Veterans advocates lament sudden departure of ombudsman Craig Dalton

With all due respect to the people of Lethbridge, a lot of people in the veterans community were gobsmacked when the federal veterans ombudsman — the person tasked with looking out for their welfare — decided halfway through his term to become a city manager in the southern Alberta municipality.

Was it merely a career move? Or did he get tired of political and bureaucratic intransigence?

Veterans ombudsman Craig Dalton during his stint as chief of staff for Task Force Kandahar in 2010. Today is Dalton's last day in the ombudsman's role. (Bill Graveland/The Canadian Press)

With all due respect to the people of Lethbridge, a lot of people in the veterans community were gobsmacked when the federal veterans ombudsman — the person tasked with looking out for their welfare — decided halfway through his term to become a city manager in the southern Alberta municipality.

Craig Dalton, a former colonel and military base commander, abruptly stepped down this week from the watchdog's post after only 18 months on the job.

His departure also came in the same week his office issued a sharply critical report that brings the inequities of the current Veterans Affairs system into clear focus and recommends a wide-ranging overhaul of how the federal government compensates and cares for injured veterans.

Today is Dalton's last day on the job.

In public, he struck a quiet, competent, thoughtful tone when appearing before House of Commons committees. He quickly earned the respect of former soldiers by not only listening to their individual concerns, but by acting on them.

Most recently, Dalton stood up for the families of veterans whose mental health services had been cut off because of a reinterpretation of department policy guidelines.

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Through the ombudsman's office, Dalton declined an interview request from CBC News. His resignation was framed in amicable terms in a statement earlier this week from Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay.

It was unclear at first where Dalton was going, but the City of Lethbridge ended the mystery on Thursday by announcing his appointment as city manager.

It also became clear that day that his exit had been in the works for weeks. Sources within the veterans community said the ombudsman surprised his advisory council in early March with the news that he intended to resign.

A losing battle?

The dismay among many former soldiers has nothing to do with his move west, nor with his position in municipal government. Rather, they take it as a loud and clear statement that Dalton believed he was in a battle with the political and bureaucratic establishment that he could not win.

"Maybe he just got tired of beating his head against the wall over proposals that would increase or improve the quality of life for veterans," said Mike Blais, a retired soldier and president of Canadian Veterans Advocacy.

"I think it's very disappointing in the sense that he was doing a very effective job of raising the issues that veterans wanted the ombudsman to bring forward."

Last summer, in an interview with CBC News, Dalton said he believed the mandate of the veterans ombudsman should be reviewed. He said that, after talking to many veterans' advocates and ordinary vets, he'd come to the conclusion that the watchdog's office had lost the trust of some former soldiers and their families.

A 'lack of trust'

Dalton recommended an independent review that would look at, among other things, whether the ombudsman should report directly to Parliament rather than to the veterans minister.

"I am concerned with what has been reflected to me around lack of trust in our office, questioning what value we offer to veterans, noting that we're not independent enough to generate confidence in veterans," Dalton said. "That's something that is important and we need to look at it."

In response, MacAulay said last August that he believed a review was a good idea, but stopped short of endorsing the notion that the watchdog should report directly to Parliament.

It is clear, said Blais, that the Liberal government had no intention of going that way. He said he wonders how frustrating it was for a can-do soldier to see his earnest assessments and recommendations fall on deaf ears.

"A better opportunity came around and he chose it," Blais said. "I can't blame him."

A 'bureaucratic mentality'

Another veterans advocate, Sean Bruyea, offered a more nuanced view of Dalton's departure after reading the ombudsman's latest report, released Wednesday — a year-long examination of the Liberal government's Pension for Life scheme.

"He's going just as the fruits of his investigative efforts are published," said Bruyea, a long-time critic of the pension plan and the department. "This really does speak volumes about how difficult it is to try and change the bureaucratic mentality over at Veterans Affairs."

The report criticized governments, current and former, for creating a system which compensates veterans with identical injuries in different ways depending upon the year in which they were hurt.

Dalton paid particular attention to the Liberal government's new plan, which offers former soldiers a choice between a lifetime pension or a lump sum cash payment as compensation for injuries. It came into effect on April 1, 2019 and the ombudsman concluded it offered less support to the most seriously disabled than the system it replaced.

Collision course

Dalton's investigation was "aggressive and concise," said Bruyea, who added he believes it put the ombudsman on a collision course with the powers-that-be. 

"He was willing to write powerful recommendations that could not be wiggled away from by the bureaucracy," he said. "So I think that meant there would have been an inevitable confrontation with the institution and the politicians representing it."

Bruyea described the ombudsman's departure as "a severe loss" and said he worries about who might replace him — and whether that person would have the same street credibility with ordinary members of the military.

He urged the Liberal government to pay attention.

"Veterans are, now, not being given the respect and dignity of someone representing their interests," Bruyea said.

Both Liberal and Conservative governments have had tempestuous relationships with ombudsmen associated with the military.

Most recently, Gary Walbourne stepped down before his term as the Canadian Forces ombudsman expired over a dispute with the Liberal government.

Pat Stogran had a notoriously fraught relationship with the federal government while he served as veterans ombudsman. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

A decade ago, retired colonel Pat Stogran was dropped by the former Conservative government following only one term as veterans ombudsman after he accused the department of nickel-and-diming former soldiers.

He tended to be among the first to take a stand against the inequities he saw in the veterans system — during one memorably stormy 2010 news conference, for example.

Dalton leaves with fewer fireworks, but essentially the same critique.