OTTAWA - Veterans Affairs is spending an additional $4 million on advertising this year — including television spots throughout the NHL playoffs — but ignoring the plight of families who care for injured soldiers, says the spouse of a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder.
An angry Jenifer Migneault chased after Julian Fantino and demanded to speak to the veterans affairs minister following his appearance Thursday at a House of Commons committee.
The spectacle played out before a crush of reporters, television cameras and microphones in a scene reminiscent of Fantino's testy encounter last winter with veterans angry about the closure of federal offices.
This time Fantino — whose image took a bruising in the last encounter — chose not to stop and explain the government's position.
"I'm offended," an embittered Migneault said afterward.
"A man like that is supposed to be so proud of my husband's service? C'mon, that's a joke. ... We're the ones who live 24 hours a day with their heroes."
The Harper government says it has poured millions of extra dollars into veterans' benefits and services. Fantino told the committee some veterans qualify for as much as $10,000 a month in disability awards, stipends and benefits.
But the challenges faced by caregivers represent a major funding gap, one that has received little public attention.
Migneault, whose husband Claude Rainville was diagnosed with PTSD eight years ago, has tried to raise awareness, but she said she can't get Conservative MPs — including Fantino's parliamentary secretary, Parm Gill — to return her calls.
The spouses of physically and mentally wounded soldiers need training and support to be caregivers, said Migneault. Most of what she's learned has been on her own, including a 40-hour class to help her better understand when best to simply listen to her husband, and when to intervene.
The money being spent on increased advertising should go elsewhere, Migneault said.
"Please just use that money to talk to us," she said.
"We'll tell you a whole lot about our husbands that you guys don't know about. Spend the money in the right place and you'll see real results."
During his testimony, Fantino defended the increase, saying the ads are an attempt by the government to communicate directly with veterans and dispel what he called "misinformation" surrounding the treatment of ex-soldiers.
"We are faced with the bantering that goes back and forth about what is or isn't (covered); what facts and non-facts are; and also the fear mongering, " Fantino told the committee.
He described the information battle as one of the government's "biggest challenges."
Still, neither Fantino nor his deputy minister could say how much the advertising increase is going toward expensive prime-time ads during playoff hockey games — or how much each commercial is costing.
The opposition parties accused the government of promoting itself at the expense of improved programs and benefits. Liberal critic Frank Valeriote pointed out that this year's federal budget increased transition services for veterans by only $11,000.
"I'm wondering how you can justify for us your department spending more on advertising — a $4-million increase in advertising — and less on the actual programs themselves," Valeriote said.
The TV ads emphasize efforts to move soldiers smoothly from military to civilian life, even though the federal government often relies on independent agencies, such as the Veterans Transition Network and Canada Command, to build those bridges for individuals.
Tim Laidler, the executive director of Veterans Transition Network, recently told a Parliamentary committee that more emphasis needs to be put on helping soldiers make the move to civilian life.
The upheaval of moving to civilian life can be taxing, he said.
"The complication comes when someone has to reinvent themselves moving from a military career over to a civilian life and deal with some of these post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, and potentially depression symptoms," Laidler told Parliament last December.
Critics within the veterans community have said the TV ads are misleading and give the impression the government is doing more than it actually is.