Veterans across Canada hold protests over planned budget cuts, benefits

Veterans’ advocates said Saturday they achieved their goal despite modest turnouts at some demonstrations to protest proposed cuts to the budget of Veterans Affairs Canada.

OTTAWA — Veterans’ advocates said Saturday they achieved their goal despite modest turnouts at some demonstrations to protest proposed cuts to the budget of Veterans Affairs Canada.

Dozens of protesters, most of them veterans, gathered on Parliament Hill on Saturday afternoon to call attention to what they call the government’s lack of compassion for those who have fought for their country.

A rally in Halifax drew some 30 protesters and onlookers to city hall despite the frigid fall weather.

A similar demonstration was held outside the department’s headquarters in Charlottetown on Friday.

“People on the Hill have come up and said, ’I never knew,’ and that’s the object,” organizer Mike Blais of the group Canadian Veterans Advocacy said from Ottawa.

“The object is to draw attention to the situation and I think … we’ve certainly accomplished our goal today,” he said Saturday afternoon.

The next step will come during next week’s Remembrance Day celebrations, said Blais, who hopes Canadians will use the occasion to rally behind living veterans as well as honour the fallen.

In Halifax, a small crowd gathered in the shadow of the city’s main cenotaph at city hall, sharing the public square known as the Grand Parade with dozens of Occupy Nova Scotia activists.

John Labelle, a 72-year-old veteran who served 38 years in the Canadian navy, told the crowd the federal government’s treatment of veterans has been shameful.

“The government of Canada is not being very fair with veterans,” he said afterward.

“It’s been misleading on many issues and it needs to be more up front and support veterans and their families. I’d like to tell the prime minister of Canada to treat our veterans as national heroes and also their families … and to allow democracy to reign in the House of Commons.”

As a stiff breeze swept through the square and ice pellets bounced off the protesters, a pair of Occupy Nova Scotia demonstrators held a large, black banner with one word on it: Respect.

Saturday’s protests come despite the Harper government’s recent changes to the New Veterans Charter, which pumps more money into the care and benefits of the most seriously wounded from the Afghan war.

Gary Zwicker, one of the organizers of the veterans protest, said veterans are still opposed to the amended charter.

“They’re ignoring us,” said Zwicker, who served 19 years in the military before he was medically discharged in 2001 with post traumatic stress disorder.

“Some of these veterans here are losing their homes because they accepted a pension, which is just ridiculous.”

Blais said long-planned budget cuts and further reductions associated with Ottawa’s deficit-slashing program review will have a substantial impact and have the potential to erase any positive effect the changes could have.

“There’s the potential for up to half billion dollars to be carved out of the Veterans Affairs budget. That’s completely unacceptable,” Blais said in an earlier interview.

Because of dwindling population of Second World War and Korean War soldiers, veterans bureaucrats estimate there will be fewer takers for the department’s programs. They plan to reduce the department’s budget by $226 million starting next year.

The Harper government’s program review, which mandates each department to slash its budget between five and 10 per cent, could take up to $300 million more out of the $3.5 billion veterans budget, according to Blais.

Senior bureaucrats, testifying last month before a House of Commons committee, insisted the cuts will not affect services or benefits. They said the 500 jobs losses associated with the changes will be mitigated by better use of technology, such as the Internet.

But Blais said the department should be exempt from the war on the deficit.

Beyond the budget cuts, Blais says there is a sense of abandonment and that the recently revised New Veterans Charter relieves the federal government of its life-time obligation to those who’ve served.

The new charter, which came into force in 2006, replaced dedicated pensions with a mixture of lump sum disability awards and customized rehabilitation services. That aspect has drawn repeated criticism from the veterans community.

A study by the veterans ombudsman’s office last year showed that the lowest-paid, most seriously wounded soldiers were the ones who suffered under the new system.

Yet, when it rewrote portions of the charter, the Harper government made only cursory changes to the contentious lump sum system, allowing veterans the option of taking the settlement all at once — or over time.

The previous system of tax-free, life-time pensions was deemed too costly by the veterans bureaucracy in a 2004 review, which eventually led to the charter.

The future obligation to taxpayers of an unrevised system was pegged at $7.2 billion in 2004 dollars.

“This indicates that the growth of liability has been significant and will continue to increase, given the ever-increasing volume of pension claims from peacetime clients, in combination with the relatively young age of the clients at the time of the pension award,” said a Veterans Affairs backgrounder posted online.

“A shift to greater use of lump-sum payments with customized rehabilitation services would serve, over time, to regain control of an alarming future liability scenario.”

Blais said the government has made much of the fact that it plans to pump $2 billion into improved benefits, but what’s left unsaid is that the money is spread out over two generations and that the benefits are taxable, unlike the past.

“Look at this, the $2 billion over 50 years,” he said. “It’s fully taxed, you know. And when you do the math, what does that work out to? Not very much.”

With files from Murray Brewster, Paola Loriggio in Toronto and Michael MacDonald in Halifax

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