There has been no shortage of excuses and red herrings from government to avoid making substantive improvements in the lives of Canada’s veterans and their families. This inaction has catalyzed veterans’ communities to forge a near unanimous game plan. Government has merely chosen to play another sport.
Once upon a time, government had an easy game going. It could count on the deep rivalry between veterans’ organizations to divide and conquer. Groups were quite willing to side with government against other organizations as each lobbied for their special interests behind closed doors. In the end, government was free to do little in pushing through a 50-year agenda which essentially abandoned Canadian Forces (CF) veterans and their families.
Unsightly infighting was greatly aggravated by dozens of policies and programs which each created multiple classes and subclasses of veterans. The veterans ombudsman has identified 15 categories of veterans in the long-term care program alone. The much-revered military comradeship often drove veterans of one military campaign to disparage those from other campaigns. In this hostile environment, CF veterans remained further relegated to a policy backseat.
The passage of the New Veterans Charter (NVC) in 2005 promised to change this. Government explicitly guaranteed that the legislation was a “living charter” with regular reviews and improvements to follow. In the nine years since its passage, just three modest legislative changes have been enacted even though Veterans Affairs Canada-funded advisory groups, Parliamentary committees, and internal reports have generated more than 380 recommendations, many of which require legislated and regulatory approval.
Meanwhile, government asked veterans to whittle down their demands. Two years ago, a not-so-small miracle took place. During what was called a Veterans Stakeholder Committee meeting in February 2012, 20 veterans representing 11 organizations and four experts unanimously endorsed three resolutions. They called for the immediate implementation of the above recommendations as well as those from the Gerontological Advisory Council. This was the first time since World War II that so many veteran organizations were unanimously clear and specific on their demands.
In response, not one change to legislation has since occurred in spite of VAC’s own terms of reference for the committee as “an action-oriented committee, at which issues of common interest to all participants will be identified for joint and collective action, in the best interest of veterans and their families.”
What has changed is the heavy-handed character of the Stakeholder Committee meetings. Veterans could previously receive immediate feedback from their organizations via Twitter and emails or electronically take notes, a necessity for the more disabled veterans. The meeting on Dec. 6, 2012 in Charlottetown, P.E.I., put an end to this. Veterans were instructed to relinquish their cellphones, not merely turn them off, and were not permitted to use their laptops.
“It’s childish and demeaning,” Don Leonardo, national president of VeteransofCanada.ca, an active online community of more than 7,300 veterans, told me on the phone last week. “It shows lack of trust with stakeholders. They say they want to partner with us but they don’t treat us as equals but treat us like a child :‘put your phones in the box boys and girls.’ ”
Surprisingly, most veterans in attendance complied, veterans who sacrificed defending cherished rights and freedoms such as freedom of expression.
Prior meetings and VAC’s terms of reference allowed two individuals per organization. For the disabled veterans, sharing the burden of concentration and feedback allowed for more effective representation of disabled veterans and their families.
“Support. Absolutely,” retired major Bruce Henwood, double amputee and chair of the Special Needs Advisory Group which VAC suspended one year prior, told me last week. “Two heads are better than one. It is easy to forget to say or remember important things.”
Conversely, the department and the minister are sure to bring a dozen or more staff, all supporting one another.
“Permitting only one person to attend is a control issue,” said Jerry Kovacs, director of Canadian Veterans Advocacy (CVA), in an email to me. He points out that during an October 2013 meeting, “ministerial and departmental staff almost outnumbered veterans in the room.”
Also in contravention of the terms of reference, after February 2012, VAC terminated the participation of four chairs of Advisory Groups and the Croatia Board of Inquiry. “We were uninvited,” said Bruce Henwood. “VAC adopted the ostrich syndrome. They didn’t want to hear the problems, so they didn’t want to hear from their own advisors.”
Meanwhile, another miracle occurred during a spring 2012 veterans-only meeting hosted by the Royal Canadian Legion. The organizations chose to call the government’s bluff as they put forward three specific recommendations from the hundreds outstanding. Lt.-Gen. Walter Semianiw, seconded from DND to a VAC assistant deputy minister position, took control of the December 2012 stakeholder meeting.
“Walter Semianiw asked veterans stakeholders for our three priorities from three studies,” Leonardo told me last week. “We played their game. We gave them three priorities. They did nothing. They pulled the wool over our eyes”
It all seems to be about government controlling the message, the meetings, and the veterans. The one subsequent meeting held on Oct. 2, 2013 was attended by Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino and chaired by Semianiw. The general wore his uniform amongst retired members, all who had a lower rank during their military service. This was hardly a meeting of “equals.” Cellphones were once again confiscated and observers were prohibited. The Royal Canadian Legion president, “Gord Moore was going to walk out of the meeting when Brad [White, dominion secretary] was refused to attend as an observer,” Kovacs wrote to me in an email.
The government rightly caved. The legion and Kovacs were allowed to stay. Sadly, no other veteran organization was given the opportunity to include observers or two-member participation.
VAC wrote in an email to me that the October 2013 meeting was a “stakeholder meeting” and claimed the “[VAC] engages regularly with veterans’ organizations and other stakeholders to help ensure that VAC services and benefits meet the needs of veterans and their families.”
Janice Summersby continued in the email, “VAC recognizes the value of ongoing dialogue with stakeholders and their input and feedback is used to inform decision making.”
“[T]his is a bullshit response,” said Kovacs. “There was never a list of ‘action items’ or ‘priorities’ drafted for review and discussion…which confirms that [Oct. 2, 2013] was a minister’s invitation meeting to meet some veterans organizations and not a ‘Departmental Stakeholders Meeting.’”
VAC has not held a semblance of a stakeholder meeting since December 2012 or arguably since February 2012. However, terms of reference state, “The committee will meet at least twice per year, face-to-face, in the fall and spring. Other meetings may be organized, as required, throughout the year including by way of tele- or video-conferencing.” There has never been “tele-or video-conferencing.”
What is the intention of the meetings? “[T]hese have ceased becoming consultation meetings but demands by VAC to repeat their media lines to our organizations. I am not a paid advertiser for VAC. I am there to represent the needs of the members of my organization,” said Don Leonardo.
In spite of government’s relentless ‘control’ issues vis-à-vis veterans, there is hope. Last-minute assertiveness by the Royal Canadian Legion underlines that veterans do have clout and need to exercise it if they ever wish to be treated as equal partners. Veterans have much to learn from the aboriginal community. Sadly, Canada’s First Nations have gone to court repeatedly to receive respect. After years of being given the short shrift by the federal government, aboriginal peoples now have a legal framework for meaningful two-way equal partner consultation. Government needs to declare that veterans deserve no less.
For 50 years, veterans have largely permitted government to choose the game, dictate the rules, rig the arena, and select the players on the veterans’ team. If veterans allow this to continue, they should not be surprised that they score few, if any, goals.
This piece first appeared in the Hill Times on March 3, 2014.