Canadian Veterans Advocacy

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Canada’s war vets a potentially powerful electoral force: Tim Harper

Canada's war vets a potentially powerful electoral force: Tim Harper

Tensions between vets and their minister, Julian Fantino, continue to simmer and no détente appears on the horizon.


By: Tim Harper National Affairs, Published on Thu Aug 28 2014

So far, it sounds like loose, angry talk.

But the governing Conservatives are playing with fire with the country's war veterans.

If they can — as they have threatened — organize, mobilize and speak with one voice during next year's federal election, the government will have a major problem on its hands; a problem of its own making.

Right now, the Conservatives are dealing with veterans who have yet to find that united politically damaging voice.

But relations between Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino and those who have returned home with physical and psychological wounds have not improved during the summer, with social media the main battleground in ongoing battles that are simmering just below the public eye.

A day of protest in June largely fizzled, but one veterans' advocate says he doesn't have to mobilize the multitudes on Parliament Hill to let Canadians know the manner in which they feel they have been treated by the Conservatives.

"We merely have to tell Canadians our story,'' said Michael Blais of Canadian Veterans Advocacy.

"If I have to make YouTube videos of stumps to show Canadians how egregiously we have been treated, I will damn well do it.''

As first reported by the CBC this week, veterans groups are now raising objections to the amount of money the Harper Conservatives are spending to commemorate past wars, while cutting back spending on helping veterans in the here and now.

They know the value of remembering but point to the total of spending.

According to documents obtained by the federal Liberals, Canadian Heritage budgeted almost $40 million to commemorate the World Wars and the War of 1812 between 2010 and 2015.

National Defence has budgeted some $27.5 million between now and 2020 to mark events of the 100th anniversary of World War I and the 75th anniversary of World War II.

Veterans Affairs has budgeted another $80 million to mark events of the world wars over the next two years.

According to the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, the contract for advertising for this year's Remembrance Day services has gone to a Halifax company for $678,000.

This, veterans will tell you, is millions spent on promoting a government that uses the military for self-aggrandizement while shortchanging those who have served in Afghanistan.

"Sending Canada's D-Day heroes back to the beaches of Normandy, many of whom were in their 90s, does not come at the expense of treatment for veterans here at home,'' said Fantino's spokesperson, Ashlee Smith.

Anyone suggesting that veterans should not be properly honoured is doing them a "disservice,'' she said.

This week, the veterans' ombudsman, Guy Parent, and the Canadian Forces ombudsman, Gary Walbourne, jointly agreed to probe the arduous process wounded soldiers face while transitioning to civilian life.

The wounded soldiers have had to validate their conditions with doctors upon release from the forces, beginning a process that can take months and has cost some their benefits.

Parent, in a study, concluded half of the most badly wounded war veterans are receiving no disability benefits, while those who are receiving benefits routinely receive the lowest-grade payments.

A social media war was triggered by Fantino, who took to Facebook and Twitter to make the case that disabled veterans are being treated generously, but veterans and critics labelled the minister's charts and graphics misleading because so few of the permanently disabled vets receive the amount of money he claims is available.

This has, of course, been a bad year for Fantino, who has fumbled the file in two highly publicized events, arguing with veterans and appearing to snub the wife of a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

But the minister is refusing to swap his combativeness with empathy.

He took matters into his own hands with a letter to the Halifax newspaper this month, because, he said, it was time to explode some myths.

He pointed to a Statistics Canada report that veterans are receiving $60,000 to $70,000 per year and he — again — accused public sector unions of using veterans for their own purposes, then trying to block their entry into the public service.

It is an ongoing puzzle why Fantino mounts such an aggressive counterattack against those who have served this country in wars.

There are no signs that the coming year will result in a détente between the minister and the country's veterans.

Right now, the government can benefit only because veterans groups seem unable to speak as one political voice.

Should that change, there can be few other lobby groups that could mount a more powerful or politically damaging campaign against a government seeking re-election.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Twitter:@nutgraf1

The Canadian Veterans Advocacy Team.

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