Members of Parliament spent most of Thursday debating an NDP motion calling for the government to reverse its decision to close veterans offices, as veterans themselves were in Ottawa with union officials this week to lobby for the same thing.
The federal government has already closed one Veterans Affairs Centre in Prince George, B.C., and plans to close eight more on Friday.
The motion also calls for the House of Commons to address "the mental health crisis facing Canadian soldiers and veterans by hiring appropriate mental health professionals" and to prioritize and conclude "the over 50 outstanding boards of inquiry on military suicides so that grieving families may have answers and closure."
MPs are expected to vote on the motion Monday.
Veterans Affairs offices set to close on Jan. 31 include:
- Corner Brook, N.L.
- Sydney, N.S.
- Thunder Bay, Ont.
- Windsor, Ont.
- Brandon, Man.
- Kelowna, B.C.
The debate comes as a storm of anger sweeps through Parliament, caused by a bitter meeting Tuesday evening between veterans and Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino, with a number of opposition members calling for Fantino's resignation.
Fantino arrived 70 minutes late for the meeting, then had a couple of testy exchanges during the short time he met with the group.
20,000 vets affected
The motion was introduced by NDP MP Sylvain Chicoine, who opened the debate to address the implications of the office closures, saying that as many as 20,000 veterans will be affected.
Chicoine said it "shows a lack of respect" for the men and women who fought for the country.
NDP Veterans Affairs critic Peter Stoffer seconded the motion and also joined in the passionate debate, saying that caring for vets — whether they are military vets or RCMP vets — is a federal responsibility.
Stoffer said if the NDP wins the next election, it would reopen the closed offices.
'Pile of misinformation,' Tory MP says
Veterans Affairs Canada said the decision to close the nine locations was based on the "current and declining forecasted number of less than 160 case-managed veterans per office" — some of which have seen their demand drop to an average of fewer than seven visits a day.
VAC said it's still offering assistance via Service Canada centres in affected areas, with a VAC client service agent on hand at each of the Service Canada locations closest to the shuttered office starting Monday, Feb. 3. Service Canada employees have been trained on VAC's programs and services as well.
Veterans Affairs said it is continuing to provide services online.
But opposition members are hammering the point that 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.
Stoffer gave an anecdote of a veteran he spoke with who went to a Service Canada centre, only to be directed to call a 1-800 number.
Conservative MP Daryl Kramp, the son of a veteran, said he's surprised by the "pile of misinformation," pointing out there are more than 50 veterans offices that will remain open.
He said most veterans don't require immediate personal attention — often just access to programs and forms — and "all of that is there" at Service Canada centres.
And, Service Canada would "act as a referral" and direct case managers to the homes of veterans should they require it.
'I'm not leaving,' Fantino says
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 that 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.
He said those entrusted to assist veterans would "cut their grass, shovel their snow and help with housekeeping."
That prompted an angry reaction from Liberal MP Jim Karyigiannis, who questioned how housekeeping services could truly help a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
He suggested that maybe Fantino should step down, become a veteran himself "so we could cut his grass and shovel his snow." Fantino was the commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police prior to entering politics.
During the debate, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson told MPs that the Department of National Defence has increased its mental health budget by $100 million, and it was the Conservatives who created the Joint Personnel Support Unit, which operates support centres to meet the needs of ill and injured soldiers.
Nicholson also mentioned that Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Thomas J. Lawson is currently directing a team to wrap up outstanding boards of inquiry.