NDP Leader Tom Mulcair unveiled his plan to spend $454 million over the next four years to improve health care and services for veterans, a group that Mulcair said has been "disrespected" by the Conservative government.
Mulcair made the commitments at a Royal Canadian Legion branch in the Nova Scotia riding of Sackville-Preston-Chezzetcook, which is held by NDP veterans' affairs critic Peter Stoffer. Stoffer has long been associated with veterans' issues.
"I will ensure our government honours the sacrifices of our veterans and provides the services and benefits they've earned," Mulcair said.
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The New Democrats said if they form government after the Oct. 19 vote, they would use the money to improve mental health care and long-term care for veterans, as well as increase survivors' pensions and boost funding the Last Post program, which helps to pay the costs of veterans' funerals.
Some of the money would also go to the Veterans Independence Program, which provides housekeeping and other services to enable veterans to remain in their homes as seniors.
About $26 million of the money Mulcair pledged would be used to reopen nine Veterans Affairs offices that were closed by the current government — a controversial decision that was met with considerable criticism from veterans advocacy groups.
"Ask our veterans and they will tell you about nine years of disrespect they've seen from Stephen Harper," he said.
While the veterans affairs file has traditionally been a Tory stronghold, the party has struggled to maintain its once firm support among veterans.
Retired air force officer Erin O'Toole took over as minister of Veteran Affairs from Julian Fantino in January amid an outcry over the decision to close the regional offices and what some veterans have described as a lack of mental health and support services.
Veterans' frustration with the government's handling of the file was echoed by some who attended the NDP event this morning.
"We have such a grave sense of disappointment with Mr. Harper," said Gerry White, who served with the RCMP and the Canadian navy.
White told CBC News that he has voted for the Tories, but said veterans have "lost most of what we've fought for" under the current government. He added that his brother Sid, also a military veteran, had given up trying to access services he was legally entitled to.
The closure of the Veterans Affairs office in White's hometown of Corner Brook, N.L., meant that his brother faced a seven-hour drive and a hotel stay in St. John's if he wanted to see a Veterans Affairs representative.
"I believe there is a nationwide, sweeping change away from the Conservatives toward the NDP," White said.
In the run-up to the election, the Tories announced several new initiatives aimed at increasing support and benefits in an apparent effort to rebuild bridges with the country's veterans.
Among those commitments was a lump-sum, tax-free benefit of up to $70,000 for critically wounded veterans. The benefit was introduced in March and is intended to complement other lump-sum benefits put in place after the Conservatives overhauled veterans' entitlements in 2006 with the New Veterans Charter.
Mulcair said an NDP government would move to update and improve the charter, though he's unsure if boosted or revised benefits for critically wounded veterans would be paid in a lump sum or in multiple payments over time.
"We'll sit down with the interested parties, which are the veterans themselves and the groups that represent them. We're going to do it openly and transparently, but we'll get to a result," Mulcair said.
"That's what this is about — an objective of making sure people are well taken care of for the rest of their lives."
Mulcair also committed to apologize and "make amends" to veterans who were dismissed or forced out of the military for their sexual orientation, a pledge he has made many times. He called the move a measure of fairness that is long overdue.
"And we will launch a public inquiry into the spraying of Agent Orange at CFB Gagetown," he added.
The federal government set aside nearly $100 million in 2007 for Canadians harmed by Agent Orange and other chemicals used at the New Brunswick base.
Agent Orange is a toxic herbicide that was sprayed at CFB Gagetown in the mid-1960s by the U.S. military, with permission from Canada. Exposure to it has been known to lead to some skin disorders, liver problems and certain types of cancer.
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