By Robert Sibley, OTTAWA CITIZEN October 16, 2013 11:56 PM
"Fluff." That, in a word, pretty much sums up the response of veterans' groups to the Conservatives' throne speech announcement that the government intends to rededicate the National War Memorial to honour those who've fallen in the service of the country.
"It's important that veterans be recognized, yes, but the Conservatives are just wrapping themselves in the flag," said Michael Blais, president of Canadian Veterans Advocacy. "It's headlines without substance, to make themselves look good."
On Wednesday, toward the end of his hour-long throne speech, Gov. Gen. David Johnston announced that as part of events next year commemorating the centennial of the First World War and the 75th anniversary of the Second World War, the government was "rededicating the National War Memorial to the memory of all men and women who fought for our country."
The government also intends to mark the end of Canada's decade-long mission in Afghanistan by honouring those in uniform who "made the ultimate sacrifice combating the spread of terrorism," as well as promote "the proud history of our Canadian Armed Forces by restoring military traditions."
Gordon Jenkins, president of the NATO Veterans Organization of Canada, said it's fine to honour the dead of past wars, but it's the still-living veterans who need the government's attention. "What are they doing for the living? We're not getting anything for veterans (in the throne speech) except lip service."
He and Blais observed that the government boasts of its dedication to Canadian military history and its willingness to spend hundreds of thousands to mark the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. But, they said, such actions haven't translated into serving veterans well.
"They're going to spend millions on remembering (the First World War)," said Jenkins. "These are the dead, and let's give them respect, but is this what Veterans Affairs is now? The war memorial doesn't need rededicating. We need something substantive."
Such criticism echoes a recent report from Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent, who chastised the Tory government for shortfalls in the level of financial support given to veterans, particularly those severely wounded or disabled. "It is simply not acceptable to let veterans who have sacrificed the most for their country ... live their lives with unmet financial needs," the ombudsman said in a study that compared the old system of compensating veterans under the Pension Act with the inadequacies of the new Veterans Charter, legislation backed by the Conservative government when enacted in 2006.
A spokesman for Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino defended the department's record.
"Our Government has made enormous and substantial investments to support Canada's Veterans, including nearly five billion in additional funds towards assistance and services for Veterans and their families," said Joshua Zanin in an email. "As committed in the Speech From the Throne, we will continue to act further to support vulnerable and homeless Veterans and to ensure the successful transition of Veterans into civilian life after their service in uniform."
Veterans were upset earlier this summer after federal lawyers urged a B.C. judge to dismiss a class-action lawsuit filed by injured Afghan veterans, claiming the government has no extraordinary social obligation toward veterans, and owes them nothing more than what they received under the Veterans Charter.
Add this attitude to defence funding issues — including, for example, delays in a $10-million program to replace the aging Lee Enfield rifles used by the Arctic Rangers — and critics like Jenkins and Blais say it's hard to take seriously the government's claim of commitment to the military and its veterans.
"Commemoration is fine," said Blais. "We have an obligation to the fallen. But we also have an obligation to those who are suffering today.
"We've got a government that likes to fly the flag, but look what they are actually doing. It's all fluff. It's not in response to the real needs of veterans."
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The Canadian Veterans Advocacy Team.