“It’s pretty tough for some of the older vets to get on a computer or to understand stuff or get on the phone, so we were worried. But having a person with Service Canada more or less dedicated for this, that will hopefully be a really good measure so that our guys have a face-to-face contact. I hope that this will be fairly seamless.”
— ANAVETS Brandon Unit 10 president Al Dunham, July 2012
When it comes to appeasing aging military veterans in Brandon-Souris, recently sworn-in Conservative MP Larry Maguire has had his work cut out for him.
In 2012, the Harper government announced it intended to close the Veterans Affairs office in Brandon, along with eight others across the country.
The move was essentially a cost-saving measure for the federal government, which was looking for ways to trim department spending across the board, in a bid to balance the budget. And Veterans Affairs Canada was hit hard, as its budget was to be cut by $66.7 million a year by 2014-15.
As Maguire pointed out in a recent letter, between the Veterans Affairs offices in Brandon and Shilo, there are only about 70 open veterans case files. And, when it was in operation, Brandon’s former standalone office generally received fewer than 10 visits per day, with the majority there to drop off forms. It’s not difficult to see why Veterans Affairs believed that a single dedicated Veterans Affairs case worker at a Service Canada desk could handle the caseload.
But the rollout of this news was very poorly explained, it seems, to aging veterans who believed their country was leaving them in the lurch, without any consultation. Details about how services would be offered through Service Canada were scant following former Conservative MP Merv Tweed’s announcement in July 2012 that the Brandon office was slated for closure.
As a result, that “seamless” transition Dunham had hoped for became far more difficult than it ever needed to be. Even seven months later, Tweed was unable to confirm specific closing dates, and word was that Brandon’s two Veterans Affairs case managers were expected to get cut.
Tweed justified the potential layoffs by saying the number of inquiries online had increased significantly, and he was optimistic that service to local veterans would improve through Service Canada, which would assume some of the role of the displaced case managers.
And then, a few months later, Mr. Tweed resigned, and Brandon-Souris was essentially left without an elected official to funnel information to local constituents for several months. And in that vacuum of information, at least a few veterans became angrier.
But that’s only part of an explanation. War vets in other parts of the country were also looking for answers, and by the time Maguire was elected, there was enough pent-up anger over the situation that a group of vets — including local Brandon vet Martin Haller — decided to take their concerns to Ottawa and Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino.
The meeting, held last month, was a public relations disaster for Fantino and the Conservative government, as the minister’s late arrival to the meeting — by 70 minutes — prompted a heated exchange that ended up on TV screens across the country, sending the Tories into damage control.
Part of that damage control took place on Sunday afternoon, when Maguire and Edmonton Centre Conservative MP Laurie Hawn, a member of Parliament’s Veterans Affairs committee, met with more than 40 people during a roundtable discussion to talk veterans issues, including concerns over the federal government’s New Veterans Charter.
As we reported yesterday, issues ran the gamut from pensions to post-traumatic stress disorder to hard drugs on Canadian Forces bases, but the recent office closures and program access dominated the two-hour meeting.
Maguire deserves some recognition for holding Sunday’s meeting, and for trying to set the record straight through his letters to the editor. He recently wrote that “a full-time dedicated, experienced and specialized Veterans Affairs case worker has been moved down the hall to our local Service Canada office in the Federal Government Services Building. Our local team of Service Canada employees are also being trained to provide veterans-related services.”
And to be fair, perhaps it’s true that Afghanistan veterans may be less concerned about the recent changes, as they are likely more social-media-tech savvy than older vets.
But this situation was handled exceptionally poorly by Veterans Affairs and the current minister, and as a result the trust between veterans and the federal government in communities like Brandon is in tatters.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition February 25, 2014