Veterans' Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn met with residents at Canada's only federally controlled veterans hospital on Monday to reassure them about the government's plans to transfer responsibility for the facility to the province of Quebec.
Veterans at Ste. Anne's Hospital in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue worry the quality of services at the hospital could suffer with the transfer.
The federal government announced plans last fall to turn over the institution on Montreal's West Island, the last of 18 federally run veterans hospitals, to the provincial government.
The facility is more than just a hospital, said some of the more than 400 veterans who live there. It also offers a social club, which is a magnet for veterans living in the community.
'In a few years when we really need this place, we are going to be more vulnerable than ever,' — Veteran Morris Brady
"The camaraderie is great," said veteran Morris Brady, who uses the hospital's liaison service. "They have a state of the art exercise room for us, we have meetings and go out for dinners together.
"It is wonderful for all of us. I'm 93 and if I didn't have that it'd be kind of boring," said Brady, who served with the Canadian Grenadier Guards in Europe during the Second World War.
Other veterans expressed concern about the availability of services in English once the province takes over.
But Blackburn, who spent an hour meeting with about 100 veterans and their families, said the veterans' needs will remain the No.1 priority, though they are changing with Canada's newer generations of veterans, including those who served in Afghanistan.
"The veterans who are here in Ste. Anne's Hospital, they have served in Second World War or the Korean War," Blackburn said. "Their average age is 86 to 88 years old. The new veterans, they are young … they don't need long-term beds."
More and more veterans also prefer to receive services in their own communities, Blackburn said.
The hospital, which houses more than 400 veterans, is no longer sustainable in its current format, Blackburn said. One floor of the hospital is empty, leaving 33 long-term care beds unused. Those facilities could be used by the province, the minister said.
But Brady remains skeptical about the plan. He said many veterans have asked for a written guarantee services won't be compromised.
"In a few years when we really need this place, we are going to be more vulnerable than ever — not only physically but perhaps mentally," he said. "We won't be able to fight for our rights as much so it is pretty important to have that now."
Negotiations to complete the transfer of the hospital will likely take about two years, Blackburn said.