How Seamus O’Regan can do the right thing

This piece was first published in the Hill Times on September 4, 2017.

Removing Minister Kent Hehr from Veterans Affairs Canada was the right thing to do. The new minister, Seamus O’Regan, must do better.

Just six days prior, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau commemorated the calamitous losses Canadians suffered on the beaches of Dieppe 75 years ago. In the midst of a downpour, the prime minister folded his umbrella, noting that enduring rain is nothing compared to the bullets of war.

Such apparently unscripted compassion has been the hallmark of Trudeau’s repeated promises to make things right for Canada’s veterans. Sadly, nothing has meaningfully changed in the department mandated to care for them. Its persistent affliction: a profound cultural disconnection from veterans’ needs in the only federal department heaquartered outside of Ottawa—in Charlottetown, P.E.I.

The best Hehr could muster in his almost 22 months as minister was an unimaginative barrage of talking points written by an insensitive senior bureaucracy. When challenged by media or veterans, he was prone to outbursts of self-righteous parroting or to abruptly end town halls, hastily heading for the door.

One would expect that the tragic circumstances that led to Minister Hehr becoming a quadriplegic and his ensuing struggles would have engendered sympathy, compassion, and a sense of urgency to make real and substantive changes at Veterans Affairs.

Unfortunately, he frequently appeared insincere and indifferent to the suffering of veterans. He preferred to let former chief of defence staff Walter Natynczyk run the show as the department’s deputy minister.

Natynczyk, like the veterans ombudsman Guy Parent, spent their adult lives in uniform then glided into privileged positions to serve bureaucratic commandments. They could not and have not been able to understand the urgency of needed changes that would improve the lives of veterans. Likewise they have sidelined and/or berated those that voice their concerns, especially via the media. Like all military members, they come from a dysfunctional military culture that views exercising freedom of expression as a betrayal of Canada and the uniform.

Minister O’Regan likewise could bring assets or emotional baggage to the job. His struggles with alcoholism may offer personal insight into the single biggest health obstacle faced by both serving members and veterans: mental health.

If Minister O’Reagan and the Trudeau government truly wish “real change” as they promised, then cultural change at the department must be their focus. Contrary to endless bureaucratic protestations, unilaterally and heartlessly switching from lifelong pensions to one-time lump sums for disabled veterans was a callous, cost-saving scheme. The proof lies in the dithering on the Liberal campaign promise to return to lifelong pensions: it will cost too much to switch back.

Replacing Guy Parent and Walter Natynczyk are necessary if the new minister wishes honest, independent, and gutsy advice.

Comprehensively rethinking the multitudinous advisory groups and stakeholder committee meetings would also go a long way towards soliciting courageous, trustworthy, knowledge-based, and credible guidance that will help all veterans and their families. Creating new groups with open nomination processes requiring clear credentials, whether they be education, valid experience, and/or a proven right to represent disabled veterans appointees, would be a good start. Operating them in complete transparency is a must that would also fulfill Liberal promises of the same.

Profound and authentic change will only occur if Canadians understands the true costs of serving in uniform. Veterans deserve their reconciliation commission through a fully public judicial inquiry into the treatment of veterans and their families over the past five decades. They need to tell their story and Canadians need to listen.

It would be regrettable if O’Regan were appointed because of his journalism background and a mediagenic personality with the potential to spin the truth. Since multiple veteran scandals in 2010, the department has been on a seven-year spin-fest, currently employing more than three dozen individuals in their communications directorate, including two directors general and five directors. Veterans don’t deserve to be publicly browbeaten with the implication that since Veterans Affairs is so tremendous, any failure to receive help must be the veteran’s fault.

The Liberals through O’Regan can effect meaningful change. Let’s hope they don’t spend the next two years until the election manipulating silence in the veterans’ community while bullying, berating, or benching anyone who speaks out.

Canadians in uniform fought and died for this democracy. Let’s repay them the very least of what they are owed: their democratic voice and fulsome participation in an open and transparent path to healing; not ceremonial figureheads, propaganda, and endless excuses to avoid doing the right thing.

Sean Bruyea, vice-president of Canadians for Accountability, has a graduate degree in public ethics, is a retired Air Force intelligence officer, and frequent commentator on government, military, and veterans’ issues.

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