No matter how you look at it, Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino committed a series of grave errors last week. He disrespected veterans; his stakeholders.
First, by cancelling, then eventually arriving late, for a scheduled meeting with six veterans from across Canada who had travelled to Ottawa just for this purpose. This was disrespectful in and of itself -- one doesn't book a meeting for out-of-towners and then cancel at the last minute. One especially doesn't do this to veterans in the Forces, being late is a chargeable offence, so veterans take punctuality very seriously.
The second error was sending down Laurie Hawn and Erin O'Toole to help placate the visitors. Hawn and O'Toole are also veterans but have nothing to do with Veterans Affairs. They were clearly sent as some sort of you-speak-their-language substitutes. The visiting vets saw through that charade very quickly.
Fantino's third grave error was his attitude. When the Minister did arrive, the veterans were understandably angry. Was the minister conciliatory? Did he offer sincere apologies? Did he take the well-deserved criticism like a politician should? No.
He poured gas on the fire by being belligerent, acting superior and generally behaving as if this meeting was beneath him. Hardly the way for a politician to behave. Especially for a Minister meeting with his stakeholders (a term which veterans greatly resent, by the way). In fact, Fantino's attitude would be offensive coming from anyone. None of us would accept it from a retail clerk, our bosses, or even the Queen.
But perhaps the biggest error is being made now: the Conservatives have circled the wagons around Fantino and come out with blazing guns. Their ammunition? Accusations that Veterans are being manipulated by unions and the media; that media and unions are spreading misinformation. In other words, the veterans don't really understand; they don't really need their local VAC offices. This condescending counter-attack is designed to strike 3 enemies at once.
But as anyone familiar with Canadian military history knows, attacking Canadian troops when they hold the moral high ground is very dangerous. And by attacking these 6 veterans, the Government has made another gave error -- if you disrespect one Canadian soldier, you disrespect them all. And Them All is firing back. Rallies and sit-ins are forming up, veterans are demanding Fantino's seat (since they can't have his head), and the veterans community is declaring they will campaign against the Conservatives in 2015.
They are also taking to the media: Allow me to introduce you to Master Corporal David Desjardins, a decorated veteran and former CF Military Police officer.
Dave has a few things he'd like to explain.
My name is Dave Desjardins. I am a veteran, and a "pawn of PSAC" - according to Mister-MP-Captain Erin O'Toole, yet another Conservative Muppet.
When I was asked by the president of PSAC to speak to Conservative MPs in Ottawa, on behalf of veterans that could not make the trip to speak for themselves, I was a little skeptical. I saw it as the Conservatives interpreted it, a media ploy: disabled vet, in a wheelchair... what's a more compelling image to the media than that?
Truth be told, there is no media footage on our meetings; they were held behind closed doors. Which was fine by me. I'm no media hound and, quite frankly, would rather not have to do any of this and live the rest of my life in quiet obscurity. Although I wasn't in attendance at Tuesdays, I found out about it from those in attendance at the "meet and greet" as it was so lovingly dubbed by Mr O'Toole.
When this all started last December, I was shown statistics by PSAC representatives. With VAC only representing 8 percent of their client base, why would PSAC fight so hard for such a small faction?
PSAC was responding to the concerns of the case managers themselves - concerns for their clients, the veterans. Every case manager is a social worker. With the demands for social workers in today's society, they can find alternate employment for much higher wage at the snap of a finger. The case managers are not worried about finding new jobs. They are worried about their veterans.
As for Service Canada... Let me pose a couple of questions (which I have posed to various Conservative MP's over the past couple of months)
Would you be willing to sit down at a Service Canada Kiosk, beside a family with screaming children seeking citizenship, or some person wanting to fill out or renew his/her passport in the next kiosk, and discuss:
How the loss of any particular body part or injury has created a sexual dysfunction?
How your PTSD is ripping your family apart?
How a miscalculation on behalf of VAC has you in an immediate financial crisis?
It's situations like these, and many others, those veterans and their families are afraid of. Situations which might be corrected through face to face access with a person that cares and can provide the correct help in a timely manner.
The promise of VAC-trained workers at Services Canada is only a three-month transition program. This has not been made clear to the public by the Government. There are no contingency plans extending beyond the three month period. Why? My guess is so that the Government can rightfully say that veteran usage is down at these services, and that they too will be reduced to save money. There are other concerns, too, such as crossing provincial health care jurisdictions, as in the case of the North Bay Ontario office where many of the files are being sent to Winnipeg for services.
This is a car lot mentality on behalf of the federal Government. They are looking at it by the numbers attending the office. If only two cars (veterans) attend a car lot (VAC Office) during the week, then the employees are not making productive use of their time and the lot is losing money. What about the 1700 other files that those five case managers have to look after? Even though there's no one physically in the office, the case managers are still making house calls from a much further location, and still carry the rest of their caseload. The offices that are gaining the files are not gaining case workers to augment those transfers; so their caseloads have just doubled or tripled. Yet the Government says this is not going to affect our veterans?
Veterans and their families are scared. They were worried enough about their futures, and now have to worry about not putting a check in the right box of a form some untrained person at Service Canada has given them... which may or may not even be the right form. The Service Canada personnel will not be able to assist with filling out the often confusing paperwork, nor will they be able to verify if it has been filled out properly, causing undue delays in obtaining much needed services. The Government of Canada has not made these facts clear, and, someone needs to.
I am not affected by any of the office closures as I utilize the Ottawa office, however, I was asked to provide a voice and that's exactly what I will to continue to do. The Harper Government has shown it's colors with regards to our veterans... and continues to do so, with various MP's spouting off childish insults or suggesting that we are nothing more than pawns being used by this or that organization in furtherance of a cause.
Let me make one thing perfectly clear for the Conservative Government. We veterans may not all be as educated as an MP, we may suffer from a psychological injury of some form or fashion, but we are not stupid. WE are not pawns of anyone. WE are the people that signed up to do your dirty work; WE are the people that signed up to do the stuff the rest of Canada doesn't want to hear about. WE are the people that signed up so you can sit in your chairs in the House of Commons and decide what is in our best interest.
If pawns are how the Government views us in retirement, I can just imagine how they view serving members of the Canadian Forces.
Minister Fantino addressed veterans as he would Rookie police officers - an inconvenience - and dismissed their - our - concerns by walking out. He refused to listen. Therefore, I am now holding Minister Fantino personally responsible for the loss of any Canadian veteran, by their own hand or otherwise, who was unable to access crucial services because of these office closures.
I am ashamed of the Harper Government. Our Government - and the Citizens of Canada - have to start accepting responsibility for actions which directly affect the quality of life and the well being of its veterans.
- MCpl (ret'd) David Desjardins CD