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A New Face at Veterans Affairs Won't Change Harper's Failed Priorities

01/14/2015 05:17 EST | Updated 03/16/2015 05:59 EDT
Richard Lautens via Getty Images
TORONTO, ON - AUGUST 29 - Prime Minister Stephen Harper Thursday announced legislation to toughen child sexploitation laws. Following his speech, Harper (right) greets Minister of Veteran Affairs, Julian Fantino. He met with ministers and child advocates at the Banbury Community Centre in the York Mills and Leslie area and then made a speech at the International Plaza hotel near the airport. (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Last week, the Prime Minister finally dropped Julian Fantino as Veterans Affairs Minister. Despite the shuffling of deckchairs at that struggling department, it is the Prime Minister who is wholly responsible for the government's failure with veterans.

We have a sacred obligation to our veterans and their families, but since 2006, it has been rejected by Stephen Harper and each of his four previous Ministers of Veterans Affairs. Changing the Minister has not changed the track record of neglect -- it has just put a new face on it.

Canada's veterans are a diverse and changing population. From the remaining veterans of the Second World War to those who served in Korea, or as peacekeepers, and now those who have fought in Afghanistan, Libya and against ISIL, veterans and their families have complex and dynamic needs. They look to Veterans Affairs to provide the benefits and assistance to which they are entitled and rightly deserve. The department must be equipped to respond to these needs quickly, thoroughly, and efficiently.

Unfortunately, this Prime Minister has chosen a different path. He opted instead to close nine veterans' service centres across the country. He has left unspent $1.13 billion in essential service funding for veterans. Under his leadership one in five veterans is left waiting up to eight months or longer for urgently needed mental health care. Much of this is due to the nearly 1,000 full-time jobs Mr. Harper has cut at the department since 2009, seriously harming frontline services dealing with disabilities, pensions, health, and rehabilitation programs.

If the Prime Minister is committed to changing course, there are immediate steps he and his new Minister must take to show Canadians that they are finally responding to veterans' concerns.

They must reopen the nine Veterans Affairs offices closed by their government last year. Veterans are not receiving the same standard of service when they have to travel hours to see a caseworker. Calling a 1-800 number and waiting for a call back is not a suitable alternative, nor is going to a Service Canada office to speak to a person who is only going to forward your file to someone else.

Ensuring adequate funding for veterans and their families instead of spending those millions on partisan government advertising must also be a priority.

The unanimous recommendations of the Veterans Affairs Committee on the New Veterans Charter are still unaddressed. The committee asked the Minister to fix the case-manager program; extend counselling to family members, including making the Military Family Resource Centres available to veterans and their families; ensure reservists and their families have the same support as full-time members; and give seriously disabled veterans benefits for life. Members of all parties agreed these changes were necessary and urgent. The Veterans Ombudsman has been calling for these changes for years. While the government's initial response was to delay, this Minister can make their implementation a priority.

The Conservatives have never shied away from veterans when it is time for a photo-op, but when the cameras go away, so does their commitment to the sacred obligation we have to these brave men and women and their families. Though the face at Veterans Affairs has changed, so too must the government's priorities. Our servicemen and women exhibit the very best of what it means to be Canadian. The priority of this Prime Minister must be to ensure that our veterans and their families have nothing less than the best of care and support from a grateful nation.

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