Minister Fantino's plan backfires
An attempt by Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino to quell growing outrage over VAC office closures appears to have backfired, leaving veterans even more determined to stop the closures.
Fantino announced last Thursday that Veterans Affairs offices in eight communities will close their doors to veterans on January 31 next year. In an attempt to allay concern about the impact of the closures, he announced what he called an "enhancement" that would leave a single Veterans Affairs worker in a Service Canada outlet in each of the communities to "assist with the transition".
It appears the so-called "enhancement" will be short lived – our component that represents Service Canada workers tells us they've heard the move is a temporary one.
The minister's ill-conceived scenario said nothing about Prince George, where veterans lost their office last January.
Veterans quickly spoke out against the scenario, asking how eight workers placed in could make up for the loss of veterans-only spaces and almost a hundred front line workers.
As PEI Legion Command President Gilles Painchaud wrote in this letter in the Charlottetown Guardian, one Client Service Agent cannot possible serve all of PEI's veterans and the same is true across the country.
Columnist Leroy Peach weighed in on the issue too, calling on Nova Scotia MLAs Alfie MacLeod and Eddie Orrell – who once supported the idea – to help stop the closures.
This Cape Breton Post editorial says Fantino's scenario has "backfired" and calls on local politicians to stop skating around the issue. Cape Breton mayor Cecil Clarke, says the Post, has been "politically smooth on the file, vocalizing his support for veterans, but avoiding public criticism of the federal Conservatives, with whom he is aligned."
The editorial goes on to say that "if this is supposed to be the feds' final offer, there will likely be increasing pressure on politicians such as Cecil Clarke, MacLeod and Orrell to dispense with diplomacy and sing more stridently from the same hymn sheet as most of their constituents."
On Saturday Cape Breton veteran Ron Clarke teamed up with frontline Veterans Affairs workers to meet with Orrell and MacLeod and urge them to do just that. They asked the MLAs to go back to Minister Fantino and tell him the plan just won't work and that veterans need the offices to stay open.
Our news release opposing the plan is here.
Opposition critics blast Fantino's proposal
Opposition critics were also quick to criticize the proposal during Question Period on November 29. The NDP's Peter Stoffer called the idea "unconscionable" and asked the government to reverse what he called "hazardous cuts" and reopen the offices.
Stoffer also asked why veterans were having trouble accessing services in Halifax, citing the story of one couple who had been waiting weeks for assistance. That situation is likely to get much worse if the closures go ahead: Halifax workers are expected to take on 4,200 files from Sydney without getting additional staff to help with the increased caseload.
The same is true across the country. When office closures go ahead, files are being transferred to other offices where in most cases, staffing levels will remain the same or have been cut. That means longer wait times for veterans in those communities too – not just in communities where offices are closing.
Liberal Veterans Affairs critic Jim Karigiannis also spoke out in Question Period, saying recent suicides by returning soldiers show we are not doing enough to care for our military. He asked how putting one worker in a Service Canada office was going to help when veterans are already being told there is no-one to talk to them.
Members of Parliament asked to help stop the closures
The same day Fantino made his announcement, Ron Clarke and a group of veterans travelled to Conservative MP Peter MacKay's constituency office in Antigonish. They spent the afternoon hosting a "postcard signing" and talking to passers-by about the closures. That was covered with a great photo and article in the local paper here.
Peter MacKay is one of 26 Members of Parliament we have asked for meetings with – each is being asked to go on the record opposing the closures and to help us stop them. We asked for that meeting in October, but MacKay has so far been unable to find time to meet, something Ron Clarke took up with staff in his office while they were there.
You can see the full list of MPs we are approaching for meetings here. So far we have scheduled meetings with Kelowna MP Ron Cannan, Prince George MP Richard Harris and some MPs who are themselves veterans: Gordon O'Connor, Laurie Hawn and Corneliu Chisu. We are working on scheduling meetings with a few more and will be sure to pass on a full report on our lobbying efforts as they go forward.
What you can do
Please help us keep showing that momentum is growing.
• Send a letter in to the editor of your local newspaper.
• Help us reach out to veterans in the ridings of MPs we are lobbying.
• If you live in any of those MPs' ridings – especially Saskatoon and Kelowna – please let us know as soon as possible.
• Let us know if you want to organize "postcard signings" in your community.
• Be sure to pass along this link to our campaign page and keep sharing our YouTube video.
I'm attaching our updated Questions and Answers sheet here, along with the full transcript of questions raised by opposition critics – and the minister's responses.
National Campaigns Officer, Public Service Alliance of Canada
Veterans Affairs office closures
Questions and Answers
Can't veterans get the services they need from Service Canada locations, as well as online and through the phone, when these offices close,
• Veterans Affairs workers receive specialized, ongoing training because Veterans Affairs services and programs, like the needs of veterans, are vast and complex and always evolving. Service Canada workers have received very limited training about Veterans Affairs services and programs, so can only answer general questions and supply and receive forms. They cannot sit down with veterans to help them fill out their applications for benefits and services or check to ensure that forms are properly completed. One mistake can result in the denial of benefits to a veteran.
• Service Canada workers cannot access veterans' files and therefore cannot give advice or guidance related to individual cases. Veterans Affairs workers do access those files and have often built long term relationships with clients so are much more able to understand and respond to their needs. This is especially important for veterans with complex physical and mental health conditions.
• PSAC represents the workers at Service Canada too. They'd like to do more for our veterans, but it is unrealistic to expect them to have the same degree of expertise. They are often left with no choice but to point veterans to the computer or the toll-free phone line for help. Veterans tell us the phone line and internet are problematic, especially for those who are older or living with PTSD and other mental health challenges.
What about the Minister's plan to place a Veterans Affairs worker in the Service Canada outlets where Veterans Affairs offices are closing?
• It just isn't possible for one worker to make up for the number of front line workers being lost when these offices close. Closing the Sydney office, for example, means losing 13 front line workers. In Thunder Bay, the closure means losing seven front line workers. Plus, it appears this plan may be a temporary one.
• Veterans say they need their own space in which to access these services. These offices have been set up with veterans' needs in mind. They have reception areas designed for veterans and their families and private interview rooms for meetings with Client Service Agents and Case Managers. They also have examination rooms where veterans can meet with nurses and other healthcare practitioners.
If a veteran has trouble travelling to a VAC office, medical or other facilities, can't doctors, nurses or case workers go to the residence of the veteran?
• Only veterans who have Case Managers receive home visits from Veterans Affairs. Clients without case-managed files will have to travel to the closest remaining Veterans Affairs office for in-person services that require access to their file or expertise in Veterans Affairs programs and services. With the exception of travel for pension-related medical appointments, veterans must cover their own travel costs.
• For veterans in Thunder Bay, the office closure means traveling to North Bay, 13 hours away. For veterans in Sydney, the closure means a five to six hour drive to Halifax. For veterans in Corner Brook, it means an eight hour drive to St. John's. For veterans in Charlottetown, it would mean traveling out of province to Saint John. Given these distances, and given that there will be fewer Case Managers working once the offices close, it is unlikely veterans will still receive the home visits they need when they need them.
• The government has not committed to adding staff to the offices taking on clients from offices they want to close. This means increased caseloads, longer wait times for home visits and less service for all the veterans being served by those offices. If the government goes ahead with the Sydney closure, for example, more than 4,200 client files, including 120 case-managed files, will be transferred to Halifax.
Don't veterans have access to Operational Stress Injury Clinics and Integrated Personnel Support Centres too?
• There are no Operational Stress Injury Clinics or Integrated Personnel Support Centres in the communities where the government wants to shut down Veterans Affairs offices.
Don't these closures reflect the changing demographics of Canada's veterans?
• Altogether the nine offices the government wants to close serve more than 17,000 veterans and their family members. Those numbers demonstrate the closures simply don't make sense.
• In the last two years, the number of traditional veterans served by Veterans Affairs has decreased from 63,000 to 49,000. But the number of Regular Force Veterans served by Veterans Affairs has increased from 68,000 to 76,000. That number will continue to increase. In 2013, the average age of the 594,300 Canadian Forces veterans is 56. And none of these numbers include family members, survivors and the RCMP who are served by Veterans' Affairs.
• As older veterans age they require more care and services. Younger veterans, such as those returning from Afghanistan, tend to have more complex needs, such as those who have been diagnosed with serious mental health conditions as a result of their deployment.
The government says it has invested almost $5 billion in new funding to improve Veterans benefits, programs and services,and that close to 90% of the department's budget goes towards direct services and support for Veterans. Isn't this enough?
• Any investments this government has made are spread over many years and don't make up for cuts to front-line services for veterans. In fact, the government has cut the budget for Veterans Affairs by $129 million since 2011. A further $132 million in cuts are planned by 2016. In total 784 jobs will be cut including case managers, client service agents, disability pension officers, nurses and administrative staff who process all the claims. Veterans and their families must be able to access the benefits and services available or the investment is meaningless.
November 29, 2013
Mr. Peter Stoffer (Sackville—Eastern Shore, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, January 31 of next year will be very sad day for veterans and their families from across this country. That is the day the government announced for the closure of all eight district affairs offices for veterans and their families across the country.
However, the government has a plan, and I love this. It will take one person from each office and will put them in a Service Canada office. In Sydney, Cape Breton, for example, which Mr. Ron Clarke pointed out, an honoured veteran from Cape Breton, what took 13 officers to do the job will now be done by one person in a Service Canada office.
That is simply unconscionable. We ask the government to reverse these hazardous cuts and to reopen those offices to ensure that all our veterans and their families, and RCMP members and their families, get the one-on-one service they so rightfully deserve.
Mr. Sylvain Chicoine (Châteauguay—Saint-Constant, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, too many of our valiant veterans have to fight for the benefits and the services they are entitled to.
The Conservatives have closed nine regional offices and slashed hundreds of thousands of dollars from Veterans Affairs' budget, thus forcing veterans to use online services instead of being given the personal help they deserve.
How can the Conservatives be so indifferent towards our veterans?
Mr. Parm Gill (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Veterans Affairs, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, our government has made substantial investments to support Canada's veterans, including almost $5 billion in new additional dollars since taking office.
This funding has been put towards improved financial benefits, world-class rehabilitation and tuition costs to help veterans transition to civilian life. While our government is making improvements to veterans' benefits, the Liberals and the NDP voted against this new funding for mental health treatment, financial support and home care services.
Mr. Peter Stoffer (Sackville—Eastern Shore, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I was wondering if the parliamentary secretary would like to tell Kim and Blair Davis of Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia that, because they have sent us all a very disturbing email about what is going on in the Veterans Affairs office in Halifax.
For weeks and weeks, they have tried to get assistance but to no avail. Mr. Davis is in a very precarious situation. His wife Kim is very worried about her husband. In fact, she even fears going back to work when she does not know the state of mind he may be in.
The parliamentary secretary is fully aware of this file. Can he please advise the House exactly what the government is going to do to assist this family and this hero of our country to immediately get the help he needs?
Mr. Parm Gill (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Veterans Affairs, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, first of all, let me thank my colleague from the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs for bringing this issue to my attention. Veterans Affairs officials were immediately directed to undertake a review of the circumstances. I can assure the House that, today, directions have been given to the Veterans Affairs officials to reach out to the veteran and his family.
We will continue to ensure that veterans have the programs and services that they need, even if the member opposite and his party continue to vote against every measure.
December 2, 2013
Hon. Jim Karygiannis (Scarborough—Agincourt, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, last week we had three members of the military who committed suicide. Clearly, we are not looking after our military. Nine veterans affairs centres will be closed by the end of January and 17,000 veterans will be deprived of their case managers.
The minister is letting one case manager per centre move into the local Service Canada office. With veterans already being told that there is no one to talk to them, how does the minister expect veterans to get the services they need, the services we owe them and they deserve?
Hon. Julian Fantino (Minister of Veterans Affairs, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, among the variety of options available to veterans, Veterans Affairs Canada case workers and nurses do personalized home visits for those who need them. While the member opposite engages in scare tactics, we will continue to deliver services and support our veterans no matter where they live and will do that ongoing. If they need assistance among many services, we will cut their grass, shovel their snow and clean their homes. That is our commitment to veterans and that good work continues.
The Canadian Veterans Advocacy Team.