OTTAWA -- The Conservatives’ decision to shut down several veterans district offices could hurt their chances in nine ridings across the country, as Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau vows to “make right” what he says the Harper government “got so very, very wrong.”

Last year, the government shut eight veterans district offices in an effort to cut costs: Kelowna, B.C., Saskatoon, Sask., Brandon, Man., Thunder Bay, Ont., Windsor, Ont., Sydney, N.S., Charlottetown, P.E.I, and Corner Brook, N.L. The Prince George, B.C. office closed in 2012.

On Monday, Trudeau said he would re-open those offices if elected, as a part of an election promise aimed at helping veterans. He also vowed lifelong pensions for injured vets and hundreds of millions of dollars in other expanded benefits.

The country’s largest public service union has already slammed the Conservatives for the district office closures, which it says abandons veterans.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) launched its Vote to Stop the Cuts ad campaign in July. The campaign captured the attention of the federal government, prompting a politically-heated dispute between Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O’Toole and the PSAC-affiliated Union of Veterans Affairs Employees (UVAE).

In an interview with CTVNews.ca last month, O’Toole accused the union of politicizing the closures and putting their own interests ahead of veterans. The PSAC has expressed deep concern about the 900 jobs cut at Veterans Affairs since 2009. 

“It’s unfortunate that the union wants to leverage this as a political tool,” said O’Toole. “Of all the issues PSAC could use in campaigning against the government, sick days and other things aren’t as compelling to Canadians.”

The PSAC campaign has led to a battle of words in the media, with O’Toole’s Chief of Staff John MacDonell claiming that UVAE National President Carl Gannon admitted in a private meeting that some offices had to be closed.

Gannon rejected MacDonell’s account, saying that while he suggested some veterans offices could be smaller to ensure staffing capacities met the demands, he maintained that all of them need to be re-opened.

“The minister is playing a game that I have no interest in playing,” said Gannon.

Despite the recent dispute, Gannon still believes the closures will “absolutely, 100 per cent” be a major issue that will “make or break this election” on Oct. 19.

The Conservatives say the closures occurred because demands were low at the offices. The cuts, outlined in the 2012 federal budget, will help save the department $34.8 million a year.

A tough reality for some vets

Since the closures, some veterans have been forced to travel hours to access the closest district office. Their other options have been to visit the single Veterans Affairs employee at their local Service Canada location, access services by phone or online, or wait for a case manager to visit the area.

For Ronald Clarke, a 75-year-old veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and severe arthritis, the loss of his consistent case manager at the Sydney district office makes interactions with Veterans Affairs impersonal. Ever since the closure, he speaks to a different Veterans Affairs official every time he calls for help, and says he has had to wait months for services that used to take weeks to access with his old case manager.

“It’s been very hard because of my personality. I’m a stubborn person and I do my best to work it out myself,” said Clarke, through tears. “When we had the office here, it was easy to get to see a shrink. That’s not easy anymore.”

But some affected veterans may soon have access to a personal case manager again. In June, O’Toole announced that 146 new Veterans Affairs employees will be hired in Atlantic Canada by next March; the announcement is part of the department’s plans to hire 309 new employees across Canada by 2020. But O’Toole says the hires aren’t meant to replace the closed offices. 

“They’re not intended to fill the gap at all because they do an entirely … different function. It is really an example of the modernization and the evolution of the department,” said O’Toole.

Gannon still worries that the absence of the district offices will worsen the condition of some veterans.

“The situations get dire,” said Gannon. “We’re going to start seeing some, and we’ve already seen, some very bad things happening, right up to death. Suicide becomes a very real thing.”

But Scott Maxwell of Wounded Warriors Canada says that more time is needed to determine if the system can work without the nine district offices. He suspects that if the closures become an election issue, they would be more of a local, rather than national, concern.

In Thunder Bay, Mayor Keith Hobbs says the consequences of the office closure in his community will definitely be a testy election issue. His city council unanimously passed a resolution in 2013 opposing the closures.

“I know it is (an election issue) for a lot of people. I know it is for a lot of seniors. I know it is for legionnaires. I know it is for veterans. And I certainly know it is for me,” said Hobbs.

Party stances

Like the Liberals, the NDP have vowed to reopen the district offices if elected. The New Democrats made the commitment before the election campaign began, but haven’t made any other major veterans-related announcements since the writ dropped.

But O’Toole says that based on his conversations in the affected communities, the closures won’t resonate with voters, veterans or union members, who have told him privately they support the direction Veterans Affairs is going. 

The Conservatives, rather, are focusing on modernizing the current veterans’ benefits system. For instance, on Aug. 15, O’Toole announced that, if re-elected, the Tories would improve the earnings loss benefit for veterans with service-related disabilities or injuries. The proposal would let vets earn up to $10,000 in outside work, without reducing what they can collect from the government.

The Green Party has also focused on veterans as a part of their election platform, promising to reopen the nine closed offices and improve funding for former soldiers in need.

More than 21,000 veterans were receiving services at the nine now-closed offices.

These numbers, obtained by the PSAC via ATIP, originate from the September 2013 Veterans Affairs Senior Departmental Report and December 2013 survey by the Union of Veterans Affairs Employees local presidents.Note that the Brandon total includes clients at Brandon and Shilo offices.

Ridings affected

Some of the ridings affected by the office closures will experience boundary changes under the riding redistribution plans for this year’s election. And while the NDP, Liberals and Green Party have seats in the nine ridings, many constituencies are represented by Conservative MPs. Here’s a map of those ridings, including a description of the political landscape in each.

CITY

RIDING

POLITICAL LANDSCAPE

Charlottetown

Charlottetown

The riding of Charlottetown will not be affected by the redistribution changes. Liberal MP Sean Casey was elected as the MP for Charlottetown in 2011. The riding has been Liberal since 1988.

Corner Brook

Long Range Mountains

The riding of Long Range Mountains is a new riding this election. It will be composed of parts of the Humber-St. Barbe-Baie Verte riding -- held by Liberal MP Gerry Byrne -- and Random-Burin-St. George’s -- held by Liberal Judy Foote.

Sydney

Sydney-Victoria

The Sydney-Victoria riding boundaries will not change this election. The seat is currently held by Liberal MP Mark Eyking, who has represented the riding since 2000.

Thunder Bay

Thunder Bay-Superior North

The riding boundaries of Thunder Bay-Superior North will expand slightly this election, to include some of the Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing riding, currently held by NDP MP Carol Hughes. In 2008, Thunder Bay-Superior North elected then-NDP MP Bruce Hyer, who eventually left the party and joined the Greens.

Windsor

Windsor West

Windsor West, currently represented by NDP MP Brian Masse, will see one minor change in its east boundary this year, stretching slightly into the riding of Windsor-Tecumseh, held by the NDP’s Joe Comartin. Windsor-West was traditionally a Liberal riding until 2002, when Masse won the seat.

Brandon

Brandon-Souris

Brandon-Souris, a traditionally Conservative riding currently held by Larry Maguire, will experience some boundary changes in the north and expand eastward into the riding of Portage-Lisgar, held by Conservative MP Candice Bergen.

Saskatoon

Saskatoon West

Saskatoon West is a new riding this election. Its boundaries will spread over parts of the Saskatoon-Wanuskewin, currently held by Conservative MP Maurice Vellacott,and Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar, represented by Conservative Kelly Block.

Prince George

Prince George-Peace River-Northern Rockies

Prince George-Peace River-Northern Rockies is a new riding this election. It is composed of parts of the Prince George-Peace River, currently represented by Conservative MP Bob Zimmer, and Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo, held by Conservative Cathy McLeod.

Kelowna

Kelowna-Lake Country

Kelowna-Lake Country, currently held by Conservative MP Ronald Cannan,will see some slight changes under the redistribution rules.  It will not gain any new territory, but rather lose some of its western boundary to neighbouring Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola.

OTHER NON-PARTISAN EFFORTS

In addition to its Vote to Stop the Cuts campaign, the PSAC has launched a number of YouTube videos of veterans blasting the government for the office closures. Clarke is featured in one of the videos.

The Royal Canadian Legion has also protested the shutting of the district offices by sending letters to former Minister of Veterans Affairs Julian Fantino expressing concern about the closures.

With files from the Canadian Press