Veterans who were in Ottawa to lobby against the closing of their regional offices left a brief, emotional meeting Tuesday with Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino visibly frustrated and saying they were disrespected.
The federal government has already closed one office in Prince George, B.C., and plans to close eight more on Jan. 31.
In a news conference, a group of veterans said their Tuesday meeting did not go well. Video from the meeting shows Fantino and veterans trading testy exchanges.
Ron Clarke, a 36-year veteran of the Forces, said the meeting was "unbelievable, unacceptable and shameful. The way we were treated is just not kosher." He demanded that Fantino resign and said he would campaign "across Canada" against the Conservatives during the next election.
Roy Lamore, a Second World War veteran from Thunder Bay, Ont., called it a "damn disgrace" that Fantino sent three Conservative MPs — Parm Gill, Erin O’Toole, and Laurie Hawn — to argue for the closures.
"There are a few things [Fantino] should be told," Lamore said. "Taught manners is number 1, number 2 to respect the veterans, and number 3, it's time that he better wake up and give us a break on these things."
Fantino released a statement saying that he and the veterans had a 'candid conversation' during a 'roundtable' and that meeting with veterans is one of the most important parts of his job.
"I am always willing to hear from veterans face-to-face on any issue," the release said.
Evan Solomon, host of CBC's Power & Politics, said the confrontation will be a public relations problem for a Conservative government that has built its brand on veterans and the military.
"That press conference could be the beginning of a much more significant debate about how vets have been treated," he said.
Volunteer warns of delays
Alban LeClair said during an earlier news conference Tuesday that he works with veterans in Prince Edward Island as a Royal Canadian Legion service volunteer.
"I can't help veterans without assistance of Veterans Affairs," he said.
"This government keeps saying it's enhancing services for veterans. It says these closures will not affect services. Well, I can tell you now, that before they started shutting down Charlottetown district office, a veteran could get a home visit within a couple of days. Now it takes up to six weeks to contact the veteran. And six weeks is a long time for a 93-year-old veteran, and even young veterans suffering with PTSD," he said, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder.
One veteran teared up as he described what friends were going through as they faced the office closures.
Offices are set to close in:
- Corner Brook, N.L.
- Sydney, N.S.
- Thunder Bay, Ont.
- Windsor, Ont.
- Brandon, Man.
- Kelowna, B.C.
Meeting with Fantino
Fantino addressed the proposed closures last fall in front of the House veterans affairs committee.
"Veterans Affairs offices in nine locations across Canada have seen demand drop, and so yes, they are being closed," he said.
"Some of these offices have seen demand drop to fewer than seven visits on average per day, with many of these visits for dropping off paperwork. But where veterans need them most, our government has maintained 26 Veterans Affairs Canada service centres, and has established and supports 24 integrated personnel support centres and 17 operational stress injury clinics.
"But this is again only part of the story. Now, in locations where Veterans Affairs has never operated before, veterans and their families can visit one of 600 Service Canada sites to get the information they need."
A spokesman for Fantino said Veterans Affairs is placing staff at the Service Canada Centre closest to offices that are closing. Service Canada Centres are government offices that offer a number of programs in one location.
"This position will be there for as long as necessary in order to support veterans in the communities where they live," Fantino said in a Dec. 13 statement.
The Public Service Alliance of Canada organized Tuesday's press conference.
The government said services will still be available online.
But the website isn't easy to navigate, said Bruce Moncur, a 29-year-old who served in Afghanistan.
Moncur said he banks and does other transactions online, but it took him a whole afternoon to figure out the Veterans Affairs site.
Moncur described starting an account on the site, then waiting a day for it to be activated, and waiting another week to get the paperwork he requested.
"Something that I could have gone to the office for, that would have taken 10 minutes to get, ended up taking me a week. And that's indicative too of what's happening with these closures is that the service is going to [be] even slower. I never thought it would be possible, but it is," he said.
For those who still want to meet with a case worker, the closures could mean travelling for hours to get to the nearest office.
In question period, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said service will actually increase because it will be available at 600 Service Canada centres.
New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair suggested that isn't how the veterans see it.
"No, [the veterans are] not all here in Ottawa this week to say thanks," Mulcair responded.
"When our forces are facing a crisis of eight military suicides in two months, there's never been a more important time ... to maintain those services," Mulcair said.
Michelle Bradley, who has worked for Veterans Affairs since 2001, said the government has forgotten the sacrifices veterans have made for Canada.
Bradley is also the national vice-president of the Union of Veterans Affairs Employees for the Atlantic region.
"We've been forced to put aside our caring as we watch all of our veterans wait longer to get the support they need and they deserve," she said.