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A soldier-turned-author has released a damning new book revealing the Harper government’s failure to care for veterans returning home from war just 48 days before the federal election.
In their book A Dirty Little Skirmish launched on Sept. 1 in Halifax, former army sergeant David MacLeod and writer Harold Leduc chart the battle veterans must wage to access needed benefits and services from a government in denial, as former soldiers endure waiting lists for medical care and injury claims turned down by Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC).
MacLeod is a former member of the Conservative Party, but became disillusioned by their treatment of veterans in recent years.
“Veterans are fighting for the very things that the average Canadian is concerned about: access to pensions, healthcare, the application of the rule of law, and human rights," said MacLeod.
"What veterans are fighting for affects Canadians directly. If veterans lose these skirmishes for pensions, healthcare, and rule of law, Canadians may eventually have less money in their pocket and fewer rights and freedoms.”
According to MacLeod, failures under Harper include the closure of nine VAC offices across Canada, slashing of 900 department jobs, the government arguing in court that it does not have a sacred obligation to military members, and axing lifetime pensions for ex-soldiers.
The general public appears to share MacLeod's assessment. An Insights West poll surveying 1,006 Canadians from Aug. 19-21 has already revealed widespread anger at veterans’ treatment, with 73 per cent of respondents stating they were either ‘moderately’ or ‘very’ dissatisfied with the government’s treatment of wounded war veterans.
Of those dissatisfied, 64 per cent had voted Conservative in the 2011 election.
One of the book's examples is the Veterans Review and Appeal Board (VRAB), which reports to both VAC and the Minister of Justice. According to MacLeod and Leduc, both VAC and the Ministry of Justice have failed to equally apply the law in its dealings with veterans, while neither the Justice nor VAC ministers have addressed this situation properly.
A number of veterans have already accused the VRAB of treating former service members disrespectfully, including Leduc, who himself served on the board and sided with ex-soldiers when reviewing their cases.
However Leduc accused VRAB members of breaching his privacy when members passed his PTSD diagnosis around the agency, prompting him to make a direct appeal to PM Harper for a judicial investigation into the board's management.
In early 2012, a portion of Leduc's letter to Harper was read out in Parliament by NDP veterans critic Peter Stoffer, but then-veterans affairs minister Steven Blaney dodged calls for an investigation.
“If a bureaucratic system can react this way to veterans, another bureaucracy can act and react the same to other Canadians. By bringing awareness to the public we can stop this ‘culture of denial’ from spreading into other areas of federal bureaucracy,” said MacLeod.
In his view, government denial stemmed from government bureaucrats allowing their personal biases to run riot by handing jobs to people from the ruling party, leading to situations such as the Duffy-Wright scandal.
“The detrimental culture of denial is the result of bureaucratic failure, patronage appointments, and a failure of governing parties to ensure the law is followed. These three issues have to be addressed as they indicate rot within our democratic institutions,” said MacLeod, when asked what needs to change after Oct. 19.
“The reforms that are outlined within the book consider the needs of veterans 20 years from now. How do I know what they will need? One of my suggested reforms is to track each veteran for the rest of their life. We need to know what policies and programs work, who needs them and who does not,” said MacLeod.
Currently, VAC only tracks those veterans receiving benefits, but many who do not know that they are eligible for help or services simply fall through the cracks, suffering problems from bankruptcy to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“If there is a trend in illness then the soldier needs to be contacted. Currently, there is no tracking or concern for a veteran’s health once released from the CAF (Canadian Armed Forces)," said MacLeod. "The onus is squarely on the veteran who, through no fault of his own, may become ill later in life but attribute that illness to another event or situation. Cancer is a good example.”
Despite the uphill struggle many former military members face, MacLeod remained hopeful that A Dirty Little Skirmish would serve as a tool for educating not only veterans about their rights, but also politicians, academics, and policy-makers about the system that oversees the welfare of former armed forces members.
MacLeod described A Dirty Little Skirmish as a kind of textbook: "Veterans' Claims 101."
For now the "culture of denial" appears to be unchanged, to the detriment of many former military personnel—most recently exemplified by the Harper government abandoning a survey of veterans asking them how happy they were with VAC’s services.
VAC did not say why they cancelled the survey, but Harper’s NDP opponents were quick to pounce, saying the Tories did not want any confirmation that veterans were upset with the level of care they were receiving under the Tories.
Anti-Tory anger among veterans is already mounting across Canada, as scores of disgruntled ex-Forces members are rallying under the banner of the Anyone But Conservative (ABC) Veterans Campaign 2015, a movement dedicated to taking down the Harper government.
In the Aug. 19-21 Insights West poll, 55 per cent of respondents ‘strongly’ or ‘moderately’ agreed that Harper’s failure to support veterans was one reason to vote him out on Oct. 19.