Last week, the combination of military suicides and announced cuts to mental health services for veterans blew up into the perfect political public relations storm.
The first rumblings began with news that an incredibly callous notice of repayment was sent to Tom MacEachern from the Veterans Affairs Department. MacEachern is the widower of retired Cpl. Leona MacEachern, who took her own life on Christmas Day. Her death was one of eight military personnel suicides in just the past two months.
This startling and alarming frequency has shocked the military community, and the resultant media coverage has led the public to question the quality of mental health treatment for members of the military. While politicians and generals have taken to the airwaves to defend their institution and profess their care and concern for Canadian Armed Forces members and their families, the letter to MacEachern revealed a far more indifferent tone.
The notice from Veterans Affairs begins:
“We have recently been advised of the death of Mrs. MacEachern. Our most sincere sympathy is extended to you and your family at this time.”
So far, so good. Then comes the nitty gritty.
“Earnings loss benefits paid under the Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-establishment and Compensations Act are payable up to the day of Mrs. MacEachern’s death. Therefore, an overpayment of $581.67 has been created for December 2013.”
In other words, she had been prepaid until Dec. 31, but she took her own life on Dec. 25 as a result of suffering from service-related post-traumatic stress disorder, so the government calculated the six-day overpayment.
The letter advised MacEachern that he would be contacted by the “overpayment unit in the near future.”
Before that could happen, MacEachern shared his letter with the media, and an outraged public agreed wholeheartedly with his opinion that such a thoughtless bureaucratic clawback was “a slap in the face.” On the same day this story broke in the media, a delegation of veterans were in Ottawa to meet with Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Faction.
Their beef was the proposed closure of Veterans Affairs offices across the country. After some back and forth discussions with the veterans and the Public Service Alliance of Canada representatives who were assisting them, Fantino’s staff agreed to a face-to-face meeting.
The conditions set out for the meeting were that the discussion would be between the minister and the veterans only — no union reps were to be present. That was agreed to, but when the allotted time arrived, Fantino was a no-show.
In an attempt to placate the veterans, three other Conservative MPs — Laurie Hawn, Erin O’Toole and Parm Gill — were on hand to receive them. Undeterred and rankled that Fantino himself had set up the meeting then failed to attend, the veterans held their own news conference.
One can only wonder what Fantino’s handlers were thinking when they brought their minister to that Parliament Hill press room.
As has been subsequently reported and analyzed in the media, that encounter between Fantino and the angry veterans was an unmitigated disaster. The minister was not there to announce an 11th-hour stay of execution for the targeted service centres; he simply reaffirmed that he was committed to throwing the switch.
As a three-time former police chief, Fantino is an imposing figure who projects intimidation. Veterans tend to react to attempted intimidations the same way they would to a bully. Needless to say, polite discussions degenerated into an exchange of harsh words.
The optics of Fantino arguing with aging veterans was political suicide — one step short of punching a baby or kicking a dog. Some of the vets took advantage of that upper hand to denounce the Harper government and projected sending the Conservative government a message at the polls in 2015.
This, of course, unfairly paints the Conservatives as the solitary political culprits in neglecting our veterans. However, seeing the encounter with Fantino reminded me of an all-too-similar exchange in November 1998. Then, it was an angry delegation of soldiers who had been wounded while on peacekeeping duty in the former Yugoslavia and received less than adequate care and compensation from Veterans Affairs.
Representing the Liberal government was then-defence minister Art Eggleton. Like Fantino, Eggleton’s attempted appeasement failed miserably as the cameras kept rolling.
The final sound bite was one angry veteran telling Eggleton — in less scientific terms — to attempt self-procreation.
Liberals and Conservatives may come and go, but the bureaucratic indifference to veterans seems to remain unchanged.