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War over veterans’ mental health funding escalates

Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino speaks during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday Dec. 2, 2014 . Veterans Affairs Canada will not say how much it spends on research annually, arguing that other branches of government also pay for studies affecting veterans and it would be wrong to provide its own figures without the numbers from other departments.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The federal Conservative government is spending millions of new dollars on research into the mental health of veterans, but the money will be spread over a number of years and scientists say it is meagre compared with the size of the problem confronting Canada's retiring military men and women.

Three federal cabinet ministers, including Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino, announced last week that the government would spend $200-million more to expand mental-health initiatives for veterans, members of the military and their families. Included in that commitment was $6.98-million over six years for what staff in Mr. Fantino's office described in e-mails to The Globe and Mail as "new cutting edge research."

But two of the four research projects that will be funded with the new money – a Canadian Forces cancer and mortality study, and studies on life after service – are merely extensions of studies that have been conducted by Statistics Canada for many years.

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And when asked if the new injection of money for research into veterans issues was sufficient, Ibolja Cernak, the chair in military and veterans clinical rehabilitation at the University of Alberta, said Wednesday: "The very short answer is definitely not."

It amounts to a little more than $1.1-million a year, Dr. Cernak said. "To actually combine the basic science and clinical research that's needed, $1.1-million, I am afraid, is a very, very meagre amount of money."

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs plans to spend $1.9-billion for medical and prosthetic research in 2015.

Veterans Affairs Canada, on the other hand, will not say how much it spends on research annually, arguing that other branches of government also pay for studies affecting veterans and it would be wrong to provide its own figures without the numbers from other departments. Ashlee Smith, a spokeswoman for Mr. Fantino, said in an e-mail that her department maintains relationships with outside researchers and "employs a suite of researchers and data analysts to support efforts to improve on services and benefits for Veterans."

But Dr. Cernak said there is a "huge gap" between the mental-health problems faced by veterans and the way they are being addressed. "All of these problems require very in-depth, very well-synchronized, very well-co-ordinated research studies," she said.

Tim Black, a psychology professor at the University of Victoria who studies veterans' transitions from military to civilian life, said federal funding for his type of research is not easy to obtain. The Veterans Affairs department does its own research, which tends to look at the big picture, Dr. Black said, "but we need to dig down and actually talk to veterans and see what are they struggling with, what are the biggest problems."

Mr. Fantino has been facing opposition calls for his resignation since it was revealed last week that the bulk of the $200-million package of mental-health initiatives that the government said would be spent over six years would actually be doled out over a number of decades.

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Meanwhile, the Auditor-General has released a report saying many vets are waiting months or years to access mental-health disability benefits. And Veterans Affairs Canada has shed nearly a quarter of its work force over the past five years even as bureaucrats warned that the changes could put the delivery of services to veterans and their families at risk.

"The minister is knowingly putting our veterans at risk. Instead of firing the staff, why does the Prime Minister not fire the minister?" NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair asked Wednesday in the House of Commons.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper replied that his government is providing good administration and good service for veterans. "We have taken resources out of backroom administration from bureaucracy," he said. "We have put it into services. There are more benefits and more money for veterans than ever before, and more points of service."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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