ABOVE: NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair asks Prime Minister Stephen Harper “what will it take” before he finally agrees to fire Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino
OTTAWA – An opposition motion calling on the Conservative government to keep Veterans Affairs district offices open failed, as expected, in the House of Commons on Monday.
Split down party lines, 117 NDP, Liberal and Green MPs voted in favour of the motion, which would reverse the government’s decision to close eight regional offices – 146 Conservative MPs voted “no.”
The motion follows protests across Canada last Friday outside Veterans Affairs offices, and draws on public concern over a recent rash of military suicides.
The offices that shuttered their doors on Friday are 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 had already closed in Prince George, B.C.
The move will see support services for veterans moved online and to Service Canada outlets across the country.
The Conservatives say the move will increase points of service for veterans.
“When we have a small number of duplicated veterans offices that have a very small case load, it makes a lot more sense – I know the unions do not like it – to have 600 points of service for veterans,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said last week.
The 600 “points of service” for veterans the Conservatives are referring to are the Service Canada locations plus the remaining Veterans Affairs offices, operational stress injury clinics and integrated personnel support centres. Of those, the 584 Service Canada outlets account for most of the 652 points of service.
But veterans advocates say the move will make it harder for veterans and their supporters to get the help they need.
They argue that Service Canada staff lack the training to deal with veterans’ cases.
The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) said staff at each of the closed offices cannot be replaced by putting a single Veterans Affairs client-service agent.
“Service Canada workers have received very limited training about Veterans Affairs services and programs, so can only answer general questions and supply and receive forms,” the union said in a statement.
The decision to close the offices has angered many, including veterans and politicians.
Veterans advocate Barry Westholm was so outraged by MP Cheryl Gallant’s comments during last week’s debate on the issue that he gave up his membership in the Conservative party.
Westholm, a former sergeant major, said he was dismayed when he heard Gallant say that ex-soldiers with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have to overcome the “stigma within themselves” and seek treatment.
Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino faced numerous calls for his resignation last week, including harsh words from NDP leader Thomas Mulcair to Harper last week to “fire that incompetent.”
Fantino recently indicated that a public-sector union was behind the effort to keep the Veterans Affairs offices open.
“They (union officials) have spread so much misinformation and out-and-out false information that clearly has agitated the veterans community,” Fantino told Toronto radio station Newstalk 1010 on Sunday.
Fantino told the radio station that the anger and frustration is a result of one-upmanship, calling it politics plain and simple.
But it is not only politicians that have been angered by the recent events surrounding Fantino and the office closures.
Retired Sergeant Ronald Clarke, a 36-year veteran and self-proclaimed “true blue” Conservative, said last week that if the government didn’t reverse their decision to close the offices, he would take his fight all the way to the 2015 federal election, promising to travel the country to convince Canadians to vote “anything but Conservative.”
“I am not threatening you or your colleagues,” said Clarke – a comment directed toward Harper – “I’m making you a promise.”
Clarke was one of seven veterans who travelled to Ottawa plead their case and meet with Fantino.
The meeting was disastrous.
Fantino was over an hour late for the meeting and left abruptly when one of the veterans described his explanations as “hogwash.” Through tears following the meeting, the veterans said Fantino’s behaviour was “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 Roy Lamore, whose service dates back to the 1940s.
With files from the Canadian Press