© Guardian photo by Teresa Wright
Egmont MP Gail Shea in her Charlottetown office
P.E.I. is now the only province without a Veterans Affairs district office, but both the NDP and the Liberals in Ottawa say they’ll continue their fight to have it reopened.
Earlier this week, the Conservative majority in the House of Commons defeated an NDP motion calling for the government to keep eight Veterans Affairs district offices across the country, including P.E.I.’s, open.
Fisheries Minister and P.E.I. MP Gail Shea voted with her colleagues against keeping the offices.
She said there are many areas in the country that do not have regional offices and stressed there are other options for veterans to access services in Prince Edward Island.
“These offices were the least busy offices, so they had a full response team but yet they didn’t have a very big caseload,” Shea said.
“It wasn’t to take services away from veterans, because what they have done is that they have taken a Veterans Affairs employee who is well-versed in veterans’ programs and put them at Service Canada in Charlottetown, so that’s one point of contact.”
An access centre has also been established in Charlottetown at the VAC department headquarters where an employee will be made available to assist veterans looking for services. A toll-free number and website are also available for at-home access, and if home visits are necessary, they too will happen, Shea said.
“So there are many points of service, many ways that veterans can access service,” she said.
“I know that change is always difficult, but you know, governments have to change things all the time because we have to respond to the need and it’s our job to spend taxpayers’ money as efficiently as we can.”
But Opposition Veterans Affairs critic Peter Stoffer said Shea is not doing her job as the government representative responsible for Prince Edward Island.
“I’d sure like to know what she said in defence of that office, and although I can’t speak for her, it probably wasn’t much,” said Stoffer, an NDP MP. “She probably just went along with the cabinet decision and that’s it.”
Stoffer maintains the loss of this office, coupled with the hundreds of job cuts in the department, will mean a major loss of services for veterans.
“If anyone believes that you’re going to get better service by cutting millions of dollars out of the DVA budget and getting rid of very highly trained, skilled professionals and moving them into so-called Service Canada offices … they’re wrong.”
All three of P.E.I.’s Liberal MPs voted in favour of the NDP’s motion.
Charlottetown MP Sean Casey has been active in fighting the cuts to VAC and closure of the district office in Charlottetown.
He pointed to the explosive meeting last week with seven veterans for which Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino was 70 minutes late. Fantino stormed out of the meeting after being challenged by the vets.
“Sadly we have a minister who seems incapable of showing compassion and what’s even sadder is, it reflects, in my view, the attitude of the government,” Casey said.
“We have a government that is single-mindedly focused on balancing the budget and everything else is secondary and that’s why Veterans Affairs has been targeted for cuts.”
Both the federal Liberal and NDP leaders have vowed to reopen the district offices if they win the next election.
But Shea accused both parties of playing politics with veterans.
“It doesn’t help the situation any, I don’t believe, and I don’t believe it looks good on any political party to be using veterans over issues like this because we owe a great deal to our veterans and we have to ensure they get the services that they need.”