OTTAWA — The Harper government delivered a full-throttle defence of its planned closure of eight veterans affairs offices and the siege-laden military mental health system, blaming anti-Tory government unions and a reluctance of soldiers to step forward to seek treatment.
Julian Fantino, the embattled veterans affairs minister who came under pressure to resign this week following a testy meeting with former soldiers, said he had no plans to step down and that the closures would proceed.
“I’m not leaving,” Fantino said during a special House of Commons debate focused on the escalating chorus of complaints from Canadian veterans across the country.
The minister also implored those suffering with mental illness to reach out for help.
“We have to overcome the stigma that is still too often associated with mental illness. We have to do everything to encourage men and women in crisis to seek the care they need,” he said.
“We have to reach out in every way to those are suffering in silence and we have to demonstrate to veterans and still serving members in the Canadian Armed Forces that true courage is admitting you need help.”
Long-time Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant, whose Ontario riding includes Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, put an even finer point on the government’s message.
The widely held belief among soldiers that admitting to post-traumatic stress can jeopardize their careers is little more than a figment of their imaginations, she told the House.
Any treatment they received at the military’s new operation stress injury clinics is considered “completely confidential,” Gallant said.
“The chain of command does not have access to their medical records. And the stigma that has to be overcome is a stigma within themselves.”
Gallant’s remarks stand in contrast to a 2012 report by the military ombudsman, which showed that while senior officers had grown more tolerant, a negative attitude towards mental illness remains ingrained in military culture.
“The investigation was made aware of instances in recent years of members being denigrated or openly ostracized as a result of mental health injuries,” Pierre Daigle wrote.
“Incidents like this are probably still occurring. Additionally, well-worn notions like the walk of shame appear to persist in some quarters, though these seem increasingly isolated.”
Thursday’s debate, prompted by an NDP motion, bundled together increasing concern about a series of military suicides and National Defence’s chronic inability to fill out its ranks of psychiatrists and social workers with the impending closure Friday of regional Veterans Affairs offices. A vote on the motion is scheduled to take place Monday.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said it’s not a good idea to be shutting down services to veterans when at least eight soldiers have taken their own lives in last few months — a remark that drew a rebuke from Fantino during question period.
“We are deeply saddened by the suicides, but I think it’s patently unfair to connect those unfortunate circumstances to the office closures,” he said.