Prince Edward Island will be the only province in Canada without a local Veteran’s Affairs office in three weeks – something the NDP and the department’s unions are fighting to reverse.
The closure of P.E.I.’s district office was announced in 2012, and ever since has been invoked by political rivals and unions as an attack on services for veterans.
During a rally in Charlottetown Friday organized by the provincial NDP, federal N.S. NDP MP Peter Stoffer said he believes it’s not too late to save the office from closing.
“It’s important to let the government know that these cuts are not acceptable and that the people of Charlottetown and Prince Edward Island simply won’t put up with it,” Stoffer said. “It is the wrong thing to do.”
Stoffer and union leaders at the rally insist the loss of this office and others like it across the country, coupled with hundreds of job cuts at Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) over the last year-and-a-half, will have serious impacts on services to Canada’s veterans.
He pointed to the string of military suicides over the last few weeks, especially the most recent revelations about Retired Cpl. Leona MacEachern, who took her own life on a Calgary highway on Christmas day.
A statement released by her husband Thursday claims she developed PTSD as a result of “protracted battles with Veterans Affairs to obtain medical benefits for issues arising from dental work in the late 1980s while stationed in Germany during the first Gulf War.”
Stoffer said Friday he has heard from numerous retired veterans, RCMP and their families similarly frustrated with the current service level at VAC.
Further losses of personnel will only make this worse, he said.
He called the department’s assurances that services will not be impacted by the cuts a “bold-faced lie. If I ask you to cut 50 per cent of your department right now, could you still provide the same local service you did yesterday?” Stoffer said.
Charlottetown’s district office is scheduled to close on Jan. 31. The department headquarters will remain open, but this is not the first point of contact for veterans seeking services.
In response to concerns raised by unions and local veterans, VAC did announce a new access centre to replace district office. It will operate with a smaller staff in the Service Canada centre in the Jean Canfield building.
But provincial NDP Leader Mike Redmond echoed Stoffer’s concerns, saying P.E.I. is being unfairly targeted by federal budget balancing measures. And this will only hurt vulnerable veterans, he said.
“To have the only province not offering those essential services is deplorable,” Redmond said.
“We’re hearing too many stories of veterans with homes with no oil who are bundled up in blankets in the cold because they’re too proud to come into the office. And now we’re telling people to go on a 1-800 number or on the Internet? That’s deplorable.”
Both Stoffer and Redmond say they are confident public and political pressure will push the Harper government to stop the imminent closure of Prince Edward Island’s district office.
Nonetheless, union representatives say the new access centre office has already opened in the Jean Canfield building and currently is only staffed by a commissionaire.