07/16/2013 05:41 EDT | Updated 09/15/2013 05:12 EDT

Tories Treat Vets Like Second-Class Citizens

A travelling tribute to the men and women who lost their lives in Afghanistan will arrive in your province or territory during the next year or two. The memorial appears to be straight-forward but, in reality, it carries with it a heavy dose of hypocrisy regarding the Conservatives' real objective of the tour and their treatment of military veterans.

US soldiers, part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), stand guard on the outskirts of Laghman on June 5, 2013. The Afghan army and police have grown rapidly in a multi-billion international effort to build up the country's security forces, which now number roughly 350,000. AFP PHOTO/Waseem NIKZAD (Photo credit should read WASEEM NIKZAD/AFP/Getty Images)

A travelling tribute to the men and women who lost their lives in Afghanistan will arrive in your province or territory during the next year or two. The memorial, featuring plaques of the 161 Canadians killed, will be welcomed by their families and friends, but some of us will react much differently.

Former National Defense Minister Peter MacKay unveiled the temporary display in Ottawa on July 9. It will be open to the public and remain on Parliament Hill through Remembrance Day, before heading off on a two-year journey across the country to visit provincial legislatures and then on to Washington.

The memorial appears to be straight-forward but, in reality, it carries with it a heavy dose of hypocrisy regarding the Conservatives' real objective of the tour and their treatment of military veterans.

The main goal of the memorial is not so much to honor those killed, but to have the display instill in Canadians the idea that the Tories command a modern-day fighting machine ready to join others to defend "freedom" wherever necessary. To clearly link us to the prowess of the Americans, the display includes plaques of the 40 U.S. military personnel killed while under Canadian command in Afghanistan.

Moreover, the tour propagates "the big lie" about Canada's effort in Afghanistan. "The faces you see etched here are of those who made the ultimate sacrifice in creating a more secure environment for Afghans," claimed MacKay, well known for his frequent episodes of mendacity.

In truth, the estimated $18.1-billion the Harper government will have spent fighting the Taliban, the 161 deaths and more than 2,000 Canadian injuries did nothing to improve the lives of the Afghan people. The situation in Kandahar province, where Canada did its fighting, is just as bleak as when we arrived.

Interestingly, Canada's "old fashioned" role of playing peacekeeper is not popular in Ottawa or in Washington. Maybe that's why the 25 Canadian peacekeeping soldiers who died in Cyprus during our 29 years there are not honored in this or any other major memorial.

The fact that MacKay's incompetent bureaucracy could not even get the launch of the tribute right is a sign of the government's lack of respect for the families of those killed.

The tour wasn't scheduled to leave Ottawa for weeks, but the military bureaucracy, in a rush to make the announcement as soon as possible after Canada Day, failed to adequately notify many of the families so they could attend. Many families missed the event.

"It's very upsetting," Jane Byers, who was in Edmonton and the mother of a private killed by a suicide bomber, told the CBC. "This monument is like a shrine to the families. . . this last-minute crap is not cutting it. It's an insult and a disgrace."

The majority of the men and women completing training before being shipped off to Afghanistan probably had few life experiences. Many would have considered a walk down raunchy Yonge Street or a stroll on the stolid Sparks Street mall the most dramatic event in their life.

Those experiences would be nothing compared to what they faced in Afghanistan. As the military's recruitment ad says: "There's no life like it."

Life on the battlefield has been a living hell. Some stats:

  • At least 50 members of the forces committed suicide as a result of their terrifying experiences in Afghanistan, (Interestingly, only three of those who killed themselves are honoured as part of the memorial. Several families criticize the government for moving so slowly to complete the formal death investigations.)
  • Almost 14 per cent of those who served were diagnosed with a mental health disorder, but some say this doesn't reflect the larger extent of the problem,
  • A total of 5.5 per cent developed other depressive disorders, and
  • A 2011 military study estimated that eight per cent of personnel deployed to Afghanistan were diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) within five years of returning home.

A stone-faced MacKay was at his hypocritical best when telling those present in Ottawa that the memorial was "to honour the bravery, the dedication, the valour and professionalism of the civilian and military personnel who have fallen in Afghanistan." Yet MacKay has been up to his neck in establishing new, unnecessary austerity measures that are making life miserable for many of the veterans who survived Afghanistan and other warzones.

Until two years ago, the Harper government was fighting a ruthless legal battle to deny 4,500 disabled veterans of much-needed pension money. The disabled veterans had filed a class-action lawsuit against Ottawa to stop it from clawing back a portion of their monthly Veterans Affairs disability pension. Finally, the court sided with the pensioners, and the government has had to replace the funds.

Families of a number of mostly infirm veterans at Canada's 500-bed veterans' centre in Toronto have complained that austerity-driven staff cutbacks have led to patient neglect and abuse, such as head injuries, patients left in their own excrement and severe bed sores.

In addition, many poor veterans are denied the money required to pay for their burial. Between 2006 and 2011, the Last Post Fund, which had adopted more stringent eligibility requirements as a result of Harper's very selective austerity program, was turning down 67 per cent of the applications for support.

Prime Minister Harper made a promise during the 2006 federal election, when he stated, "Our government will stand up for full compensation for persons exposed to defoliant spraying during the period from 1956 to 1984." However, the government announced a disappointing compensation package for those affected by the spraying of Agent Orange, offering payment only to those who served between 1966 and 1967.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives are closing nine Veterans Affairs Canada district offices across the country. This leaves veterans and their families without access to in-person services in many communities, including vitally needed counselling. Veterans have to rely on phone or online assistance. By 2015, Veterans Affairs will have cut 800 jobs and there are plans to shut more district offices.

I have left the biggest lie for last. The Department of Defence has been chopping away chunks of expenses for months, claiming that severe austerity measures were necessary to meet its' budget objectives. Records show that the Department has a whopping $2.3-billion it has not spent for the budget year ending March 31, 2013.

The Department says that when all the bills are paid and adjustments are made, the surplus will not be so large. What will be the extra amount then? Perhaps $1.5-billion?

And what of the way veteran pensioners are being nickel-and-dimed?

At first I thought the problem was government incompetence. But I don't think so.

Instead, I must conclude that these Conservative overlords are mean-spirited, heartless, basically evil ideologues who are perfectly happy to play another one of their devious games of manipulating budgets so they can downsize and destroy government over a number of years.

This time they are fighting their battle on the backs of poor and injured veterans -- the parents and grandparents of those new recruits that the Conservatives so gladly shipped off to the no-man's deserts of Afghanistan.

Nick Fillmore - A Different Point of View