One of the veterans involved in a bitter meeting with Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino earlier this week in Ottawa received a hero's welcome and vowed to continue fighting upon his return to Nova Scotia today.
The federal government has already closed one Veterans Affairs Centre in Prince George, B.C. It plans to close eight more tomorrow, including the one in Sydney.
Ron Clarke was met at the JA Douglas McCurdy Sydney Airport by 25 other veterans who wanted to thank him and cheer on his fight to keep Veterans Affairs offices open across the country.
Members of Parliament debated an NDP motion calling for the government to reverse its decision to close the offices, but delayed voting on the motion until Monday.
Offices to close:
- Corner Brook, N.L.
- Sydney, N.S.
- Thunder Bay, Ont.
- Windsor, Ont.
- Brandon, Man.
- Kelowna, B.C.
Veterans, including Clarke, were in Ottawa with union officials this week to lobby for the same thing — to no avail. There was a bitter meeting with between veterans and Fantino, which resulted in a number of opposition members calling for Fantino's resignation.
"Mr. Fantino, because he's such an ass, made it easy for us," Clarke told reporters on Thursday.
"It was a hard fight and that's all it was, was a fight. It's not the end of the war."
The veterans say they rely on the offices for one-on-one support with their financial, medical, emotional and mental health problems.
- Veteran on Julian Fantino: 'What the frig is wrong with that guy?'
- How Julian Fantino's meeting with veterans went off the rails
The government has cited a drop in demand as the reason for the office closures, and says 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, saying Service Canada officials cannot provide the same level of assistance as case managers. VAC case managers provide one-on-one support for veterans.
'Who does he think he's fooling?'
"They need the help, they need the support and the support is already here. Why take it away from us?" said Melbourne Birmingham, who served as a civilian police officer in Kosovo beginning in 2000.
Birmingham does not agree with Prime Minister Stephen Harper's assertion the centres service "very few people, had very few visits."
"Who does he think he's fooling? He's got an agenda to try and save money on the backs of veterans. He's been doing this for years and there's no need of it. It's just hogwash," said Birmingham.
"It's not going to save money, they're not going to train 600 so-called people in these service centres. It's ridiculous. I get so upset, it's hard to talk.
"What a slap in the face. It's a Canadian disgrace and this Harper government is causing it."
Clarke echoed Birmingham's sentiments, saying Canadians have the option to change things in the 2015 federal election.
He said he spoke to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau while in Ottawa. Clarke said Trudeau vowed to reopen the offices if the Liberals are elected in 2015. He said Trudeau went on to say that if veterans need a few more offices, a Liberal government would open those as well.
"Now we have the NDP, the Liberals saying that they will reopen the offices, so all we got to do is get rid of the Conservatives," said Clarke.
"I'm sure the Conservative Party will be filing into the unemployment insurance office in 2015."
Rally planned for Friday
Fantino defended the government's position and said that as of February, the points of services for veterans will be increased "16-fold." He said Veterans Affairs will have a presence in every region in Canada "coast to coast to coast."
He also laid to rest any notion that he might tender his resignation in response to the recent controversy.
"I'm not leaving," he said.
With regards to the pressing issue of mental health, Fantino said there are "no easy solutions."
"I want to reassure all veterans that they will continue to receive the specialized care and support they need, regardless of where they live," he said.
Clarke called on supporters to show up for a rally on Friday at 12 p.m. in front of the Veterans Affairs office on George Street in Sydney. The veterans say they are still hoping for a last minute reprieve.