Harper lends a hand

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was taught the finer points of food hampers Friday as he was put to work at a Calgary charity that helps military veterans.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper

Prime Minister Stephen Harper

CALGARY — Prime Minister Stephen Harper was taught the finer points of food hampers Friday as he was put to work at a Calgary charity that helps military veterans.

Harper and Environment Minister Jim Prentice met with volunteers at the Calgary Poppy Fund Veteran’s Food Bank, shaking hands and thanking them for their efforts.

The two politicians, who returned to their Calgary homes for the Easter holiday, were given the task of filling special hampers to be given to veterans this weekend.

“He’s very interested in what goes on with the poppy fund and what’s going on with our veterans too,” said George Bittman, chairman of the fund, and a navy veteran.

“We provide assistance for the veterans and their dependants who are in need. These are mostly Second World War or Korean War-vintage, post-war guys like myself and some of the returning Afghan vets too.”

Harper declined to comment on the veteran’s food bank or speak with reporters during the photo opportunity.

The Calgary Poppy Fund helps needy veterans, their spouses and dependents with medical, shelter, food and dental care. It also reminds people of the sacrifices that veterans have made.

Bittman said the veterans have earned the right to stay in their homes. He said the organization does what it can for those who have been having problems since returning from the war in Afghanistan.

“Veterans Affairs needs to do their paperwork to get things going. Governments take a little bit of time while we can do things in 10 minutes. We can look after them,” he said.

“Sometimes we’re not equipped to deal with these fellows that have the PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). We’re not trained in that area but we can help them with food, rent, clothing, furniture for an apartment — whatever is necessary to get them on their feet and keep them comfortable.”

Since 2001, 141 Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan. An unspecified number have been wounded or injured.

The veteran’s food bank is unique and has been growing because of high demand, Bittman said. He said the Calgary Poppy Fund helps about 1,000 veterans a year.

Harper’s visit coincided with an announcement that Ottawa will spend $850,000 to help improve the food safety system at food banks across the country. Some of the money will be used to train volunteers to follow food safety practices.

“When volunteers sign up to help out at a food bank, they need the right training and equipment,” Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said in a release.