Co-operation with government isn't working. Veterans need to start making noise

The sight of thousands of decorated veterans marching in protest and in unison to Parliament Hill would surely be too difficult to ignore.

Demonstrations would be most effective around planned public events like, yes, those of Remembrance Day

The sight of thousands of decorated veterans marching in protest and in unison to Parliament Hill would surely be too difficult to ignore. (Sgt. JF Lauzé/Canadian Armed Forces Combat Camera)

With each passing year, I am more and more convinced that the presence of our politicians at Remembrance Day ceremonies is little more than an empty gesture, aimed masking the government's refusal to commit to the needs of today's veterans and their families.

For years, both Liberals and Conservatives — both in power and in opposition — have promised more and delivered less. Disability pensions that previous generations of veterans enjoyed are no longer, and vows to see to better services and supports have gone unfulfilled.

So perhaps this Remembrance Day is the time for us veterans to finally come to terms with our political reality: that throwing support behind one political party or the other simply will not bring us the promised programs, benefits and supports. Government, past and present, has failed — and we failed too.

Organized protest

If the torch is truly ours "to hold on high," as the famous poem goes, the approach from Canada's veteran community needs to change from one of partisan allegiance and cooperation to one of organized protest, legal action and even civil disobedience.

We've dabbled in these things before. There was the confrontation between then-Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino and a group of angry veterans in early 2014. Fantino's decision to walk out of the meeting gave veterans and their cause a level of public exposure — and in many respects, sympathy — that a straightforward meeting could have never produced.

There was also the time the minister shamelessly, and in and in front of the cameras, fled from the wife of a veteran suffering with PTSD, who was trying to get his attention to her concerns.

Imagine, if you will, that this confrontational approach becomes the standard across the country.

It would be most effective around planned public events like, yes, those of Remembrance Day. Veterans should not feel compelled to keep their mouths shut and let the politicians take centre stage, especially when the day is supposed to be about us and the legacy we are entrusted to uphold.

These actions will resonate widely because veterans, and especially war veterans, have the political advantage of being almost universally associated with the highest principles of this country. That's why politicians of all political stripes love to use us as sentimental props during public appearances and election campaigns.

Yet to sustain a protest movement over the long term requires organization, and this is where veterans in Canada tend to falter. Over the years, a number of veteran-centred charities and small advocacy initiatives have popped up across the country, and many of them are doing stellar work.

One such group is Equitas, which has launched a class-action lawsuit against the government to restore disability pensions. More initiatives along these lines need to take hold, before a lower standard for veteran care becomes the new precedent.

Veterans angry at looming broken promise on pensions

5 years ago
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Ret. Major Mark Campbell, a wounded veteran of the Afghanistan war, is part of a group that has launched a lawsuit demanding for the return to lifelong pensions.

But more importantly, there has to be more internal dialogue and cooperation between these initiatives. Veterans need to look beyond their differences in terms of when and where and what branch of the service they were in and focus on common interests that they all share.

At one time, much of this organization and political advocacy was provided by the Royal Canadian Legion. The problem is that today the Legion has arguably devolved into a social club, and it is widely perceived as a lapdog of government. Furthermore, and this might come as a surprise to many, a majority of Legion members have never spent a day in military uniform.

So maybe now is the time for veterans to take back the Royal Canadian Legion. And for those veterans still in uniform, perhaps now is also the time to follow their associates in police, fire and border services and unionize.

But if all this proves inadequate, veterans need to be ready to take to the streets in protest. The sight of thousands of decorated veterans marching in protest and in unison to Parliament Hill will surely be too difficult to ignore.

The alternative is that we veterans maintain the status quo: continue to wait for that elusive political cavalry to come to our rescue, while adapting to a new normal of diminishing expectations.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Robert Smol holds a Master of Arts in War Studies from the Royal Military College and served more than 20 years in the Canadian Armed Forces, retiring as a Captain in the Intelligence Branch. He is currently studying law in Toronto.


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