Federal Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino has been invited to Cape Breton for an emergency meeting on Monday to discuss the controversial closure of the Veterans Affairs offices.

The nine members of the provincial Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs issued the invitation on Thursday, requesting the minister and his deputy to appear in Sydney despite the office there closing two weeks ago.  

The all-party committee, which was formed before the recent closure of nine Veterans Affairs offices across the country, is still waiting on a response from Fantino.

"I'm ever the optimist — so I am, I am hopeful," said Liberal MLA Patricia Arab.

Veterans protest service office closures

Veterans and PSAC members make their way to hold a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Jan. 28. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Arab said whatever Fantino decides, the meeting will go ahead.

"We were also hopeful that we would have a bit of funding for our veterans reinstated in our federal budget but unfortunately that wasn't the case. That was the necessity of this emergency meeting," she said.

"This is why we want to make sure it stays on the forefront of our federal counterparts' minds and we want to be able to work with them and we want to be able to support our veterans."

Arab said the committee has lined up well-known veteran Ron Clarke — a 36-year veteran of the Canadian Forces — as a witness.

"We're going to be able to speak directly to Ron Clarke, and we're hoping there will be other veterans accompanying him that would like to speak with us — give us that opportunity — and we're extremely hopeful that we'll have the federal minister appear before us as well," said Arab.

This was the first meeting of the provincial committee since it was formed more than two months ago.

Vets say they rely on offices

The veterans say they relied on the offices for one-on-one support with their financial, medical, emotional and mental health problems.

The government has cited a drop in demand as the reason for the office closures and said it is still offering assistance via Service Canada centres in affected areas. Veterans Affairs Canada will also continue to provide services online.

But veterans and opposition members say those are insufficient replacements and that Service Canada officials cannot provide the same level of assistance as case managers. Veterans Affairs case managers provide one-on-one support for veterans.

Premier Stephen McNeil defended the committee's Liberal chairwoman, Pam Eyking, who was criticized by the Progressive Conservatives on Thursday for reacting too slowly to the closures.

McNeil said it made sense to wait until after the federal budget was tabled Tuesday to confirm that Ottawa was going ahead with a plan that has been widely criticized by veterans, especially after a testy exchange Fantino had with veterans in Ottawa on Jan. 28.

"That's when this issue became an issue for the provincial government," he said.

"It was our hope that we would have seen some change from the federal government in the budget."

McNeil said the timing of the emergency meeting had nothing to do with the fact Eyking had taken a four-week vacation in Australia that ended late last month.

"One had nothing to do with the other," he said. "Every member of the legislature takes vacations."

With files from The Canadian Press