Veterans, supporters protest closure of district offices
Published Friday, January 31, 2014 10:35AM EST
Last Updated Friday, January 31, 2014 11:05PM EST
Hundreds of veterans and their supporters gathered outside eight Veterans Affairs offices closing on Friday, to protest a move they say will compromise their ability to access services.
The protesters wore black arm bands as they demonstrate outside the offices in Kelowna, Saskatoon, Brandon, Thunder Bay, Windsor, Sydney, Charlottetown and Corner Brook. At the end of the day, some of the protesters laid wreaths at the doors of the offices as they were shuttered.
A ninth office has already closed in Prince George, B.C.
The government has said it will be moving many of the services offered online. As well, it will provide a Veterans Affairs specialist at some 600 Service Canada locations across the country.
The decision to close the Veterans Affairs offices has raised the ire of veterans, who say the changes will leave them without easy access to services they need.
Veteran Ronald Clarke, one of the most vocal protesters, said he tried to ask Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino earlier in the week how it would be possible to post an adequately trained worker at every Service Canada location.
“What 600 people is he going to put into those offices? Where were they going to get their training? Who is going to train them, what courses are they going to get?” Clarke told CTV’s Power Play. “And of course Mr. Fantino, as I said who has been flying by his coattails trying to figure out what to do about this stuff, had no answer for that.”
Parm Gill, parliamentary secretary to Fantino, told Power Play that a fully trained Veterans Affairs Canada staffer will be posted at Service Canada locations closest to the closing veterans’ offices to ensure “there are no hiccups.”
And where veterans are too ill or injured to travel to a Service Canada office, a case manager or a registered nurse will visit them at home.
“At the end of the day we want to make sure that the appropriate necessary services are provided to veterans,” Gill told Power Play.
Gill suggested that veterans have called or written letters to say they are pleased with their service. And he accused the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the union representing workers affected by the closures, of being behind the protests.
“PSAC and the unions for their own motives, for their own good, it’s extremely disappointing that they are using veterans to push their agenda,” Gill said. “It’s extremely unfortunate.”
Cooke denied that suggestion.
“I really take offence at him saying that PSAC is pushing us into this thing and leading the charge,” Cooke said. “I will grant him that PSAC paid our way to Ottawa. But let’s put it this way, if they hadn’t of paid our way to Ottawa, we wouldn’t have been there.”
Earlier Friday, Afghan vet Bruce Moncur said with the Veterans Affairs office in his town of Windsor set to close, he will now have to travel to London, Ont. if he needs to speak with someone in person.
He told CTV News Channel that the change angers him, because “nothing can replace face-to-face with your case worker and being able to drive five minutes to your local branch.”
Moncur, who suffered a serious brain injury in 2006 that left him with short-term memory problems and PTSD, says he becomes easily fatigued and won’t be able to handle the long commute.
“If I mentally exert myself by driving for more than three hours, which is how long I’d have to drive to get to London, it taxes me and I’m essentially useless for the rest of the day,” he said.
He says he’s heard of other veterans who may have to drive for more than eight hours to reach Service Canada outlets.
The NDP has tabled a motion to try to stop the closure of the eight Veterans Affairs offices, but the government has rescheduled the vote for Monday -- after the offices have already shut down.
Earlier this week, veterans and supporters who wanted to discuss the closures with Fantino had a testy exchange with the minister. The vets said they “waited and waited” for Fantino, who showed up several hours late, only to answer a few questions and leave.
Several vets called for Fantino to resign over his indifference to their concerns.
Fantino later apologized, saying a cabinet meeting he attended beforehand ran long, causing him to be late. He added he had no plans to resign and that the VA office closures would proceed.
Fantino was doing damage control at his riding office on Friday, which included a personal call to the husband of retired Cpl. Leona MacEachern, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and died of suicide on Christmas Day.
Tom MacEachern was stunned to receive a letter from Veterans Affairs just days after his wife’s funeral, asking for a repayment of $581.67 from her disability pension.
The decision to seek reimbursement was later reversed and Fantino apologized for his department’s handling of the case. It turns out that MacEachern’s psychiatric file was also somehow lost in a snowbank five days before she died.
MacEachern’s husband said he doesn’t hold any one person accountable for his wife’s struggles and subsequent death, but said her case is a symptom of a “badly managed bureaucracy.”
Meanwhile, CTV News has learned that a clinic in Quebec that treats soldiers with PTSD may close when its contract runs out on March 31.
CTV’s Mercedes Stephenson says veterans have told her that staff at a clinic in Chicoutimi, Que. have informed them of the impending closure. The clinic serves about 140 veterans.
“The (Veterans Affairs) minister’s office tells me that they are not closing any centres, that they are renegotiating the contract right now and that that contract concludes on Mar. 31,” Stephenson reported. “But I’m being told by veterans that staff have told them that the clinic will be closed on Mar. 31, that if it continues to exist it will be someplace else that has not yet been located.”
With a report from CTV’s Richard Madan