they support the controversial project. . .Rather the groups spontaneously raised education, health care, pensions, and veterans as their key issues.”

The operative word there is “spontaneously”. That indicates that participants weren’t prompted or even asked forthrightly about their feelings. They just blurted their concerns with a degree of unanimity that should truly worry a government that’s running second in the polls, behind the third-party Liberals, and preparing to head into a national election. 

As for western oil and gas, the report, itself – prepared by NRG Research Group – states that “detractors worry about the environmental consequences in the event of a spill, particularly as a result of a tanker accident off the B.C. coast. . .There is an appreciation that increased access to oil will be economically beneficial, but there is still a desire to do so in a more environmentally safe manner.”

A report like this is, of course, exactly why governments employ professional spin doctors. When I was one, back before the federal Grits suffered their political Waterloo at the hands of Stephen Harper’s bayonetted storm troopers, I might have prepared a statement that read something like this: “Naturally, Canadians care about the environment. So does this government. To suggest otherwise shamefully underestimates the intelligence of the electorate, which, need it be said, gave this government the mandate it now takes with great seriousness.”

See how that works? Wait for it; we’ve still got it in store.

In the meantime, however, we might do well to ruminate on what it means to live in a democracy where the government of the day – Conservative, Liberal, NDP, Green, Republican, Democratic, Rhinoceronian – brooks no criticism, takes no advice, considers no alternatives to its various hobby horses, and prosecutes its “mandate” with a perpetual scowl on its face. 

We might legitimately question whether this political machinery constitutes a democracy at all.

Then again, if we have decided that our rage against the machine will keep us home on voting day, we already have our answer.

 

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Will it be ‘icons and idols’ or ‘flesh and blood’ that we honour?

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There’s nothing wrong with erecting statues to commemorate soldiers killed in battle. In fact, many people think that a 100-foot-tall monument called “Mother Canada”, her arms  spread wide, her gaze fixed upon the eastern horizon, plunked smack-dab in the middle of Cape Breton’s Cabot Trail at one of it finest promontories, is a terrific idea.

The chances are, of course, that those folks don’t live anywhere near the site for the planned memorial, a private-sector venture driven out of Toronto, which has already received Parks Canada approval and the enthusiastic endorsement of at least two federal cabinet ministers.

In fact, if those folks did live in or around the Green Cove cliff area of Cape Breton, they might wonder, as does Gordon Rideout, president of the Royal Canadian Legion branch in nearby Ingonish, if anyone has checked a map.

It’s not that he thinks the statue, itself, is a bad idea. It’s just that, he told the CBC in January, it’ll be in the wrong place.

“You’re in the middle of probably one of the most beautiful national parks in the country,” he said. “What’s going to happen here. . .is that the Cabot Trail. . .will have to be rerouted. There’s going to be an information centre there. There has to be, of course, washroom facilities and everything else put in there. And it’s just going to spoil one of the most overlooked places on the trail. . .I just don’t want to see a major reconstruction of that area. It’s going to turn it into a small Disney World.”

South Harbour resident Claudia Gahlinger goes farther. Though she’s all for remembering the sacrifices of Canada’s servicemen and women, she can’t help note the irony swirling about the project.

“We all know that we’ll be fined if we’re caught taking even a stick or stone from the park,” she told the CBC. “Yet this private foundation is going to be allowed to pave over, rearrange and, in effect, own an entire hectare.”

The foundation to which she refers is the Never Forgotten National Memorial Foundation, a charity established and run by Toronto business executive Tony Trigiani who got the idea while traveling through Canadian war memorials in Italy recently. “It’s going to be magnificent,” he told the Toronto Star late last year. “The views from the Cabot Trail are going to be spectacular.”

Indeed, Mr. Trigiani, they are already, and your massive, well-meant intention  – fully realized in granite or marble or limestone, or whatever they build statues out of these days – is not going to change the appearance of the North Atlantic ocean from the top of that cliff.

But it may help to speed unsettling changes that are already underway in the way we order our public priorities over the next few years.

Both Leona Aglukkaq, the federal minister responsible for Parks Canada, and Peter MacKay, Minister of Justice, have boarded Mr. Trigiani’s bandwagon, which is scheduled to arrive on the East Coast, toting a $30-million building fund, sometime in the next two years, or so.

Their support has, in no small measure, to do with the fact that neither they, nor any of their other colleagues in cabinet, will have to pay for it.

But more than this, the project comes at a time when the federal government’s devotion to military commemorations of every variety – icons and idols – seems to be achieving a sort of zenith that is perilously close to eclipsing the needs of military personnel – flesh and blood – who have not fallen, but have, rather, survived to endure the awful physical and emotional ramifications of their living sacrifices.

“The key message. . .is that improvements are required to specific New Veterans Charter programs to help Veterans and their families successfully transition to civilian life,” Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent stipulated in a blunt and wide-ranging report last year. “The most urgent shortcomings to address are those that affect the economic financial support provided to Veterans, especially totally and permanently incapacitated veterans who are vulnerable financially. It is simply not acceptable to let veterans who have sacrificed the most for their country – those who are totally and permanently incapacitated – live their lives with unmet financial needs.”

To be sure, statues are convincing and enduring ways to honour those who have fought and died in wars.

As for what to do with the living, starting a decent conversation usually avoids tragic misunderstandings on this earthly coil.

The feds might want to ask the bemused residents of Cape Breton about that.

Then again, statues don’t talk back.

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