Carleton Place Almonte Canadian Gazette
Apparently Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino hadn't heard the saying "don't poke the sleeping bear," when he brushed off a group of veterans who had arrived at the minister's office for a scheduled meeting on Jan. 28.
What had been a simmering pot of human emotions among veterans and advocacy groups reached a boiling point at the Fantino office debacle, and it would seem that enough fuel has been added to the fire to ensure a successful turnout of veterans for a rally which begins June 4 on Parliament Hill.
Rock the Hill 2014 is the brainchild of Rob Gallant, a former Royal Canadian Air Force member who was medically released in 2003 after serving his country for 20 years. Gallant intends to show the government "that we, as veterans, have been pushed to the point that we no longer will stay silent while they cut our programs, medical treatment, and benefits, without a fight."
He went on to say that if the expected number of people show up for the event, "it will show this government we will no longer stay the silent minority that they have always counted on. (We hope to) enlighten the Canadian public on all the misleading statements or half-truths stated by this government. In simple terms we will be filling in the blanks that the government seems to always leave out." Gallant's involvement in veterans' advocacy goes back at least to the Service Income Security Insurance Plan
(SISIP) Long Term Disability Class Action in March of 2007. The lawsuit was on behalf of Dennis Manuge and all other disabled veterans whose benefits were reduced by the amount of the monthly Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) disability pension they were receiving under the Pension Act.
A decision by the federal court in May of 2012 ruled in favour of Manuge, and that the government must stop clawing back money from veterans' pensions, and repay up to $1 billion that had been deducted over a period of nearly 30 years. A similar case, the Equitas Class Action Lawsuit, is currently before the Supreme Court of British Columbia.
Manuge related that "Rob Gallant provided direct and continuous close support to me personally for the entire duration the legal challenge. He took the added volunteer responsibility for relaying direct SISIP class action information to a database of class members, veterans' organizations, and media members. Despite the SISIP court victory, there remains a multitude of issues facing the veterans' community and their families. The Equitas class action, suicide rates, reductions in staffing and office closures at VAC, homeless vets, systemic failure at Veterans Review and Appeal Board, the current minister's culture of disrespecting veterans, and the list goes on. This is why there is a need for Rock the Hill. Canadians need to hear from us and see us. It's an awesome initiative on Rob's part."
In an email interview, Gallant acknowledged that Canada's veterans and serving members "have definitely been let down by this government in so many ways it's hard to keep count. This current government has set veterans rights and benefits back at least a decade if not two. One only has to ask: Why do veterans, as a last resort, have to take their own government to court to get the system fixed?" Gallant referred to the two major court cases previously mentioned, the SISIP and Equitas class actions. He said that "in both of these cases the government knows what they are and were doing, is unfair and wrong, but they continue to use taxpayers' money to fight the same veterans that they proudly state in public they support. Not to mention the amount of veterans that have to endure a long and hard fight to get the benefits and treatment they are rightfully entitled to from VAC. Many are taking their own lives due to the way the system is set up against them."
The suicide issue relating to veterans and serving members of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) was brought to the fore on Nov. 29, 2013 when CBC's Rosemary Barton interviewed retired colonel and former Veterans' Ombudsman Pat Stogran.
"It's not news; it's bad news; it's not new news; there's going to be more," Stogran said in an impassioned response to Barton's questioning. At the time, three confirmed suicides had occurred in that month of November, and in just a few days there would be another. Although those suicides had occurred among serving CAF personnel, experts agree there are also many veterans across the country that are dealing with the horrors and suffering of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is thought to be the strongest link to suicide and attempts. Stogran will be one of the keynote speakers at the Parliament Hill rally.
That rash of suicides forced politicians, military command, and support organizations to address that previously unmentionable subject, when the Royal Canadian Legion, Veterans Affairs Canada, and the Minister of Defence all issued news releases on Dec. 4, 2013.
The level of public outrage was apparent in the CBC interview with Stogran, who is known for his outspokenness and criticism of the government. In a voice shaking with emotion, he asked Barton the rhetorical question: "How many ways do you say tsunami?" Stogran went on to say "how terribly we treat the worst cases and the people who are the most desperate."
Although the Legion has been strongly criticized in the past for not taking a stance on political issues, their news release at the time stated: "The Legion strongly believes that all Canadians trust the government will honour its obligation to the men and women of
the CAF and the RCMP who willingly risk injury, illness or death to serve our country, protecting the values and way of life we all enjoy. There is also a responsibility to the families of these men and women. These recent tragic events highlight that there is a perception by our serving members that there is no hope. How can a culture built on camaraderie and team work leave a soldier so isolated and so alone?" The release ended by asking: "How can we possibly justify spending money to mark the commemorations for our achievements as nation when the mental health care system supporting the men and women of the CAF, both Regular and Reserve, as well as RCMP members and all their families who serve our country, is overburden and lacking resources?" Public debate on how to deal with military suicides was renewed, wrote Andre Mayer of CBC News on Mar. 24, with the recent deaths of two Canadian soldiers who fought in Afghanistan.
"But veterans advocates say that the data collected by the Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Canada on how many active and retired army personnel have committed suicide is incomplete, and makes it difficult to help soldiers who may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)."
As of Mayer's news article, five military suicides had been confirmed in 2014.
Local Legions welcome to attend Legion Branch 244 in Perth plans to attend the rally as a group, and is encouraging other Legion branches in the area to join them. Perth and area Legions are no strangers to advocacy on behalf of veterans, as on Sept. 16, 2013, Medric "Cous" Cousineau and his service dog Thai were welcomed by Perth and other Legion branches during the Long Walk to Sanity, part of the Paws Fur Thought initiative, between Eastern Passage, Nova Scotia and Ottawa.
Cousineau was hailed as a hero in 1986 while serving as a tactical co-ordinator on an Armed Forces Sea King helicopter, when he and his crew responded to a call from an American fishing vessel in distress several hundred miles off the coast of Newfoundland. In spite of being injured during the mission, he managed to rescue the two men, and he was later awarded the Star of Courage by then Governor General Jeanne Sauvé. After showing symptoms of PTSD following the traumatic incident, Cousineau experienced a tragic downward spiral, and he was eventually forced to leave the military.
Paws Fur Thought was an idea born in 2012 and, while the "Long Walk to Sanity" ended on Sept. 19 at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, the concept of Paws Fur Thought and other initiatives to assist veterans and their families continues on, thanks to the support of many dedicated individuals and organizations.
This old proverbial message goes to our current government: "Don't poke sleeping bears if you want to live a long and happy life." Perhaps Rock the Hill 2014 will be an opportunity for bureaucrats and elected officials to reach out to the many veterans and supporters assembled there.
Submitted by Terry O'Hearn, Zone G6 public relations officer, Royal Canadian Legion.
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