An ombudsman we need to keep for our vets

In recent days, the two-forked tongue of our federal government has never appeared more hypocritical or cynical in its public side-step to contain reaction to its cancellation of the vets’ ombudsman. Canada’s first battle commander in Afghanistan, Pat Stogran, took the position as veterans’ ombudsman three years ago, after retiring from the military. He realizes now the Conservative government only intended him to be a figurerhead without clout.

Here is Murray Brewster’s most recent article in the Canadian Press explaining Stogran’s concerns. He’s urging people to protest the government’s handling of veterans’ problems. Write letters to the editor, to MPs and ministers, he said; post messages on the Internet; stand up for vets.

Col. (ret.) Patrick Stogran at press conferenceOTTAWA – The country’s soon-to-be former veterans ombudsman is accusing federal bureaucrats of “cheating” war widows and saying it’s better for the country if soldiers die in Afghanistan rather than come home wounded to be a burden on the treasury.

Retired colonel Pat Stogran and several disabled veterans, all of them boiling with frustration, painted a Dickensian picture Tuesday of veteran’s care — one that contradicts the Conservative government’s long-standing assurance of standing behind the troops. “I was told by a senior Treasury Board analyst, who shall remain nameless, that it is in the government’s best interest to have soldiers killed overseas rather than wounded because the liability is shorter term,” he told a marathon Ottawa news conference.

Stogran, who has been told by the Conservative government he won’t be appointed to a second term, laid out several examples of how the bureaucracy at Veterans Affairs Canada has stonewalled and deep-sixed his efforts to improve benefits for former servicemen and women. He says he suggested better entitlements for war widows. The idea was rejected because it cost money.

Stogran asked why Canada, unlike its allies, doesn’t automatically recognize ALS — Lou Gehrig’s disease — as a condition members of the military are more likely to develop. That’s just the way it is, he said he was told.

How did the Veterans Affairs come up with its program to compensate former soldiers exposed to the defoliant Agent Orange in the 1960s? Stogran says he was handed a press briefing backgrounder. And when he spotted what he considered to be “gross exaggeration, bordering on outright lies” in a note headed to the minister, he complained — only to be cut off of the mailing list. “Welcome to my world,” Stogran said.

The issue of widows particularly got under his skin and he accused the department’s deputy minister of “cheating” the spouses of dead soldiers. ”It is beyond my comprehension how the system could knowingly deny so many of our veterans the services and benefits that the people and the government of Canada recognized a long, long time ago as being their obligation to provide.”

Much of his attack was focused on the bureaucracy and Stogran declined to lay the blame directly at the feet of the Conservatives. He said the minister was being poorly advised.

Stogran admitted to being frustrated and angry with his battles, but denied his impending dismissal had anything to do with the extraordinary outburst. ”It’s absolutely clear to me that the government expected the veterans’ ombudsman to behave as a complaints manager responsible to the department,” Stogran said. ”Is it a surprise to anybody that the veterans’ ombudsman would speak out on behalf of veterans and their families?”

But Veteran Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn suggested it was sour grapes and denied the former ground commander was being punished for being too frank in his criticism. Blackburn also stood by his officials.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper waded into the debate and said Stogran’s three-year appointment was “understood right from the outset” to be a single-term commitment. “There are no positions for life,” Harper said at a news conference in Mississauga, Ont. “That’s the way we do things.”

But the prime minister, speaking in French, suggested Stogran’s last months in office may still prove productive. “If the ombudsman has concerns, has suggestions, the government is open always to incorporate these suggestions in our future programs and I encourage him to work with us,” said Harper.

In 2006, the federal government overhauled the way veterans received benefits. The New Veterans Charter, conceived under the Liberals but enacted under the Conservatives, was supposed to usher in a new era of care for the country’s former soldiers, Stogran said. “What has become profoundly obvious to me as the veterans ombudsman is the only commitment that’s changed is the commitment of our government to look after our veterans,” he said.

Stogran said he’s going to spend his last three months in office telling Canadians how badly vets are being treated. He’s urging people to protest the government’s handling of veterans’ problems. Write letters to the editor, to MPs and ministers, he said; post messages on the Internet; stand up for vets.

The federal Liberals and NDP have lined up with Stogran, demanding another term for him. New Democrat defence critic Jack Harris said he doesn’t buy Stogran’s argument that the bureaucracy is out of control and the Tories are blameless. “Parliament and the government has control over the bureaucracy,” he said.

“There is ministerial responsibility. If the instruction is, ‘don’t bring anything that’ll cost any money,’ well, who’s in charge of that? That’s the government.”

Stogran joins a growing list of federal appointees who have been fired or not reappointed after expressing opinions at odds with the government. Peter Tinsley, chair of the Military Police Complaints Commission, did not have his term renewed last fall after ordering public interest hearings into the handling of Afghan prisoners. Paul Kennedy, who headed the RCMP Public Complaints Commission, was also not reappointed.


About Bonnie Toews and John Christiansen

Bonnie's Blog Posts invite our readers and free spirits everywhere to share life's adventures with us. I talk about writing my novels, reading books, chatting with other writers and John's and my journeys around the world. We welcome your anecdotes to our experiences and discussions.
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