Amid rumours that Veteran Affairs Canada face up to a 20 per cent budget cut, advocates are fuming at the "cone of silence" from the minister's office they say cripples their ability to effectively react.
Veterans Affairs will cut 500 staff positions over the next five years and, like other federal departments, it submitted a proposal on how it would cut 5 or 10 per cent from its budget to contribute to the Conservative government's efforts to balance the books.
But now rumours are circulating the cuts will be even higher, according to the Union of Veterans' Affairs Employees.
"Lots of employees are saying the word is it will be closer to a 20 per cut," said Sharon DeSouza, Ontario regional executive vice-president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. "The worst part is, we've asked and we've asked and gotten no response from the department."
Michael Blais, the founder of Canadian Veterans Advocacy, says the silence is a "systemic problem in the department."
"If the cuts are coming, then fine, we need to know what they will be so that we can diligently advocate for our veterans," Mr. Blais said. "There will be serious and profound consequences for these veterans and the government doesn't seem interested in consulting any of the stakeholders."
Veteran Affairs Minister Stephen Blaney's office did not clarify for The Globe if the department would face cuts of more than 5 to 10 per cent. But his director of communications, Codie Taylor, did say that "all current benefits for veterans will be maintained" in an e-mail Wednesday.
"Minister Blaney's top priority is to provide our veterans with the best possible service without bureaucratic red tape," Ms. Taylor said.
Mr. Blaney is under fire after a stinging report released Monday by veterans ombudsman Guy Parent, who said the government is failing to provide veterans with adequate information about its decisions in granting certain benefits.
The department has projected its budget will shrink by $226-million over the next two years, based on an expected decline in the number of clients it works with, as aging Korean War and Second World War veterans gradually die.
"The changes within the department are due to the fact that some employees will be retiring over the next five years," Ms. Taylor added.
Ms. DeSouza, however, said employees are already overwhelmed, and if the department offloads some of the work to Service Canada employees, "they might not know the right questions to ask."
"If they haven't been specifically trained, how will they know what to ask these veterans and how to direct them to the right benefit," she said.