"I think it’s obscene," said Michael Blais, the president of Canadian Veterans Advocacy after attending a small, private ceremony in Ottawa to remember soldiers who took their own lives. There has been a recent spate of soldier suicides.
The CVA, along with other veterans' groups, believe that commemoration is important, but that it is not what matters most right now.
They want the many ceremonies that Ottawa sponsors downsized so the federal government can provide more money for veterans who are currently suffering from the ravages of war.
"The bottom line, the government’s failing their obligation to those who are living as a consequence of the money they're spending on the dead," says Blais.
2014 marks the centennial of the start of the First World War and the 75th anniversary of the start of the Second World War.
The government has plans for military commemorations leading all the way to the anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 2020, a series of events that follows on the heels of its high-profile campaign to commemorate the War of 1812.
Millions add up
The spending does add up. From 2010 to 2015, Canadian Heritage has either spent or budgeted almost $40 million on programs relating to the World Wars and the War of 1812, according to information obtained by the opposition Liberals through an access to information request.
National Defence has set aside at least $27.5 million for war commemoration from now until 2020.
Plus, Veterans Affairs has budgeted about $80 million over the next two years for remembrance activities that include the World Wars.
"What we have now is a government that’s just looking for photo ops and headlines, and commemoration is one great headline," said Blais.
The former soldier said the money saved from scaled-back commemorations could be redirected to help current veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other injuries, and provide them with more financial assistance.
In response, the government points out that less than 1.5 per cent of the Veterans Affairs budget is spent on commemoration, and says that serving the needs of veterans is the department's top priority.
"Our government believes it is our responsibility to honour and remember the bravery and sacrifice of those who have served our country," said Ashlee Smith, spokesperson for Veterans Affairs.
In 2011, the government said it would cut more than $226 million from Veterans Affairs’ budget because of a dwindling number of veterans.
Last year, after an assessment of government services, Canada's veterans ombudsman concluded that ex-soldiers, the most severely disabled in particular, are receiving inadequate compensation for their pain and suffering under the controversial new funding plan that was initiated in 2006.
Today, more and more of these veterans are willing to tell their own stories.
Bruce Moncur feels he’s still at war but, this time, it’s with Veterans Affairs.
In 2006, while serving in Afghanistan, he was hit in the head with shrapnel in a friendly fire incident, and he lost five per cent of his brain.
The 30 year old still suffers from fatigue, short-term memory loss and PTSD. "Fifty per cent of my PTSD comes from my time in Afghanistan, and fifty per cent of my PTSD comes from the treatment I've received [from Veteran Affairs] since I've come home," he said.
After almost 10 years in the military, Moncur can no longer serve because of his injuries. He said Veterans Affairs gave him a lump sum pension of $22,000, which he calls "a pittance." He’s been fighting his claim now for eight years.
Veterans Affairs reviewed Moncur's claim a year ago and didn't change its initial assessment. He says the department has now agreed to conduct a full internal review of his situation, but Veterans Affairs won't comment upon that aspect of his case.
Cutbacks close offices
Moncur also has to grapple with the fact that earlier this year, Veterans Affairs closed eight district offices including his location in Windsor.
He now has to travel for an hour and a half each way to London to meet with his caseworker. "When you cut money towards the veterans then your priorities are skewed," says Moncur.
"They’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars on remembrance," he says. "While it is admirable, lists of priorities need to be made and maybe the commemorations need to be a little bit lower on the to-do list in this country."
He said he knows many veterans who are also suffering, and suggested the government could lump commemorative events together. The money saved, he said, "could be used in better spots such as keeping Veterans Affairs offices open across the country."
"It’s hard to explain to a veteran when he’s losing his local office and they’re spending millions of dollars on something else," said Tom Eagles.
The national president of The Royal Canadian Legion also believes the government needs to scale back commemoration events.
"We’re all in favour of what they’re doing in regard to honouring our men and women, but I think there has to be a happy balance somewhere."
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