OTTAWA - The federal government has so far spent nearly $700,000 fighting a disgruntled group of wounded Afghan veterans in court— a revelation that on Wednesday rekindled a political controversy the Conservatives had hoped was behind them.
During question period, Prime Minister Stephen Harper tried to cast the ongoing court battle as the legacy of a flawed policy that was foisted on Parliament nine years ago by Paul Martin's Liberal government.
"The government is defending a decision of the previous government, supported by all parties in the House of Commons," Harper said, referring to the new veterans charter, which the Conservatives have championed since coming to office in 2006.
"Since the previous government imposed the new veterans charter, it has enhanced veterans services and programs by some $5 billion — opposed by the Liberals and NDP."
In response to a written question posed by the opposition, the Department of Justice said it spent $694,070 in legal fees, while National Defence spent $3,231. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau used the cost to demand in the House that the lawsuit be dropped.
Liberal veterans critic Frank Valeriote described the government's response as "hypocrisy," noting that the issue for ex-soldiers is not the system itself, but the amount of funding within it.
"It is not the new veterans charter that is the problem, it's adequacy of the funding given to those programs and the sufficiency of the awards given to our veterans through the application of the charter," Valeriote said.
"Spending $700,000 a year to fight vets in court is not supporting our troops," NDP Leader Tom Mulcair fumed during one heated question period exchange with Harper.
"Closing nine veteran services offices is not supporting our troops, either."
The ex-soldiers are plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit in B.C. Supreme Court, calling the charter discriminatory under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms because it does not provide the same level of benefits and support as the old pension system.
In a statement of defence filed by federal lawyers, the government argues Ottawa has no special obligation or "social contract" with veterans, and that it is unfair to bind the current government to promises made nearly a century ago by another prime minister.
One of the plantiffs, retired major Mark Campbell, who lost both legs in a mine blast in Afghanistan, said he's not surprised at the extent of the legal costs and that he's resigned to a long court battle.
But he said he wonders if the Conservatives realize the political damage they're doing to themselves.
"I'm not sure they're aware of the depth of anger, widespread anger in the community that's out there," said Campbell, who identified himself as a life-long Conservative voter. "I don't think they get how much dismay they are generating with veterans."
Mike Blais, president of Canadian Veterans Advocacy, called the legal bill "unconscionable" and called on the government to drop the lawsuit and negotiate a settlement.
"That money should have been spent on veterans," Blais said.
"Taxpayers deserve better. I think if taxpayers knew that this government, Stephen Harper, was spending so much on lawyers — government lawyers — to fight the wounded in court, they would appalled."
At issue in the court case is a 1917 pledge made on the eve of the Battle of Vimy Ridge by Sir Robert Borden, who was prime minister at the time, that effectively said the country would not fail to show its appreciation for those who've served.
Although never explicitly codified in law, that pledge has guided the country's policy towards veterans for decades. The government's apparent attempt to abandon it has been central to the recent unrest among veterans.
The government had hoped some of that unrest would be muted by the decision earlier this month to shuffle Julian Fantino out of Veterans Affairs and replace him with Erin O'Toole, a retired air force officer.
O'Toole spoke in the House of Commons this week about the government's "tremendous obligation, recognized as far back as Robert Borden," but he emphasized that the policy was "not frozen in time."
How O'Toole plans to bridge the contradiction between the Conservatives oft-repeated, overflowing public affection for veterans and the reality of the government's legal arguments and actions remains unclear.
For his part, Valeriote dismisses O'Toole's comments.
"They're just wiggle words," he said. "The phrase 'not frozen in time' means he's just looking to abrogate their obligation."
O'Toole wasn't willing to discuss the lawsuit or its costs Wednesday, but did say the issue remains a priority, noting it was the first thing he asked about after taking over from Julian Fantino earlier this month.