Few issues dogged the Conservatives in their last mandate more than their handling of the veterans affairs file.
But is the damage from their apparent ham-fisted approach serious enough to further damage to their chances of a fourth term in office — which is already undermined by the Duffy scandal, doubts about their handling of the economy and a back-footed response to the Syrian refugee crisis?
The issue hasn’t captured headlines in the campaign compared with just a year ago. Back then, not a day went by without reports of another young veteran’s suicide and pleas to change the way services and benefits were delivered to veterans, including closing nine Veterans Affairs offices and shuffling vets to Service Canada outlets.
Cadres of angry veterans have mobilized to defeat Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s incumbents. They may not represent all veterans, or even most of them. But they are on a mission to remind voters of the negative impressions created by the Conservatives’ response to complaints that veterans’ concerns were not being addressed.
Just how big an impact these veterans will have remains to be seen. It’s estimated Canada has about 600,000 veterans, which, if you add in two or three family members each, could be a highly influential force. If they weigh in.
The Harper government ran into trouble implementing the New Veterans Charter, which made major changes to the way benefits were paid to disabled vets. It was passed by the Liberal government in 2005-06 – with unanimous approval from all parties in the Commons – but the Tories have taken flak for refusing to make changes to amend it when problems arose, outlined in reports by the Veterans Ombudsman.
The most contentious element was the replacement of a disability pension with a lump-sum amount, paid out all at once or in annual installments. Critics argued it could leave some vets impoverished if they go through their lump payment prematurely. The issue is the subject of a court challenge.
But perhaps the most heart-wrenching issue concerned a wave of suicides involving veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many were young soldiers returning from service during Canada’s combat mission to Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Vets and their families accused the Tories of not moving fast enough to adapt mental health services and benefits to address the problem. Things reached a low point under then-Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino, a former police chief who was accused of being singularly tone deaf to the pleas of desperate veterans’ relatives.
Fantino mishandled a meeting with veterans objecting to the office closures and ran away from the wife of a veteran who suffered from PTSD.
To add insult to injury, it was reported last year that Fantino’s department had sent more than $1.1 billion in unspent funds back to the Treasury since the the Conservatives took power in 2006.
Replacing Fantino with Erin O’Toole, a more politically adept lawyer and former air force officer, helped move the veterans’ story off the front page but did little to drain the resentment from many vets.
“Erin O’Toole is a smooth operator in all the wrong ways,” Sean Bruyea, a veterans’ activist and blogger, told Yahoo Canada.
“Sadly he’s your typical lawyer mediator that makes everyone in the short term feel good but when they wake up the next morning they realize they’ve been delivered a snow job.”
Royal Canadian Legion avoids public advocacy
While a number of smaller veterans group have railed publicly against the government, the 300,000-member Royal Canadian Legion has eschewed public advocacy, opting for its traditional approach of lobbying government directly. Some veterans have criticized its silence, construing it as acquiescence.
The legion declined a request from Yahoo Canada to interview president Tom Eagles and instead sent its position paper on changes it’s recommended for the charter.
A group called Canadian Veterans ABC (Anybody But Conservatives) sprang up last year. It’s the only vets’ group officially registered with Elections Canada as a third-party participant in the election campaign and has raised almost $15,000 though an Indiegogo crowd-funding drive to pay for lawn signs and billboards it hopes to erect later in the campaign to remind voters of the issue.
Founder Tom Beaver, who also heads the seven-year-old Coalition of Canadian Veterans, said he wants older veterans like himself who’ve been treated fairly well to speak out on behalf of younger vets, especially those returning from Afghan service who are falling through the cracks under the updated rules.
“Those are the guys we’re working for,” he said in an interview. “Don’t think about yourself, think about the other people.”
More recently, a Facebook group called Erin O’Toole’s Banished Veterans was set up by vets who feel the current minister has frozen them out because of their critical views.
“I think it’s silly that a veterans affairs minister would block people on social media who are criticizing him,” Afghan veteran Matthew Luloff, a Liberal party activist and organizer of Veterans For Trudeau, told Yahoo Canada.
“I understand if people are abusive and say rude or inappropriate things. But this guy’s blocking veterans who have suggestions. They feel completely rejected.”
Liberals getting vet support for recently-unveiled plan
Luloff set up his group to spread the word about the Liberals’ veterans policy, announced a couple of weeks ago by former lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie, who was the army’s senior commander and now is running for the Liberals in the Ottawa-area riding of Orleans.
Among other things, it promises to reinstate lifelong pensions for injured veterans and boost the size of the disability award, boost various benefits and expand support for education and to help vets’ families, as well as reopen the Veterans Affairs offices the Harper government shuttered and increase the department’s staff.
It also promises to implement recommendations from last year’s auditor-general’s report for improving mental health services for veterans.
“The war in Afghanistan was absolutely horrific and there were some horrific injuries from it, both physical and mental,” Luloff said. “And I think that those supports need to be in place. We’ve now lost more veterans to suicide that we did in the actual war.”
Leslie is the most prominent of 18 veterans the Liberals say they have running for them (the NDP claims to have six vets as candidates). While it didn’t make headlines, the Liberal policy is a hit with veterans, Leslie said.
“Veterans are showing up in Liberal campaign headquarters in just about every riding saying how can I help?” he said in an interview.
Trudeau has made a firm commitment to fix what’s wrong with the veterans charter and implement the auditor-general’s recommendations, Leslie said.
“The bottom line for Mr. Trudeau was let’s fix this,” the former general said.
Leslie said he can’t understand why the Conservatives didn’t make the changes that were recommended, and calls O’Toole’s fiddling cosmetic. He doesn’t blame O’Toole or even Fantino, who he calls the government’s designated fall guy on the file.
“Quite frankly, in a highly centralized, micro-managerial prime minister’s office such as Mr. Harper’s, all Mr. Harper had to do is say we’re going to fix this; it’s going to cost some money but it’s the right thing to do, get it done,” Leslie said.
NDP to keep with previous Veterans Affairs plans
The New Democrats won’t announce what changes they’ll make for a couple more weeks, But longtime NDP veterans affairs critic Peter Stoffer suggested his past criticism of the department points to what their plan will contain.
Among other things, it would involve shaking up Veterans Affairs to streamline the often complex process of getting access to services and benefits.
“Many veterans have been denied benefits because they personally don’t know about them or they were never told about them by the DVA officials in that regard,” said Stoffer. “They were given one benefit or they were low-balled on a benefit.”
One of the biggest bottlenecks is the department’s review and appeal board. It will be reformed, he said, “so that when someone calls the [toll-free] number, the only response they should get is how can we help you?”
The NDP would also eliminate clawbacks of Canada Pension Plan and CPP disability payments for those receiving veterans benefits.
Stoffer said one thing an NDP government would not do is reinstate lifetime disability pensions. It is unnecessary if vets are informed that in addition to the lump-sum payment, they’re also eligible for supplementary benefits for injuries suffered during their service, as well as earnings-loss benefits, he said.
“In many cases veterans had no idea that these benefits, they were eligible for them,” said Stoffer, adding the NDP would amend the veterans charter so the payments would last until death, not end at age 65.
Stoffer, who’s been veterans affairs critic for most of his 18-year career as an MP, said he had planned not to run this time. But the prospect the NDP might actually win and he would be able to carry out the changes he wants convinced him to stand again.
“I was assured by the party and also by many people that I’ve worked with over the years that our policy will be implemented if we become government,” he said. “If we don’t, then I’m no longer a member of the NDP caucus. It’s as simple as that.”
Despite setbacks, Tories retain some veteran support
The Conservatives declined a request for interview with O’Toole or provide anyone to discuss their veterans policies. A spokesperson said via email the party has not announced its full platform yet but pointed to elements of the Harper government’s 2015 Action Plan, which contains a number of measures aimed at improving the lot of veterans.
Despite the overwhelmingly bad press they’ve received, the Conservatives aren’t without support in the veterans community.
Lee Humphrey of Calgary, a retired warrant officer, set up Veterans for the Conservative Party of Canada on Facebook last month that defended the Conservatives’ record, after watching comments on the anti-Harper ABC group’s Facebook page. As of last weekend it had more than 2,500 likes.
Humphrey figured a silent majority of veterans who supported the government was losing the war of words to the more vocal dissidents.
“Then I thought, you know what, silent majorities lose,” he told Yahoo Canada. “Nobody wins when they’re silent when they’re in a debate.”
The Tory record on veterans issues is not perfect, he admitted, and Fantino was not a good minister, especially when it came to amending the veterans charter with lessons learned from dealing with returning Afghan vets.
“The New Veterans Charter was not designed to deal with these 20-year-old kids that need support for a very long time,” Humphrey said, but argued “we’ve seen a lot of change in the last couple of years.”
But while opposition promises sound good, Humphrey said he doubts they would be implemented. The NDP may improve veterans’ benefits, but likely at the cost of gutting military spending.
“I’m not willing to trade my betterment for the sacrifices that I know my brothers and sisters that are still serving will have to make,” he said.
Trust in Liberals remains an issue
And the Liberals have a long record of beggaring the armed forces, dating back to the government of Justin Trudeau’s father, Humphrey contended.
“I support the proposals,” he said. “I do not support them [Liberals] because I don’t trust them.”
Anti-Conservative veterans concede that attitude runs deep among many vets, whose military careers often featured outdated equipment, little money for training and a sense the Liberals saw the armed forces as good only for peacekeeping.
“I find our message has been taken off track right now, especially on the social media part, on the Internet,” said ABC’s Tom Beaver. “A lot of people are talking about, well, when Trudeau was in power, look what he did to the military. Well, yeah, he cut the military, but that’s the military.”
It’s wrong to mix policy toward the armed forces with treatment of vets, he argued. But it may keep veterans, who are used to not speaking out, on the sidelines during this campaign.
“That’s the mentality we face,” he said. “It’s very hard to get veterans out.”
Military culture, and by extension that of veterans, traditionally is small-C conservative, Sean Bruyea observed.
“The military could always be counted on predominantly to support the Conservative party over the past at least four decades,” he said.
But there are signs that may be changing, he said, pointing to an Insights West poll last month done for Canadian Veterans ABC.
The poll indicated less than a quarter of those surveyed who’d voted Conservative in 2011 approved of the party’s handling of the veterans file. Two-thirds were dissatisfied with the government’s treatment of injured vets.
Most ominously, 33 per cent of Conservative voters said the issue was a reason to defeat the party this time.
“That really speaks to the Conservatives’ failure to manage this portfolio when they had such a head start to begin with,” said Bruyea.
“The number was quite high,” Insights West’s Mario Canseco told Yahoo Canada. “Not a majority of those voters but if you’re in a situation where you used to get 40 per cent of the vote and one in four voters leaves you … you’re not going to form the government.”
For Conservative supporters like Lee Humphrey, his efforts could be the political equivalent of an army’s rear-guard action.
“Are we too late?” he wondered. “Perhaps, I don’t know, but we’re going to try.”