OTTAWA - Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino appeared to add insult to injury late Tuesday in firmly rejecting the pleas of ex-soldiers to halt the impending closure of eight of the department's regional offices.
A scheduled meeting with a delegation of veterans, at least one from the Second World War, was abruptly cancelled and the group met with senior Conservatives, including MP Laurie Hawn and the minister's chief of staff.
Just before veterans were set to hold a late evening news conference, Fantino met with them in a basement office on Parliament Hill to reinforce the message that the centres would close on schedule.
"The decision has been made," Fantino said before leaving for another meeting. "We have found alternate accommodations that we feel will adequately address veterans and their needs."
Centres — in Kelowna, B.C., Saskatoon, Brandon, Man., Thunder Bay, Ont., Windsor, Ont., Sydney, N.S., Charlottetown and Corner Brook, N.L. — are slated to shut down Friday as part of a move to more online and remote services. A ninth office has already closed in Prince George, B.C.
One veteran, Ron Clarke, said the minister's brusk and disrespectful treatment has succeeded in alienating him from a core Conservative constituency, and he urged ex-soldiers to take out their frustration at the ballot box in 2015.
"I would like to call for Mr. Fantino's resignation — or firing," Clarke said. "Mr. Harper and his Conservatives had best be prepared for the next election. There are two (other) parties who said they'd open our offices, and (soldiers) might want to think about voting for them, but not the Conservatives."
Seven veterans, including Roy Lamore whose service dates back to the 1940s, says he and others feel betrayed by a government that promised to take care of them and younger soldiers.
"These closures will put veterans at risk," Lamore, a resident of Thunder Bay, told a Parliament Hill news conference. "I hope the government is listening. Why do we, as veterans, have to beg?"
But earlier in the day during question period in the House of Commons, the prime minister brushed aside the criticism and noted that veterans can still get everything they need from the less specialized 584 Service Canada offices coast-to-coast.
With the declining veterans population, Stephen Harper suggested, the Second War World-era structure had out lived its purpose.
"There are a small number of service centres that are being closed that frankly service very few people, had very few visits," Harper told the House of Commons.
"That's being replaced with 600 service centres across the country, and in an increased number of cases employees will actually go and meet veterans instead of the other way around."
Harper also pointed to increased investments the Conservatives have made under the New Veterans Charter.
NDP Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair linked the imminent cuts to the increasing number of soldiers and ex-soldiers who've taken their lives since the fall.
"When our forces are facing a crisis of eight military suicides in two months, there's never been a more important time to maintain those services," Mulcair said.
Former corporal Bruce Moncur, who was wounded in Afghanistan in 2006, says the online system has increased frustration even among his Internet-savvy friends seeking benefits and treatment.
Filling out forms and navigating the department's bureaucratic maze has taken him up to a week, he said, when just one office visit would have sorted it out in a morning.
Moncur, who suffered a shrapnel wound to the head, says he believes it's a deliberate strategy to reduce use of services.
"When you keep getting the door slammed in your face, you just end up giving up," he said. "It's the no-go policy. If you're told 'No' enough times, you'll go away."
Following the meeting, Moncur pleaded with veterans to not be discouraged and file for the benefits to which they are entitled.
The Public Service Alliance of Canada, which represents Veterans Affairs staff, has been running a high-profile campaign against the closures. One of the frontline workers, Michelle Bradley, said she feels defeated and ashamed because veterans will no longer get the personal service they deserve.
The union says the specialized knowledge of veterans staff cannot be replicated at Service Canada centres, where the public applies for employment insurance and even social insurance numbers.
The inability to access services, particularly mental health, could have dire consequences, other veterans warned.
One ex-soldier at the news conference soberly recounted the struggle of a comrade, who took his own life years after being wounded in Cyprus.
The Harper government plans a series of commemorations this year to mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in France, as well as the centennial of the start of the First World War.
"It's really convenient to show yourself in such a commemorative way, except services are required," said Moncur. "I think the money would be better spent to help veterans that need the help."