Charlottetown Senator Percy Downe continues to track Harper’s hypocrisy. If he is this two-faced with our vets, how is he manipulating the rest of Canadians? How long are we going to continue to be his prize dupes? What Percy Downe notes is heartbreaking on one hand, and utterly intolerable on the other. BONNIE
Ottawa must honour its promises to veterans
by Percy E. DowneCommentary appears in THE GUARDIAN, Charlottetown, PEI January 18, 2011
There was a time not long ago in this country when a government minister or the Clerk of the Privy Council would come to the defence of public servants who were being unfairly attacked.
Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be the case with Veterans Affairs Canada, whose employees have become scapegoats for the many policy mistakes made by the Conservative Government in dealing with veterans’ issues: underfunding programs and not keeping promises — leaving many veterans seething mad at the department.
However, it is worth remembering that these policy decisions are made by the federal cabinet – not public servants – after all, employees are not even allowed to participate in any form of public debate regarding government policy.
Appearing before a parliamentary committee, then-Veterans Ombudsman Colonel (Ret’d) Pat Stogran had this to say about the public servants employed in the department: “I share the same (high) opinion of the employees of Veterans Affairs Canada. I have spent a lot of time in the district offices, and the people I have met, without exception, are truly committed to looking after our veterans as much as the system will allow them to. I also think that many of the employees of Veterans Affairs who make it to senior management positions in Charlottetown by staying there throughout their entire careers are truly dedicated to that one department. They are servants of the veterans before they are public servants, and I applaud them.”
A review of recent announcements shows that the Harper government has reverted to their familiar tactics in dealing with veterans: more reassuring words and promises leaving employees of the department to explain why the rhetoric does not match the reality of what assistance is actually available.
Veterans’ funeral expenses: The government has confirmed its refusal to heed the advice of officials to increase funding for the funeral expenses of veterans.
Currently, the government allows serving members of the Canadian Forces to receive up to $12,700 for funeral expenses, but only provides $3,600 for veterans, an amount unchanged since 2001.
In March 2010, in response to a written question I tabled in the Senate, Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn advised that the program “is currently being reviewed.” Eight months later, at a meeting of the Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs, I questioned him about the lack of progress, and he said:
“You said that I had talked about that in March and that the matter has yet to be resolved. You are right. This brief was even drawn to my attention approximately a month ago, and I am the one who said that this was not the time to talk about this matter (…)”
Essentially, the minister decided that he doesn’t want to address the issue.
At its national convention in June 2010, the Royal Canadian Legion passed the following resolution: “(T)hat the Minister of Veterans Affairs take necessary action immediately to increase the Veterans Funeral and Burial Program funeral services allowable maximum to an equivalent level established for the RCMP and Canadian Forces.”
The Harper government clearly owes Canadians an explanation as to when it would be an appropriate “time to talk about this matter.”
Veterans Independence Program (VIP): The VIP was intended to help veterans maintain their independence and stay in their own homes. Prime Minister Harper promised veterans and their families that he would:
“…immediately extend the Veterans Independence Program services to widows of all Second World War and Korean War veterans regardless of when the veteran passed away or how long they had been receiving the benefit prior to passing away.”
Sadly, as widow Joyce Carter of Cape Breton, who received a letter signed by Stephen Harper found out, he failed to honour a promise he personally made.
Priority hiring: Since 2005, medically released Canadian Forces veterans have been eligible for priority employment appointments in the federal government, but the very low participation of most departments remains an issue.
This seemingly worthwhile endeavour was intended to create important future career opportunities for the young men and women who have to live the rest of their lives with the injuries they sustained in their service to Canada. However, 67 veterans had their job priority status expire without finding employment.
The employment outlook for medically released veterans can be severely diminished, but in a federal workforce of over 380,000 across Canada, employment can be found for all qualified veterans.
Agent Orange: Prime Minister Harper made a promise during the 2006 federal election, when he stated, “Our government will stand up for full compensation for persons exposed to defoliant spraying during the period from 1956 to 1984.”
Once in power, the Harper government announced limited funding, but only to those who served between 1966 and 1967.
In order to force Prime Minister Harper to honour his commitment, veterans and their families have had to undertake a class action lawsuit at their own expense against the full resources of the government. And quite literally to add insult to injury, it was disclosed earlier this year that the government has spent $7.8 million in legal costs fighting veterans and their families in opposition to this lawsuit.
Employees of Veterans Affairs are being unfairly blamed for the actions of a government that likes to raise expectations with grandiose announcements, while leaving them to explain the fine print to veterans who were led to believe that funding and assistance were going to be made available. It is time for this government to start accepting responsibility and honour their promises to Canadian veterans.
Charlottetown Senator Percy Downe is actively involved with veterans’ issues.