While the Liberal government will re-open nine veterans affairs offices that were closed under the previous Conservative government, the offices might not be in the same locations, according to newly named Minister of Veterans Affairs Kent Hehr.
"We're going to look to where [the offices] do the most good for the most people," Hehr said Wednesday in an interview with Rosemary Barton on CBC News Network's Power & Politics.
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"It might not be the same exact nine. If we're going to find areas in this country where more veterans are now settling, why wouldn't we take the opportunity to move those veteran support centres there?"
Re-opening the nine closed offices — which provide essential support services to veterans — was a campaign promise of the Liberals after the Conservatives' controversial decision to shutter the offices was met with considerable criticism from veterans advocacy groups.
Hehr said his department is studying location options.
The nine offices closed by the Conservatives in an effort to cut costs were in Kelowna, B.C., Prince George, B.C., Saskatoon, Brandon, Man., Thunder Bay, Ont., Windsor, Ont., Sydney, N.S., Charlottetown and Corner Brook, N.L.
"We're going to ensure veterans have the supports they need with the opening of many new veterans affairs offices, and put them in the places where they're most utilized," Hehr said.
New hires for offices
The top priority for the department is hiring 400 new staff for veterans service offices across the country, a process that has already begun, Hehr said.
"The most important thing is getting our offices staffed up, that veterans are getting the support they need," he told Barton.
"What that entails is front-line service. So I look at that hiring piece as job number one."
Veterans Affairs is also having ongoing discussions about fulfilling another campaign pledge — to re-establish lifelong pensions as an option for injured veterans.
"We're well on our way to doing that," Hehr said. "I have every confidence that we'll be successful in fulfilling our commitments to veterans."
'We have to keep doing a better job'
The new minister also discussed a troubling new report from the military's top doctor that finds an "elevated risk" of suicide among deployed soldiers.
"We want to continue to reduce the stigma of mental health issues," Hehr said. "We have some programs up and running that are very, very good. Are they under-utilized? Probably. We have to keep doing a better job on that."
Hehr said the government hasn't reached a decision on how to memorialize veterans who have taken their lives.
Fifty-nine Canadian soldiers and veterans have died by suicide since returning from Afghanistan, according to the Department of National Defence.
"We value everyone's contribution and we'll continue to give them that honour in some form or fashion," Hehr said.
"Whether we do it in a specific way, or one way or another, we haven't decided yet. But what I can tell you is that a veteran is a veteran is a veteran, and we will stand by them. We will be grateful for their sacrifice and their service, and we'll support them and their families through trials and tribulations."