OTTAWA — A group of ex-soldiers, some from the Second World War, was rebuffed Tuesday by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who played down the impact of impending Veterans Affairs regional office closures.
The centres — in Kelowna, B.C., Saskatoon, Brandon, Man., Thunder Bay, Ont., Windsor, Ont., Sydney, N.S., Charlottetown and Corner Brook, N.L. — are slated to shut down Friday as part of a move to more online and remote services. A ninth office has already closed in Prince George, B.C.
Seven veterans, including Roy Lamore whose service dates back to the 1940s, says he and others feel betrayed by a government that promised to take care of them and younger soldiers.
“These closures will put veterans at risk,” Lamore, a resident of Thunder Bay, told a Parliament Hill news conference. “I hope the government is listening. Why do we, as veterans, have to beg?”
But later during question period in the House of Commons, the prime minister brushed aside the criticism and noted that veterans can still get everything they need from the less specialized 584 Service Canada offices coast-to-coast.
With the declining veterans population, Harper suggested, the Second War World-era structure had out lived its purpose.
“There are a small number of service centres that are being closed that frankly service very few people, had very few visits,” Harper told the House of Commons.
“That’s being replaced with 600 service centres across the country, and in an increased number of cases employees will actually go and meet veterans instead of the other way around.”
Harper also pointed to increased investments the Conservatives have made under the New Veterans Charter.
NDP Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair linked the imminent cuts to the increasing number of soldiers and ex-soldiers who’ve taken their lives since the fall.
“When our forces are facing a crisis of eight military suicides in two months, there’s never been a more important time to maintain those services,” Mulcair said.
Former corporal Bruce Moncur, who was wounded in Afghanistan in 2006, says the online system has increased frustration even among his Internet-savvy friends seeking benefits and treatment.
Filling out forms and navigating the department’s bureaucratic maze has taken him up to a week, he said, when just one office visit would have sorted it out in a morning.
Moncur, who suffered a shrapnel wound to the head, says he believes it’s a deliberate strategy to reduce use of services.
“When you keep getting the door slammed in your face, you just end up giving up,” he said. “It’s the no-go policy. If you’re told No enough times, you’ll go away.”
The Public Service Alliance of Canada, which represents Veterans Affairs staff, has been running a high-profile campaign against the closures. One of the frontline workers, Michelle Bradley, said she feels defeated and ashamed because veterans will no longer get the personal service they deserve.
The union says the specialized knowledge of veterans staff cannot be replicated at Service Canada centres, where the public applies for employment insurance and even social insurance numbers.
The inability to access services, particularly mental health, could have dire consequences, other veterans warned.
One ex-soldier at the news conference soberly recounted the struggle of a comrade, who took his own life years after being wounded in Cyprus.
The Harper government plans a series of commemorations this year to mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in France, as well as the centennial of the start of the First World War.
“It’s really convenient to show yourself in such a commemorative way, except services are required,” said Moncur. “I think the money would be better spent to help veterans that need the help.”
The delegation of veterans will get an opportunity to voice their concern to the minister, Julian Fantino, at a meeting expected late Tuesday.