Every Sunday in April, Eastlink T.V. subscribers in the Maritimes will have the chance to view Broken Soldiers, a documentary about the ongoing battles between Canada's veterans and the department charged with their care. In the film, Dale Stevens caught up with Fabien Melanson as he was starving himself at Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) headquarters last June.
In 2004, a VAC typo sent Melanson's pension into somebody else's bank account. The lack of money brought house renovations to a halt, leaving Melanson's Acadian home open to the elements in November. By the time his money arrived, the house -- and Melanson's credit -- had suffered significant damage. The building is uninhabitable and Melanson was homeless.
At the time of his hunger strike, Melanson was fighting to get VAC to acknowledge the damage it caused and to fix his home. Despite media coverage, Veterans Affairs would wait to acknowledge Melanson's presence. Perhaps they thought he would give up. Maybe they plotted to settle him again with vague promises, just as they had during his March hunger strike.
Melanson went 11 days without food. VAC eventually gave him a letter finally admitting the error was their fault. As for fixing his house, it was too-bad-so-sad. The Deputy Minister, Suzanne Tining, told him that VAC "has no mechanism" to pay for the fallout from their error.
Broken Soldiers ends with the message "Fabien continues to struggle with PTSD." That's not all he continues to struggle with. Melanson is still trying to save his house.
The letter from VAC didn't change a thing. It didn't put on a roof or siding, repair water damage or upgrade the wiring. It didn't close in the structure or put in a furnace. Melanson's 160-year-old family legacy farmhouse is still uninhabitable -- the casualty of a clerical miss key.
Veterans' Affairs won't take responsibility for the problem. They deprived a man of his rightful income for months, but, when it comes to the impact, VAC is as uncaring as a hit-and-run driver.
Prior to his hunger strike, I joined Melanson in his battle because his story is both sad and infuriating. Sad that anyone should be in his situation. Infuriating that the system charged with his care should be so uncaring. Since June, I have served as Melanson's advocate. I believe that he should have at least one citizen on his side.
I've sought out lawyers, hoping to find one who would take Melanson's case for free. The response from the legal community has been dramatically underwhelming. Most of my inquiries went unanswered. Those which did deign to reply insisted on profiting from this impoverished veteran. So much for legal ethics. Pro bono publico has clearly become pro bonus meum.
The Veterans' Affairs Minister, Steven Blaney, has the authority to order a compensation payment and fix this mess. I have attempted to contact the Minister Blaney on behalf of Melanson. Several emails, a fax, and a phone call later and I have yet to reach him.
An aide has assured me that they are looking into it -- the same promise given Melanson on hunger strike number one and since 2005. I shouldn't be surprised. It took seven years and two hunger strikes to get VAC to acknowledge they made a mistake. Expecting action during the past 10 months is probably being naively optimistic on my part.
Meanwhile, back on the ranch, the house is still rotting away. Fundraising has been slow. Veterans are doing what they can to help one of their own, but most veterans don't have spare cash. I received not one acknowledgement from the NB churches I contacted; likewise from most of the charitable organizations. Civilian response has been practically non-existent. Even the patriotic celebrity who promised to hold a fundraiser has disappeared without a word.
As for the broken soldier: owing to VAC's recent financial boost for low-income veterans, as of this month, Melanson now occupies a sparsely-furnished rented room. He sleeps on an old army cot because he cannot afford a mattress. Most of his income is going towards back payments on his mortgage. The mortgage on the house he can't live in.
Because of a typo.