Ongoing issues at Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC), including long waits for disability benefits, are sending the message that the federal government doesn’t care about veterans, advocates say — adding it’s time for the minister in charge to resign.
Speaking to Mercedes Stephenson on The West Block Sunday, the advocates — along with former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole who served as veterans affairs minister under Stephen Harper — said they’ve heard from veterans who have grown increasingly disheartened.
“A lot of them have expressed that they don’t feel valued, they don’t feel important,” said Debbie Lowther, the co-founder and CEO of VETS Canada, a charity that helps veterans in crisis.
“These are men and women who put their lives on the line for our country, so I think we owe them a lot more than what we’re providing.”
Bruce Moncur, the founder of the Afghanistan Veterans Association, was even more blunt.
“The current government has failed to understand the problems or even frankly care, and the ‘triple-D policy’ — delay, deny, die — is alive and well,” he said.
An update from the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman released on Tuesday found veterans are waiting an average of 43 weeks for disability claim decisions, far above the 16-week standard set by VAC.
The Trudeau government has repeatedly promised to meet that standard and reduce the backlog in files for case managers, who veterans and advocates say are overwhelmed.
The union representing those case managers and hundreds of other VAC employees is now calling for Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay to resign or be fired, accusing him of repeatedly refusing to meet with members to discuss their concerns.
Those include a $570-million contract the department recently awarded to an outside company to provide rehabilitation services for veterans, as well as the department’s continued reliance on hundreds of temporary staff to address backlogs.
MacAulay’s office says the minister has met with Veterans Affairs employees, the union and its senior leadership on numerous occasions. He did not make himself available to The West Block for an interview.
“The bar wasn’t set very high with (MacAulay’s) predecessors, and he seems to be not able to even make that,” said Moncur, who also co-chairs the VAC’s service excellence advisory group, adding the minister should “100 per cent” resign.
O’Toole also agreed the time has come for MacAulay to leave his post.
“This (file) always needs a minister who’s very capable, very hands-on and action-oriented,” he said. “Mr. MacAulay is not like that, so he’s got to either step up or step out.”
O’Toole added he takes some of the responsibility for the current state of the department as a former veterans affairs minister, saying he should have “moved much faster” in increasing mental health supports for former military members.
But he argued the Trudeau government needs to own up as well and make those services a priority.
The issue of veterans’ mental health was brought to the forefront on Aug. 16, when Global News first reported that a VAC employee had discussed medically-assisted dying with a veteran, a case that has brought renewed scrutiny of the department and the ongoing struggle for veterans seeking support.
Sources told Global News a VAC service agent brought up medical assistance in dying, or MAiD, unprompted in a conversation with the combat veteran, who was discussing treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury.
Global News is not identifying the veteran due to privacy concerns, but has spoken directly with the individual, who says the service agent mentioned MAiD repeatedly, even after the veteran asked the service agent to stop.
The veteran said he felt pressured as a result.
The agent who discussed MAiD is still working at the department, but is no longer interacting directly with veterans, officials have confirmed.
Earlier this month, MacAulay appeared for the first time in front of the House of Commons standing committee on veterans affairs to discuss that call. Yet he repeatedly deferred questions about the investigation to his deputy minister, Paul Ledwell, and only apologized for the incident after being pressed by lawmakers on the committee.
Ledwell said then that the investigation into the discussion, which is still ongoing two months after it was launched, had determined the service agent’s behaviour was an isolated incident. Yet he also said a majority of service calls are not recorded, adding the conclusion was based on a review of employee files.
O’Toole said he found MacAulay’s testimony at the hearing “horrendous” and that the department needs to ensure such discussions never happen again.
“We should not be having MAiD for people with treatable mental health conditions, particularly (because) when a veteran feels like they are a burden on their family and can’t access supports, they are vulnerable,” he said.
The department says it is still undergoing training for all VAC employees who interact with veterans to ensure MAiD is never discussed during service calls.
Lowther with VETS Canada said better training for VAC employees overall would be a first step toward improving the department and its relationship with veterans.
“About 80 per cent of the referrals we receive do come from Veterans Affairs case managers, and some are very good, and they know what they’re talking about,” she said.
“And then there are others that are just baffled by their own benefits. They can’t understand them themselves, so they can’t explain them to the veterans. So, there’s a big gap there.”
As Remembrance Day approaches, those advocates say they are concerned about the ongoing epidemic of veterans dying by suicide, making the discussion of MAiD with someone who wasn’t seeking it all the more painful.
Studies by Veterans Affairs have concluded veterans have a “significantly higher” risk of death by suicide compared to to the general Canadian population, particularly for younger male veterans. Over the past decade, more veterans have died by suicide than the number of Canadian Forces members killed during the entire war in Afghanistan.
“Dead veterans cost no money,” Moncur said. “The fact that (MAiD) was offered is disgusting. But how the government has handled it since is even worse.”
— with files from The Canadian Press