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Canada's Veterans Deserve A Courageous Ombudsman

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Canada's military veterans are suffering another condition of late: envy. They watch National Defence Ombudsman Gary Walbourne, relentlessly petition government to improve the lives of soldiers. Veterans long for their Ombudsman, Guy Parent, to have the same backbone.

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Canada's veterans ombudsman Guy Parent speaks in Ottawa on October 1, 2013. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)

In six years, Parent has held just two press conferences unlike most other oversight appointees. He prefers his personal blog and the occasional news release as the primary vehicle for informing the public. Parent's most recent release titled Budget 2017 Addresses Veterans Ombudsman's Recommendations was characteristically hasty to compliment government before he knew the details of new programs: "I am pleased that the Government is taking my recommendations seriously and is moving forward on several of them."

His ownership of these recommendations also demeans advisory groups and countless suffering veterans who bravely went public with their harrowing experiences dealing with the federal bureaucracy. Most if not all of the ombudsman's recommendations were made, often years prior, by these groups and advocates.

Disturbingly, Parent has been completely silent on the issue of suicides, leaving the DND Ombudsman, Gary Walbourne to aggressively attack the bureaucracy even though these were veterans killing themselves and, in one tragic case, killing others. Recently, Mr. Walbourne was the fifth DND ombudsman to call for his office to be enshrined in law, reporting to Parliament, as opposed to being handcuffed as a Ministerial advisor.

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Canadian Forces ombudsman Gary Walbourne appears at a Senate veterans affairs committee in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 4, 2016. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Parent has never made this appeal, preferring a buddy-to-the-minister approach that has rarely sparked bureaucrats into action. Six years into Parent's mandate, systemic problems still plaque the bureaucracy while inadequate programs afflict veterans and their families.

My first published column 12 years ago called for a veterans' ombudsman and was widely cited in the Conservative platform that resulted in the establishment of Parent's office. In fact, along with trailblazing advocates like Louise Richard, we were the first to publicly call for the creation of an independent office, not one beholden to the very Department it is mandated to oversee.

Veterans might consider overlooking Parent's crime of sleeping with the political and bureaucratic enemy. However, Parent audaciously claims he is the "voice of veterans" while perpetuating and deepening divisions in the fragmented and suffering community. He attacked veterans and opposition parties in the media accusing some of "misleading" veterans and the public then telling Canadians they are confused about how veterans are treated. He made these comments while the non-renewable terms of his appointment were quietly changed by the outgoing Harper regime. Parent was coincidentally renewed six months before his original appointment ended.

Parent praised the Conservative government for making "great strides" in helping veterans. He publicly stood beside former Minister O'Toole at the announcement of new programs, enthusiastically endorsing government and those programs when no one, including the Minister, knew the details of whether the programs were of benefit to veterans. This highly suspect act alone should have prompted his removal.

A sycophantic agenda is repugnant for an "impartial, arms-length and independent officer." When asked to resign by the current Liberal government, he refused. Meanwhile, Minister of Veterans Affairs, Kent Hehr, remained silent. Parent's performance, not to mention potentially breaching his professional ethical code should have been scrutinized by both veterans and Parliament.

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Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, June 16, 2016. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)

His recommendations are often just as confusing and meandering as the bureaucracy he claims to oversee. Furthermore, he takes credit for changes that likely would have occurred faster and more substantially without his office's existence. His repeated fawning of government of any stripe allows bureaucracy to continue at its snail's pace without worrying whether an ombudsman might bite them publicly. Minsters can claim they are listening to the "voice of veterans."

Parent turns 70 this year and has never worked outside the military or public service culture since he was 17. Such lifelong deference to authority creates lapdogs who dare not violate the taboo of pushing government beyond polite reports and mostly ignored and ineffectual blog postings. He is an inveterate bureaucrat whose loyalty to not publicly offend government relegates any loyalty to veterans into last place He is not unlike most federal oversight officers in this regard who are bureaucrats asked to police bureaucrats. Such practice perpetuates wrongdoing and mismanagement and has widely been condemned in the private and public sector.

Nevertheless, it is time for Guy Parent to find another public service job.

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