Veterans say Fantino treated them with disrespect in meeting over VA office closures
A delegation of veterans is calling on Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino to resign, saying he treated them with disrespect over a scheduled meeting to discuss the closure of eight of his department’s regional offices.
The meeting had been scheduled for late Tuesday afternoon.
“I would like to call for Mr. Fantino’s resignation -- his resignation or (have him) fired. What he’s done today is unbelievable, unacceptable, and shameful,” said Ron Clarke, a 73-year-old retired sergeant who served nearly 36 years in the Canadian military.
Chris Aylward, national executive vice-president of PSAC, said a meeting had been confirmed for 5 p.m. ET.
“The veterans went to the minister’s office and waited, and waited, and waited, and were told the minister was called away on business, and he will not be able to meet with you,” he said.
Before the group was to hold a presser, Aylward said Fantino appeared, answered a few questions, and then left again.
Fantino’s office explained his initial absence by saying the minister had to attend a vote in the House and his attendance there was mandatory.
“One of the most important parts of the job is to meet with Veterans and hear their concerns firsthand,” Fantino said in a press release. “We had a candid conversation today. I am always willing to hear from Veterans face-to-face on any issue.”
The delegation, which included veterans of the Second World War, and the Public Service Alliance of Canada, has warned the government that regional office closures will spell hardships for aging veterans who will be forced to travel long distances in order to obtain services and benefits.
Earlier, Roy Lamore, a Second World War veteran from Thunder Bay, Ont., said veterans were “being betrayed” by the government.
“These closures will put veterans at risk,” Lamore said. “I hope the government is listening. Why do we, as veterans, have to beg?”
Offices in Kelowna, B.C., Saskatoon, Brandon, Man., Thunder Bay, Ont., Windsor, Ont., Sydney N.S., Charlottetown and Corner Brooke, N.L., are scheduled to close Friday as the government moves to more online services.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper brushed aside criticism of the closures Tuesday, saying during daily question period that veterans will still be able to get everything they need from the 584 less-specialized Service Canada offices located across the country.
He said with the declining number of veterans in Canada, the Second War World-era structure has outlived its purpose.
"There are a small number of service centres that are being closed that frankly service very few people, had very few visits," Harper told the House of Commons. "That's being replaced with 600 service centres across the country, and in an increased number of cases employees will actually go and meet veterans, instead of the other way around."
Harper went on to say that the Conservative government has “vastly” increased the mental health services available to veterans.
NDP Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair responded by saying the Conservative government was simply out of touch with needs of veterans.
“This is what happens when you enter you ninth year in power: you believe your own talking points. The veterans have a completely different version of this,” he said. "When our forces are facing a crisis of eight military suicides in two months, there's never been a more important time to maintain those services.”
Some veterans were also warning that the inability to access services could also have dire consequences on former soldiers suffering from mental health issues.
A December report from the Library of Parliament says there will be 5,900 new veterans released from the Canadian Forces in the next few years who will suffer from mental health issues, with at least 2,750 veterans who will suffer from severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
Military Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Tom Lawson spoke to CTV’s Canada AM on Tuesday morning to highlight mental health issues in the military as part of “Bell Let’s Talk” day -- a campaign that aims to reduce stigma surrounding mental health issues.
Lawson says the government’s decision to close Veterans Affairs offices across the country will affect all veterans, but says “everything they do is done with the greatest compassion, intensity and with the best outcomes in mind for our veterans.”
Meanwhile, Canadian Forces Ombudsman Pierre Daigle recently told Canada AM that the Canadian Forces are 62 mental health professionals short of their target of 450 workers.
Asked when those staffing levels would be fixed, Lawson said the Canadian Forces are in the final interview processes for about 55 to 58 of mental health professional positions.
“We’re in competition with the rest of Canadian society for mental health workers because this is of course a societal problem,” he said. “A cluster of suicides before Christmas and more already to start the year has our great concern …We have to do better, we have to bring those (numbers) down.”
With files from The Canadian Press