© THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean
Minister of Veterans Affairs Julian Fantino responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa this week.
A loosely knit group of outraged ex-soldiers railed Wednesday against what it calls the insurance-company mentality of Veterans Affairs, demanding legislation spelling out the moral obligation Canada has towards its military veterans.
Over the next two weeks, the group plans a series of protests on Parliament Hill to call public attention to a system they say has long been rigged to deny and delay benefits in the hope that the claimants will eventually die.
“We’re not talking to Stephen Harper. We’re not talking to Julian Fantino. I am talking to the Canadian public,” said Linda Magill, an ex-member of the military and the wife of a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“You have to know what is happening to us because we’re the ones who had your back — and you need to have ours.”
Magill described the dizzying array of bureaucratic hoops that she and her husband have had to jump through as a “war of attrition” and said other troops in need of care often give up pleading for the benefits to which they are entitled.
The protest follows the 14 recommendations a House of Commons committee made Tuesday to make the system more responsive to the needs of former military members.
The veterans committee had some good ideas, but that’s all they will be until the government accepts and adopts them, Magill said.
The demonstrators hope to draw crowds similar in number to the demonstrations of the 1920s, when frustrated First World War veterans fought tooth and nail for recognition and a benefits system that’s been part of the fabric of military life ever since.
In its response to a class-action lawsuit launched by veterans of the war in Afghanistan, the Harper government has cast doubt on how secure that commitment might be.
Justice Department lawyers have said they intend to argue that the country has no extraordinary obligation to its soldiers, and that the current administration cannot be bound by the promises of previous governments.
That position enrages veterans, who say it violates the country’s sacred obligation to those who serve.
Among other things, the Commons committee recommended that the controversial new veterans charter be amended to include exact wording from its predecessor: that the law should be “liberally construed” in favour of veterans.
The protesters, however, say that rather fuzzy distinction is at the root of complaints about both the old and the new systems, because it has long given bureaucrats wiggle room to throw up roadblocks and deny benefits.
They say the only remedy is clear legislation or a military covenant, similar to the one in Britain which spells out that the nation has a “duty of care” to its soldiers.
“If they put it in legislation, we wouldn’t have people fighting the (class-action) lawsuit right now, where the government is saying they owe us nothing,” said Magill.
Another protest organizer, David MacLeod, who spent 27 years in uniform, said the government is guilty of spreading “half-truths” about the way veterans are being treated.
The government is quick to call on their service and call them heroes, but leaves them mired in a bureaucratic swamp when it comes time for compensation.
“If you can’t afford the wounded, you can’t afford the war,” MacLeod said.
The Conservatives have claimed they are cutting red tape at Veterans Affairs. Just last week, Fantino argued before the Commons committee that the government has injected an additional $4.7 billion into the system since 2006.
“In fact, the seriously injured veteran is eligible for thousands of dollars each month, up to and including after age 65,” Fantino told the committee.
“In some cases, a veteran can receive over $10,000 a month in financial compensation. This is in addition to two major tax-free award payments totalling in excess of up to a half-million dollars.”