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Veterans’ complaints a tricky issue for Harper

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has appointed retired General Walter Natynczyk to the role of Deputy Minister of Veteran Affairs.

Chris Wattie/REUTERS

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper attends Remembrance Day ceremonies Tuesday, he will have cut short his attendance at an international summit in China to pay tribute. Yet for an increasingly vocal set of this nation's veterans, he is guilty of paying too little attention to those who served.

His government has lionized Canadian military symbols, and sent equipment to troops in Afghanistan. Many Conservative MPs care; many see veterans as part of their natural constituency. So why did Mr. Harper's government become a target for veterans? How did its image instead become Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino lecturing a medal-wearing vet not to point his finger, or dodging a veteran's wife?

The answer depends on whom you ask – and that's perhaps how things went wrong.

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Many veterans say they don't have big complaints. But a minority, notably among those with serious injuries – often newer veterans clashing with the Veterans Affairs bureaucracy – feel mistreated. And there's a new crop of vocal advocates, too, who often think the big traditional groups like the Royal Canadian Legion, are not speaking out for seriously injured vets. The new breed are far more blunt.

Mike Blais, of Canadian Veterans Advocacy, regularly blasts the government on TV. Injured Afghan vets formed Equitas to sue the government for "arbitrary, substandard, and inadequate" benefits. Mr. Fantino meets many of them, but Don Leonardo, who founded Veterans Canada, doesn't see much point any more. "It's nice to talk. But show me some action," Mr. Leonardo said.

Mr. Fantino's office didn't act on requests to interview the minister or a government spokesman on the issue. But inside the government, officials suggest the complaints are exaggerated, and promoted by a small group of activists. Budgets have gone up, they note, and in fact, during Mr. Harper's tenure, spending on Veterans Affairs has increased at about the same rate as overall government spending. But there's little doubt it has become a tricky issue.

This year's Remembrance Day has become a particularly top-of-mind memorial after the Ottawa shootings and the death of Corporal Nathan Cirillo as he guarded the National War Memorial. This government wants it that way, and wants to be associated with the country's military community.

Now, Mr. Harper's government has appointed a Mr. Fix-It in the form of the country's former Chief of Defence Staff, retired General Walter Natynczyk. He has stature in Ottawa, credibility with the military community and was part of Afghanistan-war-era efforts to expand support programs for military families.

That could be critical, because the experience of injured Afghanistan vets has certainly fuelled current criticism.

As troops in 2008 or 2009, many felt support from the public. But those who are injured go from being "members" of the Forces to "clients" of Veterans Affairs. Forces' members go through a medical board when they're released because of an injury, then a new one when they apply to Veterans Affairs, Mr. Leonardo said.

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The case workers at Veterans Affairs Canada care, he said. "It's not the front line. They're the most caring people in the world. The problem is the policies, the bureaucracy at the top, the funding."

Much of the anger grew from the New Veterans Charter, put forward by Paul Martin's Liberals and tweaked by Mr. Harper's Conservatives. It was supposed to be a new deal, but sparked complaints, particularly about lump-sum settlements injured vets received instead of pensions.

Part of the problem for the government is that different veterans advocates propose different prescriptions for change to a complex system. But many say they're frustrated that oft-repeated consensus recommendations – such as increasing the earning-loss benefits, and paying reservists the same level of injury benefits as regular-force soldiers – have languished.

The Commons veterans affairs committee repeated those again this year, but the government's response doesn't say what it will do about them or when. The government did promise to phase in several changes, such as ensuring Forces' members have a Veterans Affairs case manager before they are released, but couched many of their promises to act in thick bafflegab.

Pat Stogran, the retired colonel who served as the first Veterans Ombudsman from 2007 to 2010, said the problem, in his view, stems from the fact that senior bureaucrats run Veterans Affairs like an insurance company, "just trying to write these people off as an industrial accident," rather than an agency to help vets, he said.

And the politicians don't have a lot of drive to delve through the bureaucracy. Veterans Affairs ministers don't have much power, he said. They usually don't argue with their bureaucrats' assessment, they are concerned mainly with party politics. "They're really non-players in this. They're fighting the opposition," he said.

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It also seems possible that the fact that complaints come from a minority of veterans with problem cases, the government accepts the idea that, for the most part, things are okay.

Mr. Stogran said it's not all vets who feel unfairly treated. Most leave to go on with their lives. The hard cases, and complaints, come among the disadvantaged after being put in harm's way. "No, it's not the majority. It's the ones who are injured, or have a close affinity to them."

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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