BY MICHAEL NICKERSON
Only weeks into the job and his work is done. Or so you might think. Having just taken the reigns of Veterans Affairs during the summer cabinet shuffle, Jolly Julian Fantino issued a heart-warming statement to veterans and Canadians everywhere. He talked of devotion, care, support and honour; a love letter of sorts to veterans, and an assurance to Canadians. The Harper Government™ cares and supports our veterans. Always has, always will. Someone pass a tissue. Sniff. Sniff.
To hear Fantino tell it, all is just about perfect with his new portfolio. Built on a sound foundation that is the New Veterans Charter, and backed up with fresh funding, a Veterans Bill of Rights, a new Veterans Ombudsman and dramatically improved (his words) range and quality of services for veterans, his ministry is ticking over like a well-oiled machine. One can almost see him pinching himself for his good luck, and planning a long vacation until the next election. There’s nothing to do, after all.
Strangely for Jolly Jules and his newly inherited charges at Veterans Affairs, there are those who take issue with these warm and fuzzy notions. They take issue with the New Veterans Charter, viewing it as a betrayal and a cash grab. Where Fantino talks of care and support, they see callousness and bureaucratic belligerence. There are legions of Canada’s war veterans who don’t seem to be living in the same fantasy world as their appointed minister.
In their world, they have had to complain, publically protest and take the very government and country they served to court, be it for disability claw backs or the patent injustice of cost saving over commitment of the charter Fantino so expounds.
You wouldn’t think Canadian veterans would have to do such things, but they do. Most recently, six Afghanistan War veterans filed a class action lawsuit last fall to fight against the lump sum payments provided under the New Veterans Charter instead of the lifetime pensions under the old Pension Act. It is a fight to restore a long-term commitment, what the Royal Canadian Legion calls a social contract, between veterans and government, one that has existed since Canada fought WWI.
Like many fights, like many wars, it has been all too avoidable.
The government’s legal response to all of this was not particularly jolly; more like cold and clinical, as one might expect from lawyers, if not from a veteran-supportive government. The response to those veterans, in short, was: we owe you nothing. Once you’re paid off, we’re done. Go away. And please judge, toss out this “frivolous and vexatious” lawsuit.
For those who have been following the issue, The Harper Government’s™ legal response is not surprising. It has involved a long-term exercise of debate and criticism met with rhetoric and whitewash. The first Veterans Ombudsman, Col. (ret’d) Pat Stogran, has had to publically and courageously raise hell, losing his job, and having his criticisms and character publically questioned to the point of ridicule. His successor, Chief Warrant Officer (ret’d) Guy Parent, to his credit, has kept the heat on (if at a low boil) with both an evaluation of the New Veterans Charter and preparation of critiques and suggested changes in anticipation of this fall’s parliamentary review.
There have also been a myriad of media stories and reports about veterans and their families suffering the physical and mental effects of war, conflict, and the rigours military service demands. Add to that the protests, rallies, and documentaries, and one wonders why the disconnect between Fantino’s fantasy land and the reality veterans face exists at all?
If my recent experiences are anything to go by, it’s because the “average” Canadian hasn’t bothered to understand the issue.
At a Liberal by-election candidate’s “meet and greet” for Justin Trudeau’s handpicked replacement for Bob Rae, namely Chrystia Freeland, former journalist and now champion for the middle class, the question was posed to her (by yours truly): What are your thoughts regarding the New Veterans Charter? “I’ll have to dodge that one” was the response. Handpicked indeed. What was worse was a supporter who expressed his unmitigated support for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms he thought I was talking about. Irony.
So why does this continue? Because Canadians are happy to wave flags, rename highways, inscribe scotch bottles and wear ribbons, pendants and bumper stickers in support of veterans, thinking they’re doing the right thing. They’re not. And until they realize that, Fantino can keep living his fantasy.