‘Both are burnt to me’: Veterans struggle with parties after broken promises

Members of the Canadian Armed Forces march during the Calgary Stampede parade in Calgary, Friday, July 8, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Jay Jorgensen is unequivocal about much he trusts the Liberals and Conservatives to help disabled veterans like him.

“Zero,” says the retired sergeant, who served 17 years in uniform before leaving the military in 2013 because of a back injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. “Both are burnt to me.”

It’s a popular sentiment in parts of Canada’s veteran community — veterans themselves, their spouses and families and people who provide them services — and a reality both parties face as they seek to court a segment of the population that feels betrayed by successive governments over the past decade.

Canada’s veterans’ community is far from united, but it is large, with roughly 700,000 Canadians having served in uniform.

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“This number of potential voters is not without significance,” Brian Forbes, chair of the National Council of Veterans Associations, wrote recently, “particularly in an election year which will, in all probability, result in a minority government.”

Both the Conservatives and Liberals have made countless promises to Canada’s veterans over the years, with Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer the latest to commit to making life better for those suffering from service-related wounds and illnesses.

Yet while some are ready to look past their treatment by the previous Conservative government under Stephen Harper and accept Scheer’s promises on faith after what they describe as Justin Trudeau’s lies, others like Jorgensen are fed up and at a loss over whom to believe.

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“When you say something, that means to me that you will do it,” Jorgensen says from his home north of Saskatoon. “None of these parties have demonstrated that in the past, so I can’t believe they will do it in the future either.”

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The root of the distrust can be traced back to 2005, when Paul Martin’s Liberal government did away with lifelong disability pensions, the backbone of Canada’s support for those injured in uniform for nearly a century.

The New Veterans’ Charter was approved in the House of Commons with all-party support before Stephen Harper’s Conservatives came to power in 2006 and implemented it even as the war in Afghanistan was heating up.

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Instead of pensions, veterans would receive lump-sum payments for injuries, plus rehabilitation programs and income-replacement support for those having difficulty finding work. The goal was to better help veterans adjust to civilian life after leaving the Forces.

Since then, the charter has undergone numerous changes  — none of which have satisfied veterans who complain it provides far less financial support and want the old pensions re-instated.

That demand manifested itself in the high-profile Equitas lawsuit filed in 2012 by six disabled Afghan war veterans, whom many former service members saw as champions for the cause of fairness for all ex-military personnel.

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The Harper government also closed several Veterans Affairs Canada offices and slashed hundreds of department jobs — including frontline staff working directly with veterans — to balance the federal budget.

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If there was one moment that captured how bad the relationship between Harper’s Conservatives and veterans got, it was when then-veterans affairs minister Julian Fantino in May 2014 ran from the wife of a veteran struggling with PTSD who wanted more support for families.

Fantino was later replaced by Erin O’Toole, a former air-force officer who was starting to fix the Tories’ relationship with veterans when Justin Trudeau took the stage during an election-campaign event in Belleville, Ont., on Aug. 24, 2015 and made his pitch.

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There, a few kilometres from CFB Trenton, Trudeau made his pitch.

“If I earn the right to serve this country as your prime minister, no veteran will be forced to fight their own government for the support and compensation that they have earned,” Trudeau said in apparent reference to the Equitas lawsuit.

“We will re-instate lifelong pensions and increase their value in line with the obligation we have made to those injured in the line of duty.”

It was exactly what many veterans had been waiting to hear. Four years later, however, faith in the Liberals has all but disappeared.

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The Liberals re-opened the closed Veterans Affairs offices, increased some services and benefits for veterans and hired hundreds of staff at Veterans Affairs Canada. But the backlog of veterans waiting to hear whether they qualify for assistance has grown to nearly 40,000 as hiring and the department’s budget have failed to keep up with demand.

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And not only did the Liberals continue to fight the Equitas lawsuit, which the Supreme Court tossed last year, they also failed to bring back the previous disability pensions and instead introduced their own version.

This past February, the parliamentary budget office reported disabled veterans would have received on average 1 1/2 times more over their lifetimes under the pre-2006 pension than through the Liberals’ so-called Pension for Life.

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The Liberals’ plan was also expected to cost billions less than what the government would have paid under the old pension system, the budget office found, leading to fresh allegations the government was trying to support veterans on the cheap.

And while the PBO found many veterans will see small increases in financial compensation versus the 2005 charter, it also reported that some of the most severely disabled would actually receive less.

In January 2018, one month after the Liberals unveiled the Pension for Life, Trudeau was confronted during a townhall meeting in Edmonton by Brock Blaszczyk, who lost a leg in Afghanistan. Blaszczyk wanted to know: Why was the government still fighting the Equitas lawsuit?

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“Why are we still fighting against certain veterans’ groups in court?” Trudeau responded. “Because they’re asking for more than we are able to give right now.”

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The comment still elicits outrage.

Now Scheer is the first to appeal to veterans to trust him. During a campaign event in Prince Edward Island last weekend, the Conservative leader attacked Trudeau’s record before laying out his own plan to help veterans.

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Those include clearing the backlog of applications for assistance, introducing legislation enshrining in law a “military covenant” between the government and veterans, and creating a “reliable, dependable pension system” that is “fair to Canada’s most disabled veterans.”

The Liberals have yet to say what they will do for veterans. The NDP and the Greens have talked about a review of the current suite of benefits; the Greens say they will “restore periodic payments” at pre-2006 levels.

Retired major Mark Campbell was one of the plaintiffs in the Equitas case. While he is critical of the Harper government’s treatment of vets, he is willing to give Scheer a chance.

“Looking forward right now, as I see it, we have a set of promises from the Conservatives that look actually quite good at first blush and we have a deafening silence from the Liberals.”

Others such as retired master corporal Paul Franklin, who made headlines for having to prove to Veterans Affairs each year that he had lost both legs in Afghanistan, remain more circumspect.

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“We don’t trust these guys,” Franklin said. “It almost comes down to a point where we either have to vote local or vote on other reasons and sadly forget our own reasons to vote as a group or make the individual choice if you wish to trust the leadership.”

Back at his home near Saskatoon, Jorgensen already knows what he is going to do: “I will be striking my ballot,” he says. “I will be striking my ballot.”

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