Canadian Veterans Advocacy

Sunday, January 4, 2015

New announcement: Liberals hope to escape past, chart new future with military candidates

Liberals hope to escape past, chart new future with military candidates

Lee Berthiaume More from Lee Berthiaume
Published on: January 4, 2015Last Updated: January 4, 2015 6:17 PM EST

Justin Trudeau's Liberals are hoping to capitalize on the cracks that have appeared in the Conservatives' pro-military image, especially when it comes to veterans.

To accomplish that goal, the Liberals will have a number of former and currently serving military members running under their banner, including retired lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie and Lt.-Col. Harjit Sajjan, the first Sikh to command a Canadian Army regiment.

"I would suspect we represent a bit of a threat to Mr. Harper's ground, which he's tried to claim as being supportive of the Canadian Forces and veterans," Leslie said. "Of course, we don't actually have to say or do anything. The Conservatives are digging themselves into all sorts of trouble."

The question is whether the Liberals can escape the party's own checkered past and redefine its relationship with the military to take advantage of what appears to be growing discontent with the Conservatives among many of those who have served in uniform.

The Conservatives' troubles started in January when they triggered a mini-uprising by some former military personnel by closing several Veterans Affairs offices. There was also anger over layoffs and the department returning more than $1 billion to the federal treasury since 2006.

In addition, Auditor General Michael Ferguson released a stinging report on wait times for mental health services in November, while the government was accused of trickery after it was revealed $200 million in new funding for mental health services was to be spread out over 50 years.

Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino's abrasive nature has only made matters worse, as he was captured on camera arguing with veterans in January and then being chased down a hallway by the wife of a veteran suffering from PTSD in June.

In a recent roundtable interview with the Citizen, several Liberal candidates with previous military experience were scathing in their assessment of how the Conservative government has treated veterans.

David MacLeod served 27 years in the Canadian Army until he was medically released in 2010 due to chronic pain in his left leg, which was shot in a training accident in 1991. A former card-carrying Conservative, MacLeod faces the tall task of beating Justice Minister Peter MacKay.

"When I was released, what I found was that there was a great deal of bureaucracy and a great deal of pushback with my application," said MacLeod, who has also worked with several veterans' groups since leaving the military.

He is also on his third case manager. One was burnt out from having too many cases, he says, while another was essentially fired when she refused to transfer to Halifax because the government had shuttered the Veterans Affairs office in Sydney.

"Many veterans are facing the exact same challenges," MacLeod said. "The bureaucratic processes that are part of this are starting to fall apart because of the cuts, and it's the front line cuts that are having the biggest, biggest impact on veterans."

Marc Miller served as an army reservist from 1990 to 1994. Now he is a lawyer running for the Liberals in the newly created Montreal riding of Ville Marie. He said there is an essential bond of trust between veterans and the government, which has been damaged.

"No person serving in the military ever thinks about getting injured," Miller said. "They get in there wanting to serve. But when they are injured, Canadians in turn owe them that duty. When that's broken, it's very difficult to repair."

A former Canadian Army commander who is now running for the Liberals in Orléans, Leslie said there are "lots of voices which are now crying out for some sort of redress to the current veterans situation."

"Why Mr. Harper has chosen to declare war on veterans, against people who have fought for their nation," Leslie said, "and why he refuses to treat veterans with the dignity and the respect and the resources they've earned is beyond me."

The Liberals are hoping to convince Canadians, particularly disaffected veterans, that they are best placed to undo the damage and fulfil that duty. But it may take more than platitudes to convince veterans as well as serving military members to vote Liberal.

You can currently count the number of Liberal MPs with military experience on two fingers.

Marc Garneau served in the navy for 15 years, rising to the rank of captain before his career as an astronaut forced him to leave in 1989. Kevin Lamoureux spent three years in uniform in the 1980s as an air traffic controller until he was elected to Manitoba's Legislative Assembly.

Contrast that with the seven former Canadian Forces members currently serving as Conservative MPs, including retired brigadier-general Gordon O'Connor and retired lieutenant-colonels Laurie Hawn, Pierre Lemieux and Ted Opitz.

Even the NDP boast more veterans in their caucus, with Alex Atamanenko, Christine Moore and Jean-Francois Larose having all spent several years in uniform.

Many current and former Canadian Forces members have vivid memories of the belt-tightening that occurred within the military during the so-called Decade of Darkness in the 1990s, when Jean Chrétien's Liberal government slashed the military to cut spending and balance the books.

In a recent interview, Conservative MP Erin O'Toole said the Liberal government "neglected" the military, and he questioned why anyone who has served in uniform would run for the party.

"All of these people, in one way or another, served during the '90s," he said of the current crop of Liberal candidates with military experience.

"They're going to have to come to terms with the fact that they're joining a party that historically has not considered the Canadian Forces as important to our country and our foreign policy and our domestic security situation as Conservative governments have."

Former lieutenant-colonel Karen McCrimmon, who is running in the Ottawa-area riding of Carleton-Mississippi Mills, said Chrétien had no choice but to cut to protect the economy.

"Our credit rating as a country, it was seriously endangering our future," she said. "Did we make some sacrifices in the '90s? Yes we did. But there was an objective. It was short-term pain for long-term gain."

The Liberal candidates also note it was Pierre Trudeau who started the ball rolling on buying CF-18s and other equipment for the military in the 1970s and '80s, and that Paul Martin injected billions of new dollars into the Canadian Forces when he was prime minister.

They argue that rhetoric aside, the Conservatives' own record is far from flawless, not just when it comes to veterans, but the military as well. For example, billions of dollars in budget cuts and significant problems with a number of military procurements are putting significant pressure on the Canadian Forces.

"There is what we call a 'say-do gap' with this government," McCrimmon said. "Oh, they talk a good story. But what do they actually do? What new equipment is actually showing up there?"

Yet it's not completely clear what the Liberals will do differently when it comes to veterans or the military, aside from reopening the nine Veterans Affairs offices the government closed.

The party has pledged to "ensure that no veteran will have to fight the government for the treatment and compensation they have earned by putting their lives on the line for this country." Exactly how they will do that hasn't been explained.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has also said little about how he will fulfil that pledge or about his plans for the Canadian Forces, aside from saying Canada should have focused on humanitarian aid to Iraq rather than "whipping out our CF-18s."

Leslie, who in addition to running in Orléans is also one of Trudeau's foreign and military advisers, would not comment on what the Liberal leader plans to do. He did note the Liberals plan to scrap the Conservatives' income-splitting plan, which would free up $2 billion per year.

"That is crying out for re-allocation," Leslie said, "especially when the argument … is the current income-splitting plan is essentially being paid for on the backs of veterans and the troops, the sailors and the aircrew."

However, the idea the Liberals would reinvest the money into Veterans Affairs and National Defence rather than some type of voter-friendly social program seems unlikely at best.

Sajjan did one tour in Bosnia and three in Afghanistan, including one in 2006 in which four of his soldiers were killed during two weeks of fierce fighting with the Taliban. He suggested the most important thing is just having input when the tough decisions are being made.

"Soldiers out of the woodworks are calling and sending Facebook messages and saying, 'Way to go. You're experience will be needed,'" Sajjan said. "It's not about the party. It's because they know you'll have a voice, because you've earned that trust in some very difficult situations."

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