Ex-soldiers protest Veterans Affairs office closures on Friday

Veterans say closing regional Veterans Affairs offices is a slap in the face to the men and women who put their lives on the line for their country. Robin Gill has the story.

TORONTO – Hundreds of veterans and their supporters are rallying across the country on Friday, protesting the closures of eight regional Veterans Affairs offices.

Offices are slated to shut down in Kelowna, B.C.; Saskatoon, Sask.; Brandon, Man.; Thunder Bay and Windsor, Ont.; Sydney, N.S.; Charlottetown, PEI; and Corner Brook, N.L. A ninth office has already closed in Prince George, B.C.

The office closures, which provide support services to veterans across Canada, are part of a move by Veterans Affairs to move more services online and to Service Canada outlets.

Hundreds of people gathered outside the Sydney office to protest the closures, holding signs reading “Harper, Fantino – fight the next war yourselves,” and chanting “shame.”

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Protesters across the country are wearing black armbands and ribbons, which they say signify the loss of services to the veterans in those communities. Many are calling it a betrayal to the men and women – young and old – who served their country.

READ MORE: Veterans protesting office closures share their stories

Watch the video above: Veterans protest closing of Windsor office

“I feel abandoned, let down,” said veteran Ernie MacKinnon, who joined the military in 1978. After returning from a tour in Afghanistan in 2002, MacKinnon was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attributed to his tour in Bosnia in 1996.

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After his diagnosis, MacKinnon said he was given four months sick leave and eventually given a medical discharge. “I was put to the sidewalk as I call it. I had no services, no benefits, no councillors, nowhere to go,” he said.

“The government of Stephen Harper feels that we’re all just going to go away and eventually die,” said MacKinnon.

Veterans and their supporters gathered in Windsor, Ont., on Friday Jan. 31, 2014 to protest the closure of eight regional Veterans Affairs offices. Jennifer Tryon, Global News

“The veterans deserve better treatment. This is what they want, they deserve a dedicated service,” said veteran Russell Davis in Sydney on Friday. Many feel veterans will not receive proper support through the Service Canada outlets.

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Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino said on Thursday his department is constantly looking for ways to improve service to military members and veterans. “All veterans requiring personal support will continue to be visited by their case managers at their home, and as well we have some 650 service points for veterans in Service Canada offices throughout the land,” he said.

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WATCH: Veteran Bill Dubinski slams Stephen Harper and Julian Fantino for their handling of veterans in Canada

The doors of the Sydney office will close for good at 4:30 p.m. Retired Sergeant Ronald Clarke, a 36-year veteran, told the crowd that he wouldn’t give up the fight.

Clarke said people across the country are upset with the government’s decision to close the offices, adding that he would travel the country to convince voters in the 2015 federal election to vote anything but Conservative.

“I am not threatening you or your colleagues,” said Clarke – a comment directed toward Prime Minister Stephen Harper – “I’m making you a promise.”

On Tuesday, a group of veterans, including Clarke, were in Ottawa pleading with the Conservative government to halt the closures.

READ MORE: Ex-soldiers protest impending veterans affairs office closures

“It makes no sense to take these services away from men and women who have sacrificed so much for this country,” said Roy Lamore, whose service dates back to the 1940s.

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“This isn’t just about old veterans,” he said during an emotional press conference. “This is about young guys too.”

There are still around 118,000 veterans from the Second World War and Korean War in Canada – many of them at an advanced age and lacking computer and Internet skills.

Former corporal Bruce Moncur, who was wounded in Afghanistan in 2006, said the online system can be frustrating even among his Internet-savvy friends seeking benefits and treatment.

Later on Tuesday, Fantino arrived late for a meeting with the seven veterans; when he did show up, the exchanges between the minister and some of the veterans became heated.

The situation has the Conservatives running damage control as many – including the ex-soldiers – called Fantino’s behaviour “shameful” and “disrespectful.” 

“To go to a meeting where the individual didn’t show, then ended up bringing three veteran politicians to argue against the rest of us – that’s a damn disgrace,” said Lamore.

Fantino later apologized for the way the meeting was handled.

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“I absolutely regret yesterday’s events,” said Fantino in the House of Commons on Wednesday.

“I wanted to meet with them to hear their case and their stories and explain to them the changes that we’re making that will in fact look out for the interests and their families in the long-term,” said Fantino over a chorus of boos from the opposition.

Many, including both opposition parties, have called for Fantino’s resignation.

Harper defended Fantino, saying that the minister and the government have increased services for veterans.

“This is an important priority for our government…to protect those who wear the uniform and once wore the uniform,” said Harper.

Members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) say that because of the closures, veterans in Thunder Bay will now have to travel over 10 hours to get to the closest office; those in the Windsor area will have to travel over two hours to London.

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Harper said that the move of veterans support services from Veterans Affairs offices to Service Canada outlets means an increase in points of service for ex-soldiers.

“Does the prime minister realize that from Corner Brook – one of the offices being closed – to St. John’s it’s an eight hour drive, in good weather?” NDP leader Thomas Mulcair asked in Question Period on Thursday. “That it’s not true that there will be home visits for all of these veterans? And that it is grossly unacceptable to be shutting down services to our veterans when we’ve lost eight of them to suicides in the last two months,” said Mulcair.

Fantino responded that it is unfair to connect the recent apparent suicides within the military with the closures of the Veterans Affairs offices, adding that veterans would be able to access local service centres where “veterans issues would be dealt with at that point.”

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With files from Global News’ Natasha Pace and The Canadian Press

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