It's poppy season. That means it's also take-a-picture-with-a-veteran season for politicians. No doubt photographers have been arranged and outfits selected as aides confirm appearances for their political masters. Every politician, from town councillors to the prime minister, needs to demonstrate they care by having that crucial pose or handshake with someone in a uniform, preferably with a huge rack of medals. After all, without that picture, no one would know the depth of their sympathy for veterans.
We certainly wouldn't know from their actions in office.
Take Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O'Regan as an example. He's the sixth VAC minister in seven years, the second of this administration. His key qualification? He has a brother in the navy. Oh, and he was an available Newfoundlander when Trudeau needed someone to take over Judy Foote's regional representation at cabinet.
Neither of which would be a particular problem, except that O'Regan has already showed his colours.
Last month, in response to a military widow protesting for reimbursement of medical costs, O'Regan did not offer help, or even to look into the matter. Instead, he detailed the bureaucratic appeals process and declared: "As minister, I cannot overturn any decision of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board." Actually Seamus, you can. You can order a review [s.34(5)], or an inquiry [s.6], or you can issue funds directly on ex gratia (compassionate) grounds. That's one of the reasons that we have ministers.
I sincerely doubt any veterans were queueing to laud the department.
Then there's this other gem of misleading information, from a couple of weeks ago. In reference to the Invictus Games, O'Regan told how veteran after veteran came up to tell him "that they did get the help they need and it did make a difference in their lives." Plausibly accurate, although I sincerely doubt any veterans were queueing to laud the department. But, even if true, we must remember who those veterans are: those who were well enough, and had funds enough, to attend or compete in a major sporting event. Veterans still fighting for their benefits while simultaneously coping with injuries are not likely to be able to spend a week in Toronto. Nor would they be likely to approach the minister — or permitted that close by his security.
What is more bothersome is O'Regan's follow-up comments: "A lot of what will make the news are usually negative stories but there are a lot of positive stories out there that we don't hear from and that's the way it is because these are private stories — these are quiet stories."
Translation: You only ever hear bad news about rare problems.
Subtext: VAC is doing a great job, our improvements are working, and any reports otherwise are exaggerated or false, blame the media. Ignore the few unhappy vets, we are doing a bang-up job! Yay, us!
Where have we heard that before? This is a strategy regularly trotted out by politicians: blame the media, blame the public, "it's not us, it's you." It's the default message of VAC ministers. Government has even doctored surveys to carry that tune... until they were caught. Seamus and the Liberals were certainly quick show their responsibility when they unveiled a new suicide prevention strategy for veterans. Or open new VAC offices. Or developed plans to target homelessness and track veteran suicides. Or to talk up what a great job they are doing.
The Trudeau government — like all of its predecessors — refuses to take responsibility for the affairs of veterans. They aren't dealing with the bureaucratic mess. They aren't taking responsibility for the wait times for injured Canadian Forces members — times which continue to increase despite the Liberals throwing money at the problem. They refuse to work with veterans who won't hold their tongues, not matter how useful their participation would be. Despite bold announcements to study veteran suicides, the Trudeau government is refusing to investigate the murder-suicide of the Desmond family. The Liberals have completely ducked a key plank from Election 42 — one that got the Liberals a lot of reluctant support from veterans — a promise to restore life-long pensions to injured veterans. Last budget, the Liberals used a bait-and-switch instead. And they continue to hold to the most offensive, and patently untrue, legal strategy ever launched at veterans: that Canada doesn't owe veterans a thing.
The Trudeau government — like all of its predecessors — refuses to take responsibility for the affairs of veterans.
Still, it's unfair to lay all that on poor Seamus. After all, he's only had the job for a few months. Nor is it right to target the Liberals for all the woes at VAC. In a century of failing to provide for veterans, there is plenty of blame to go around. Veterans Affairs is a mess of too much policy, too much qualification and not enough common sense. That didn't happen overnight, nor even since the last election.
But there's one thing that always sticks in my craw, and both Trudeau and O'Regan are doing it: ducking responsibility. So sorry, Seamus, buddy — you are the Minister Responsible. That means you get everything, not just the bits you like.
Canada elects a government to sort things out. Our veterans volunteered to stand between us and harm. We citizens expect them to be provided for. We have told that to successive governments. You politicians wanted the job; you get the responsibility. For all of it.
Here's a Remembrance message for Justin, Seamus and those to come: Remember the fallen, but take care of the wounded.
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