By Tasha Kheiriddin | Nov 20, 2014 8:59 pm
In September, the Department of National Defense published some shocking statistics. Between 2002 and 2014, 138 soldiers were killed in combat in Afghanistan. During the same period, 160 military personnel committed suicide.
The fact that more servicemen and women were dying of suicide than enemy action prompted outrage across the country, and umbrage on Parliament Hill. Defence Minister Rob Nicholson defended the government's record, saying that it had increased the military's mental health budget by $11 million to $50 million a year. Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino exhorted "… everyone … who think(s) someone may be suffering from mental health conditions to seek the professional assistance they need right away."
Fast forward to November 20 … and some more shocking numbers. During the period 2006-2013, $1.1 billion that had been budgeted for Veterans Affairs was returned by the department to the federal treasury. A third of the money was sent back between 2011-2013, a period when the government was actively reducing the national deficit. That exercise was a success, leaving a healthy surplus which has now been allocated to income-splitting, among other things.
Cue the outrage, part two. Some of the families of vets who committed suicide may well be asking themselves — what if? What if some of that money had been spent on their loved ones? What if more programs to help combat the ravages of PTSD or other injuries had been available?
Other veterans will probably also have their own what-ifs — not on questions of life and death, but of dignity and respect. In January 2014, the government announced the closure of nine Veterans Affairs offices, replacing them with 650 "points of service" at Service Canada centres. Veterans complained that the face-to-face, specialized offices served them far better than the general Service Canada offices, accessible by a 1-800 number, and protests erupted across the country.
Adding insult to injury, Fantino showed up over an hour late to a meeting with veterans opposed to the closures — and proceeded to get into a verbal brawl with some of them.
The notion of a veterans group engaged in an outright political assault on a Tory government would have been unthinkable just a few years ago — but the accumulated weight of the cuts and the cockups has enraged a constituency that once was Conservative bedrock.
Then there was the Day of Honour for Afghanistan veterans on May 9 in Ottawa. It was a great idea — paying tribute to those who served in Canada's mission there — undermined once again by God-awful government messaging. In the lead-up to the event, the government sent the families of fallen soldiers an invitation that included this callous line: "Should your schedule allow it, your attendance would be at your own expense."
So what should have been a tribute to our soldiers' achievements and courage turned into a sordid dustup over who should pay for plane tickets. The Tories claimed the letter had been sent "in error" and announced the costs would be covered, in part by sponsors such as the True Patriot Love Foundation and Air Canada.
Finally, while this past Remembrance Day was particularly notable for its solemnity, it also saw an escalation of hostilities between many veterans and the Harper government. The Canada Coalition for Veterans plans to actively campaign against the Conservatives in the next election and threatens to protest ribbon-cuttings, ceremonies and the like.
What's remarkable about all this is how quickly the relationship between veterans and the federal government degenerated. The notion of a veterans group engaged in an outright political assault on a Tory government would have been unthinkable just a few years ago — but the accumulated weight of the cuts and the cockups has enraged a constituency that once was Conservative bedrock.
To be fair, the Tories have been on a deficit-cutting bent since 2011 for several reasons — not all of them political. There's an expectation that governments balance the books, and they promised to do so by 2015. The government could not bring in other promised measures, such as income-splitting, until the deficit was gone. And nobody wants to run an election campaign with the balance still in the red. They racked up the deficit in the wake of the financial crisis; failing to balance the books would be a failure of economic stewardship, and would damage the image of sound fiscal management.
Now, however, that same frugality is damaging their image among a key constituency. It's irony of a sort: In pleasing one part of their base with the Family Tax Cut, the Tories have managed to alienate another by pinching pennies in Veterans' Affairs.
Robbing Peter to pay Paul doesn't work if Peter gets wind of it — or if lives are literally on the line.
Tasha Kheiriddin is a political writer and broadcaster who frequently comments in both English and French. In her student days, Tasha was active in youth politics in her hometown of Montreal, eventually serving as national policy director and then president of the Progressive Conservative Youth Federation of Canada. After practising law and a stint in the government of Mike Harris, Tasha became the Ontario director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and co-wrote the 2005 bestseller, Rescuing Canada's Right: Blueprint for a Conservative Revolution. Tasha moved back to Montreal in 2006 and served as vice-president of the Montreal Economic Institute, and later director for Quebec of the Fraser Institute, while also lecturing on conservative politics at McGill University. Tasha now lives in Whitby, Ontario with her daughter Zara, born in 2009.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by all iPolitics columnists and contributors are the author's alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of iPolitics.
To unsubscribe from these announcements, login to the forum and uncheck "Receive forum announcements and important notifications by email." in your profile.
You can view the full announcement by following this link:
The Canadian Veterans Advocacy Team.