It was very loud and very clear – a number of local veterans are not impressed with the way the federal government has handled veterans’ affairs.
And they were no shy about voicing that opinion to Alberta MP and member of the parliamentary Standing Committee on Veteran’s Affairs Laurie Hawn, who came to Kelowna Tuesday to give a personal explaination of where Ottawa is on reforming its services and programs for vets and to hear directly from the veterans themselves.
“Why didn’t you tell us this a long time ago,” shouted one man in response to Hawn’s presentation which outlibed numerous services available to veterans. His presentation made it clear veterans are not forced to take a lump sum payout and are then left to fend for themselves.
But tat’s not how many veterans see it.
“This is a work in progress,” said Hawn, referring to the standing comittee’s recent report and 14 recommendations to improve what has become known as the “New Veterans’ Charter.”
But even though he conceded more needs to be done and the federal government has been a “crappy communicators,” when it comes to explaining what is being done and what is available for veterans, several in audience of about 30 people gathered at the RoyalCanadian Legion hall in Kelonwa were clearly angry.
Hawn, who said he came here one his own and not as a government representative, said while other stops across the country have also featured upset veterans, the Kelowna meeting was “a bit crankier” than others. But he said he did not take it personally and understood the anger.
For many veterans there is a feeling Ottawa is abrogating its responsibility to the men and women who have served in Canada’s armed forces, an obligation that the courts are currently being asked to rule on.
While Hawn said the obligation is a moral one that all Canadian governments have taken very seriously, it is not a legal one specified in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
At the meeting, Hawn,a former fighter pilot in Canada’s Air Force, was directly challenged by one disabled veteran who questioned Hawn’s financial figure for vets. Patrick Wilkins served two tours of duty in Bosnia and one tour of duty in Afghanistan before leaving the military air force. He said said he is considered 93 per cent disabled and is unemployable because of his post-traumatic stress disorder. But because he is not missing limbs, he did not receive the maximum amount available.
Wilkins said he received a lump sum of $193,700 when he left the military in 2007 after 20 years of service. He was 37 years old. He said his wife has had to look after him and provide the family income from her job. That strain has now taken a toll on her mental health and as a result, she has lost her job.
“You say ‘this is what we’re doing for you, this is all the money we’re giving these people,'” Wilkins told Hawn. “I’m one of those people and I’m not receiving that.”
He than asked when would he get what the MP said was available — when he lost his house or worse “after I’ve committed suicide?”
Other, older veterans from earlier wars who were at the meeting were equally upset, particularly by a government decision to close the Kelowna Veteran’s Affairs office, part of a cost-saving measure that targeted eight “lightly used” offices across Canada.
Hawn said while the office may be closed here, there is still a specially trained Veteran’s Affairs official at the Kelonwa Service Canada office who can help, as well as a support worker available through the Canadian Legion.
Part of the problem, said both Hawn has been convincing Veteran’s Affairs Canada to help injured veterans and show their injury was cause by their military service, in some cases well after they left the military.
Hawn conceded that has been a problem but said some of the standing committee’s recommendations are aimed at changing that, including a call to make sure an injured veteran is not released from medical care until he or she is in stable condition, a case manager is in place and benefits have been adjudicated.
He told the veterans while successive Canadian governments of all political stripes have genuinely tried to help veterans, the new changes cannot all be put in place “overnight.”
Given how government works and the huge costs involved, those changes will have to have to be introduced gradually .
But he said he is confident new Veteran’s Affairs Minister Erin O’Toole, and recently named deputy minister Walt Natynczyk, a former chief of the defence staff, are the right men for the job to make the changes happen.
He repeatedly said the changes are a “work in progress,” adding it’s also a work that may never been finished because of the “moving goalposts” that is the changing face of Canada’s military veterans.