OTTAWA - There are rumblings in the corridors of power on Parliament Hill that MPs have grown impatient with the cost burden imposed by Canada's military veterans, one of the country's most prominent former soldiers said Thursday.
Sen. Romeo Dallaire, a former lieutenant-general and ex-commander of the ill-fated peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, described a number of recent encounters with "politicians who are second-guessing the cost of veterans."
Dallaire — who made the comments in an interview with The Canadian Press before testifying Thursday at the House of Commons veterans committee — did not identify the individuals in question.
But he said he's been hearing privately from politicians who complain about the price tag: the Conservative government spends roughly $3.8 billion each year on the Veterans Affairs Department.
"And I say: Oh, yeah?" said Dallaire, describing how he walks them through the dollar cost of equipping and deploying the military on missions like the recently concluded 12-year mission in Afghanistan.
"And then I say, 'Now that they're home — and the ones that are injured — they cost too much?' This has been sniffing its way around the Conservative hallways and it's pissing me off."
The rumblings stand in stark contrast to the Harper government's political messaging, which has been to strenuously insist that the Conservatives bend over backwards for Canada's veterans and will continue to do so.
Dallaire's remarks drew an immediate, sharp rebuttal from Nicholas Bergamini, a spokesman for Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino.
"It is not appropriate to spread rumours without any kind of attribution," Bergamini said. "The fact remains that no government in modern history has invested more money for veterans services."
Yet, the government has pointedly failed to reconcile its political talking points with the legal stand being taken by Justice Department lawyers in a prominent class-action lawsuit being brought by veterans of the Afghan war.
In a statement of defence filed with B.C. Superior Court, the government argues there is no "social contract" between the country and its soldiers, despite their commitment to lay down their lives without question, and that promises made by past governments to care for the wounded are not binding on current and future governments.
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Those assurances, which date back to the First World War, are merely political statements, not policy, which can be amended, they maintain.
There needs to be a legislated social covenant with soldiers, Dallaire told the committee Thursday.
Since 2006, tens of millions of extra dollars have been poured into veterans care, but that can't be considered a measure of success, Dallaire added.
The government's position in the B.C. lawsuit represents a fundamental shift in the way former soldiers are viewed by their government, and it's no accident the Harper government has not withdrawn it, critics say.
The veterans committee has been holding hearings on the New Veterans Charter, the legislation which spells out the benefits and entitlements of ex-soldiers. The lawsuit alleges the new system is less generous than its predecessor, which provided pensions for life to injured and maimed soldiers.
The committee has already heard a chorus of complaints from veterans — and there are signs it is starting to sting.
Conservative MP Parm Gill, Fantino's parliamentary secretary, set his sights on one particularly vocal group last week, demanding that Canadian Veterans Advocacy disclose its funding sources and accusing one of its leaders of being partisan.
"Do you think to help the committee you would be able to provide for the committee a breakdown of your funding for the past two years, and any activity you have engaged in with political parties in Canada?" Gill asked.
Also last week, Conservative MP Brian Hayes took issue with comments posted on a popular website for veterans, including one that said the closest Fantino had ever been to a trench was "a trench coat."
"It disturbs me to see a negative thread, a negative opinion like that allowed to stay," Hayes told the committee.
Ron Cundell, a veteran who is one of the site's administrators, said Hayes singled out one comment out of over 300,000, and wondered if Hayes was endorsing censorship.
"That is unfair for you to take away that person's freedom of speech," he testified.
On Thursday, Dallaire told the committee he believes that National Defence and Veterans Affairs should be folded into one department, each with its own budget, in order to provide uninterrupted care to the wounded.
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