Veterans across Canada staged protests on Saturday to rally against $226 million in proposed budget clawbacks targeting Veterans Affairs.
The veterans worry that the cuts to the department will substantially affect their benefits, despite assurances to the contrary from the government.
At a demonstration in Halifax's Grand Parade square, dozens of protesters — some wearing their military honours — argued that Veterans Affairs Canada should be sacrosanct when it comes to budget trimming.
Speaking from Ottawa, Michael Blais, the founder and president of the non-profit lobby group Canadian Veterans Advocacy, told CBC News Saturday that veterans should be protected from the negative consequences of the deficit reduction.
"We do not feel that veterans who have served this country, who have been seriously injured, should have their treatment …dictated by a government's policy on fiscal stability," he said.
Cuts in addition to strategic review
Canadian Veterans Advocacy, which organized rallies in several cities including Charlottetown, Montreal and Calgary, called on all "patriotic citizens" to join the demonstrations to show their dissatisfaction with changes to the Veterans Charter, which replaced lifetime disability pensions with lump-sum payments.
In an interview with CBC News, Blais used himself as an example to demonstrate what he characterized as a large inequity between the way funds were distributed before, and the apparently diluted financial support future veterans will receive.
"I've had two back operations, I'm deaf on the right side," he said. As a result of those injuries, Blais said, he is eligible to receive $1,500 a month — tax-free — for the remainder of his life.
By the time he reaches the age of 85, Blais said, he stands to benefit from $2 million through his compensation package.
"At the same time, someone who was injured after 2006, who suffers the same debilitations as I do, gets $140,000. That's simply not fair."
Government to pump $2B into department
In addition to the $226 million in proposed cuts, the veterans point out that Ottawa's Strategic and Operating Review aims to cut five per cent across 67 departments and agencies.
That would result in a further reduction of at least another $175 million in funds from the Veterans Affairs operating budget.
While the government has reminded veterans that it plans to pump in $2 billion into the department, Blais said that money will be offset by the cuts.
Peter Stoffer, the NDP Veterans Affairs critic, said the budget cuts "will have a serious effect on service delivery to RCMP and military veterans and their families."
The protests come at the beginning of Veterans' Week, and at a time when several Canadian veterans have decried what they perceive to be shabby treatment of the country's war heroes by the government.
Veteran Dennis Manuge, whose service included a tour in Bosnia in 2001, told CBC Radio's The House this week that government officials improperly breached his privacy by going into his medical records hundreds of times.
The case echoes that of Sean Bruyea, who settled a similar complaint against the government a year earlier.
In Quebec, 38-year-old Pascal Lacoste, who served in Bosnia in the 1990s, launched a hunger strike on Saturday in front of Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney's office in order to protest the department's refusal to grant him decontamination treatment. Lacoste contends he was poisoned from exposure to depleted uranium.
Specialists have been made available to help Lacoste, according to a spokeman for Blaney, and the minister is also planning to meet with Lacoste on Sunday.