By Michael Nickerson
We are told from a young age that patience is a virtue. We are told that all things come to those who wait. There seems to be a general consensus amongst those who tell things to people that it’s a good thing to sit like a statue and wait for a bird to crap on your shoulder. While there are certainly merits to not rushing a nice rack of ribs while the dinner bell rings, there aren’t any when your defence minister gets it in his head to be serene and spasm-free in the face of good advice, particularly when it comes to this country’s veterans.
The defence minister in question is none other than LCol. (ret’d) Harjit Sajjan, that suave, dulcet-toned, and always sensible sounding member of Team Justin™ out there making sunny ways and sunny days sound that extra bit silky. But increasingly as the honeymoon wears off and the good citizens of Canada start to look for actual results, Sajjan’s silk is getting a little frayed.
For there is one issue neither Sajjan nor the rest of his Trudeau team really wants to confront, much less pay for, and that is the welfare of our veterans from recent wars and deployments. Be they Liberal or Conservative, previous governments have sent soldiers off to the meat grinder never thinking about the legacy of their decisions. Sure, they’re good for some votes at election time, but let’s move on, shall we?
Well, enter National Defence and Canadian Forces Ombudsman Gary Walbourne. While he didn’t exactly move with great haste, he certainly did move on. Back in the summer of 2014, Walbourne and his fellow “watchdog” Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent made some media hay by announcing that they would delve into the duplication that existed between their respective ministries. Specifically, issues of transition from military to civilian life, from one ministry to the other, or from the frying pan and into the fire as one might say.
What they found wasn’t exactly startling, though as Walbourne reported, it was and is “heartbreaking.” Soldiers borrowing and couch-surfing while waiting months for their veterans benefits to start after their military pay is cut off upon discharge; homelessness, substance abuse, and suicide amongst those caught in a bureaucratic quagmire while pencil pushers at two different ministries sort through their filing cabinets; and endless empty promises to fix the problem, leaving the solution more “a concept, not a reality” after successive governments with a penchant for talk over action.
However, what was startling was Walbourne’s rather elegant and simple solution to the problem, seemingly a rare thing in this day and age. In short, do not allow a soldier to be medically discharged until all their benefits and paperwork are lined up and ready. Common sense, don’t cha think? And you can be sure that if National Defence is stuck with keeping personnel on the payroll until everything is ready to go, there will be no buck passing and more than a few fires lit under bureaucratic butts.
But slowdown there, hombre! Sure, there are some problems, but let’s not get our knees all in a jerk here with, as Sajjan sees it, “piecemeal” solutions. For as the good minister and retired soldier who likely isn’t worrying about how he’s going to make next month’s rent put it, Veterans Affairs is “well-established and has the resources to fulfil this task.” That they haven’t been adequately fulfilling it for years seems not to matter a whit, nor the human misery that has been the result. Just stay calm and we’ll make sure we get it right at some indeterminate time down the road. Now there’s a good soldier.
In his mandate letter to Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr, Justin Trudeau asked Hehr “to work closely with your colleague the Minister of National Defence to ensure a seamless transition for Canadian Forces members to the programs and services of your department.” Now it may be that Hehr and Sajjan have been burning the midnight oil tackling the issue.
But the fact remains that the process is not seamless, is nowhere near seamless, and isn’t likely to be seamless anytime soon. And as “kneejerk” and “piecemeal” as some might find it, there should be a commitment that soldiers remain on the payroll until it is seamless. And that commitment should begin now.