Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss?

The Prime Minster replaced the embattled Minister of Veteran’s Affairs this week in a move that many feel was both inevitable and overdue.  After years of gaffes, bad press, and general distrust the relationship between Canada’s veterans and Stephen Harper’s government was at an all-time low and something had to give.   The question that remains is whether this is an entire re-set or merely a sleight of hand designed to take the heat off in an election year.

For most people it is a no-brainer and the new Minister (Erin O’Toole) will be seen as a last ditch effort to fix what has become an embarrassing story.  Mr. O’Toole is certainly affable enough, and by all accounts appears to have a much better relationship with veterans than his predecessor (Julian Fantino) ever did.  But the old saying that a fish stinks from the head down must be applied here and, as much as he may want to deflect blame toward others, the Prime Minister has to answer for the reputation his government has earned with veterans.

Consider the body of work that Minister Fantino oversaw in his short time on the job. His ‘lowlights’ include arriving an hour late for meeting with veterans and then shouting at them - which was captured by cameras and made headlines across the country.  Already reeling from a ten percent budget cut, he forced Veterans Affairs to close regional offices and cut staff by 25 percent.  This was followed up by revelations that the department routinely didn’t spend its allotted money and has returned more than a billion dollars to the Treasury since 2006.  Add to that an Auditor General’s report that tells us Veterans Affairs is too slow providing mental health services for veterans and it is no wonder that veterans groups have committed to defeating the government in the next election.

New Democrats have many suggestions that could help the government re-set the relationship and, more importantly, help veterans themselves.  It begins with re-opening regional Veterans Affairs offices, which was the straw that broke the camel’s back for many.  In addition to that, it is time to implement the unanimous New Veterans Charter report recommendations from the House of Commons Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs; eliminate the CPP claw-back at age 65 for disabled and retired CF and RCMP veterans; allow all modern-day veterans access to long term care beds; eliminate the Veterans Review and Appeal Board; call an inquiry into the chemical spraying at CFB Gagetown, and offer compensation to military members and civilians who were exposed.

For the Conservatives this must be a tough circle to square. On the one hand they wrap themselves in the flag and leap at any opportunity to proclaim their support for our troops.  At the same time, they undermine the well-being of those who have served in our forces and are only  asking for what they were promised when they joined.  For most Canadians there isn’t even a debate to be had.  Our veterans served our country in good faith, through thick and thin.  In return, it is our duty to ensure their well-being is attended to the BEST of our abilities.