Above: Conservative MP and military veteran Erin O’Toole tells Tom Clark Veterans Affairs needs to better communicate what it does.
OTTAWA — The problem with beleaguered Veterans Affairs, if there is one, is that the department is in transition — adapting to a different raison d’être — and hasn’t communicated that properly, said Conservative MP and military veteran Erin O’Toole.
News of many veterans not getting the help they need and of others ending their own lives has circulated for months, however. The state of affairs at the department tasked with providing services to all veterans — and ensuring those with physical and psychological scars are taken care of — is such that the NDP and Liberals have called for Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino’s resignation.
For two weeks, The West Block with Tom Clark requested an interview with the minister, to no avail.
“Veterans Affairs has been going through a transformative change,” O’Toole said to host Tom Clark. “Thirty years ago, and even when I was in the military, Veterans Affairs was mainly about commemoration.”
That was at least partly on account of the fact Canada hadn’t been in a combat mission for some time, meaning Second World War veterans were the only major group of veterans the department had to deal with, O’Toole said.
Last month, however, federal Auditor General Michael Ferguson issued a damning report that confirmed the federal government is failing the nation’s veterans.
The report criticized the department for taking too long to help, putting veterans’ chances for recovery at risk.
Despite the criticism and calls for resignation, Fantino has maintained the department is working for veterans, even recently announcing an investment in mental health benefits and access to services for ill and injured soldiers.
That announcement, made just days before Ferguson released his report, was quickly under the microscope, observers criticizing it for the amount of time the government would take to spend the funds.
The Conservatives earned similar criticism a few years back when they announced $2 billion in improvements to their new veterans charter without saying it would be portioned out over several decades.
Only a ‘fool’ would recommend joining military
For Maj. (Ret’d) Mark Campbell, his experience with Veterans Affairs has been so dreadful, he would never consider advising anyone, especially his family, to join the forces.
“Any Canadian would be a fool to counsel their children to join the Canadian Froces while this persists,” said the veteran who lost both legs in Afghanistan.
“I wanted to serve my country and do all those patriotic type things,” he said in a phone interview, explaining his motivation for joining the military. “I did so under the mistaken belief that if I had to sacrifice in the service of the country that the country would have my back.”
Campbell described his experience with the government as nothing less than “a slap in the face.”
Responding to O’Toole’s suggestion that communication lies at the heart of Veterans Affairs’ issues, Campbell said he agreed, hand down — but the two have different ideas of where the breakdown lies.
Whereas the Conservative MP said perhaps not all veterans are aware of the services available to them, Campbell said communications are collapsing on a much more fundamental level.
“It doesn’t help when veterans case managers don’t tell them about the benefits they are eligible for,” he said. “Communication is the problem is right, starting with telling me what I’m entitled to and ensuring the paperwork is filled out to make sure I get it.”
Instead of spending more on advertising, Campbell said, the government should spend funds to hire more case workers.
Veterans Affairs lapsing funds
More recently, the revelation that $1.13 billion in budgeted funds went unspent at Veterans Affairs over nearly eight years has been dogging the government for weeks.
The Conservatives say they’ve poured an extra $5 billion – over and above what the Liberals were planning to spend – into veterans programs, but don’t point out that some of that cash ended up as “lapsed funding” that went back to the federal treasury.
“We weren’t meeting some of our estimated spending and then there was a lapse in some of it,” O’Toole said. “We’ve provided re-training and re-education money for new veterans, that’s north of $10,000 per veteran. But if they’re not drawing it when they leave the military, that estimate is not taken up.”
With files from The Canadian Press