When Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino sits down with several veterans organizations in Quebec City’s historic Citadel on Wednesday, there will be some groups on the outside looking in.
Fantino’s department has snubbed groups who’ve loudly criticized the Conservatives’ implementation of the contentious New Veterans’ Charter, freezing them out of an annual stakeholders’ meeting, which they’d previously attended.
Officials would not discuss the arrangements publicly, but the groups not invited to the Quebec meeting largely coincide with those who’ve also been exiled from the Royal Canadian Legion’s assembly of veterans organizations that meets twice yearly to consult on common issues.
The dissidents claim Veterans Affairs is colluding with the legion to isolate the government’s most vocal critics, something that both parties deny. Regardless, a sizable number of veterans won’t be represented at the table as Fantino updates others on what his department is doing.
"Minister Fantino will be at the stakeholder meeting tomorrow and looks forward to meeting with veterans,” Ashlee Smith, a spokeswoman for the minister, said via email Tuesday. “[He will meet with] veterans stakeholders and experts on a host of issues in the continued effort to improve veterans benefits and programs."
While the legion is Canada’s best-known veterans’ group, there are dozens of other organizations, some of them very small, that represent members of various armed services and eras of service.
Veterans Affairs estimates there are about 700,000 veterans in Canada. The legion claims to have about 308,000 members, which includes veterans’ families.
Many groups, including the legion, have been at odds with Veterans Affairs over the veterans charter, passed by the Liberals in 2005 and implemented by the Conservatives the following year, most prominently over changes to the treatment of wounded vets.
The Commons Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs, after holding hearings, issued a report last June with 14 recommendations for changes to the charter. The department said some were being implemented immediately and committed in principle to the others.
Legion dominion secretary Bradley White said he wants to see signs of progress at the Quebec meeting on what he called “meat and potatoes” issues regarding earnings loss benefits, lump-sum disability payments and equitable treatment for different classes of reservists hurt or killed on active service.
“If we don’t get that, we continue to push,” White told Yahoo Canada News on Tuesday.
But the dissidents have their doubts. They’ve been pushing for the legion to go beyond the letter-writing and lobbying strategy to get the government to improve the charter. They say their outspokenness in the last couple of years has triggered a backlash.
Dissident vets launched boycott
A half-dozen veterans’ groups held a news conference in Ottawa about two weeks ago to announce a new Canada Coalition for Veterans, along with a boycott of Veterans Affairs photo opportunities and news releases until things improve, especially for the most severely injured vets.
But spokesmen for the dissidents say the legion began freezing them out last spring after the last meeting of its assembly.
Some received emails from White last month saying they would no longer be invited to the consultative assemblies. A review over the summer determined they did not meet organizational criteria, including “an established and identifiable membership, a democratic leadership model with accountability to its membership, and an established organizational structure preferably with accreditation and registration,” he wrote.
In a previous interview with Yahoo Canada News, White suggested the dissidents had withdrawn from the assemblies.
“They take a different view on how to advocate than what they believe other organizations should, so I guess they’ve decided not to participate any more and join their own organization,” White said.
But on Tuesday he conceded the legion’s review was behind the culling of assembly invitees.
“Basically we look at groups that need to be accountable to members and we looked at their membership structures and what the criteria were to be part of the groups and, determined that some of these groups did not meet that type of criteria,” White, a retired lieutenant-colonel, said in an interview.
Some of the ostracized groups, such as Canadian Veterans Advocacy, do indeed exist mostly online and their memberships are virtual. Veterans of Canada, which claims almost 7,600 members, was one of the groups that got an email from White.
Founder Don Leonardo, classed as severely disabled due to post-traumatic stress disorder developed during service in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, found himself off the list for the Quebec meeting after attending previous sessions.
“We’ve been left out of this meeting,” Leonardo told Yahoo Canada News. “We have a larger understanding of the modern veterans than any other group and now there is no representation from the modern veterans with both the legion and the stakeholders.”
Leonardo believes his organization was punished for showing up at the dissident coalition boycott announcement, though it is not part of that group. After asking why it was not invited to Quebec, Leonardo said he got a text message from Michael Quinn, Fantino’s manager of stakeholder and caucus affairs.
“His text back to me said, to be fair in that case you did stand in front of cameras with them in boycott [ing] government events,” said Leonardo.
Fantino’s office apparently interpreted the boycott to cover not just photo ops and involvement in department announcements but also closed-door meetings.
“What’s interesting is the same groups that aren’t invited to the legion one are the same ones that aren’t invited to the minister’s one, which shows a degree of collusion between the legion dominion command and the minister’s office, which is disturbing to say the least,” said retired air force captain Sean Bruyea, a blogger and veterans’ advocate.
He said some groups that pass muster with the legion are largely moribund, like the Canadian Naval Air Group, made up of vets from the long-defunct Canadian navy’s air arm. Others, such as the Canadian Peacekeeping Veterans Association and the NATO Veterans Association, do not disclose membership figures, Bruyea claimed.
Critic says Veterans Affairs want ‘subservient’ groups
Bruyea, who helped set up the dissidents’ Ottawa news conference, said he believes Fantino’s department wants relatively compliant groups at the table to give the appearance of support for its policies.
“I think the minister’s going to try to corral further the veteran community through these organizations,” he said in an interview. “They have traditionally shown themselves to be more subservient, deferential and at many times sycophantic to government.
“It really raises the question of who’s serving who here. As we’ve seen with frequent photo ops, it appears that veterans are serving government as opposed to government serving veterans.”
The legion’s Bradley White firmly believes working from the inside – letter-writing, lobbying MPs – will lead to progress on the recommended changes to the New Veterans Charter.
“We worked that scenario with the funeral and burial benefits into the last budget and it seemed to work fairly well, and we’re doing the same thing with this one as well,” White said.
But even he’s not sure what to expect when he sits down with Fantino in the Citadel on Wednesday.
“I can tell you the Royal Canadian Legion has submitted a bunch of points that it would like to see on the agenda but we have not seen the agenda,” said White.