Published April 21, 2015 - 8:00pm
Last Updated April 21, 2015 - 8:11pm
When someone who's treated you badly starts being nice to you, it's human nature to wonder what they want.
But the federal Conservative government's more conciliatory approach on veterans' issues in 2015 is probably, in the eyes of many Canadian military vets, not all that great a mystery.
There's a federal election later this year.
And the Tories, in power since 2006, have found themselves uncomfortably running neck and neck with the Liberals in the polls for quite some time.
Of course, it could be simply a coincidence that, with an October vote looming, Prime Minister Stephen Harper decided in January to replace toxic former minister of Veterans Affairs Julian Fantino with personable Erin O'Toole, a former navigator with Canada's long-serving military Sea King helicopter fleet.
Likewise, the fact the new Veterans Affairs minister has been busy announcing improvements to services and benefits in recent months could have nothing to do with an upcoming election.
Your senses would have to be AWOL to believe that.
Veterans' groups seem pleased the new minister appears more willing to listen to their concerns than Fantino ever did. But I'm guessing that won't soon erase memories of the pitched battles vets have fought for years with this government and its minions.
Let's look back over just the last three years.
In 2012, an advocate for homeless vets, saying Veterans Affairs had "an insurance company mentality," accused them of denying troubled vets followup assistance for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A Federal Court judge blasted Ottawa for trying to try to claw back disability payments from pensions paid to disabled Canadian Forces veterans. Meanwhile, veterans ombudsman Guy Parent released a scathing report on departmental decisions on veterans' benefits, finding most were being overturned on appeal, despite an appeal process rife with procedural unfairness.
In 2013, protests greeted Veterans Affairs' plan to close nine regional offices, including one in Sydney, the following year. Parent released another report, this one showing that hundreds of seriously injured vets faced being impoverished at age 65 due to a lack of financial support available under the 2006 Veterans Charter. And Ottawa fought efforts to launch a class-action suit on behalf of Canada's Afghanistan vets that claimed the veterans charter was contravening their Charter rights.
Last year, despite large protests, the government closed the regional offices in early February. That was days after Fantino callously stood up a group of veterans who had travelled to Ottawa to meet him and pleaded the closures be stopped. The minister appeared long enough only to argue with the group and chide one man for shaking his finger in anger. Military ombudsman Pierre Daigle told a Senate committee the military was encouraging members to seek treatment for PTSD and mental health concerns, then dismissing many as unfit for deployment. Not surprisingly, many who needed help avoided asking, worried they'd not qualify for a military pension.
Meanwhile, government lawyers fighting the class action over the veterans charter actually argued there was no social contract between government and those who served our nation. Fantino eventually walked that unbelievable assertion back.
In November came news the Harper government had failed to spend $1.13 billion of the Veterans Affairs budget since 2006, a third of that total apparently instead going toward the deficit. At the same time, the federal auditor general reported Veterans Affairs wasn't meeting its legislated responsibility to ensure vets have timely access to needed care.
Then, last week, came more damning news. The Globe and Mail reported that while the Tories had cut more than 900 jobs from Veterans Affairs since 2009 — 23 per cent of the workforce — every year senior departmental staff warned, in ever stronger language, the cuts endangered their ability to meet the needs of veterans.
Despite this, O'Toole, who last week said the department would hire at least 200 new staff to work on disability claims and support services, claimed the new hires in no way were an admission previous cuts had gone too far.
Well, no. That would be like admitting recent announcements of better services and benefits for vets are an acknowledgement the Tories are worried their adversarial relationship with vets over the years might come back to haunt them this October.
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The Canadian Veterans Advocacy Team.