Office closures slap-in-the-face to our veterans

This week past was a tough one. On Friday, the Veterans Affairs office in Thunder Bay closed its doors for the final time.
It was an undignified slap-in-the-face to local veterans and those across the country.
Over the past year, NDP MPs joined with the Public Service Alliance of Canada and hundreds of veterans to try and stop the closure of the Thunder Bay office and eight others like it across the country.
In the end, they were closed despite our best efforts.
I’m sure some may wonder why we fought so hard to keep these offices open, but the answer is simple. We fought for our veterans because they were promised, require, and, frankly, deserve face-to-face service from their own government.
This face-to-face service now is supposed to come from the hundreds of Service Canada outlets across Canada or by way of personalized home visits, but neither option is acceptable.
While they do know about the dozens of government programs available to assist every Canadian, the unfortunate reality is that the hard-working employees of Service Canada simply are not trained or prepared to serve many of Canada’s veterans face-to-face.
For example, many veterans learn years after their service that they suffer from an extremely serious medical condition known as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Veterans who live each day with PTSD find that they often are extraordinarily impatient, may have difficulty focusing on or executing even the most basic physical or mental tasks, and often suffer from memory loss among many, many other unique challenges.
Serving those with PTSD is very difficult, but many Veterans Affairs Canada personnel are specially-trained to help these clients navigate through the maze of paperwork required to access their benefits.
Service Canada staff are not—and will not be—trained to deal with such clients.
In response to concerns that Service Canada personnel will not be equipped to provide the same high-quality, face-to-face service that was provided in these nine offices, the Harper government likes to point out that personalized home visits from Veterans Affairs’ staff also are available to those who require them.
But this is just a red herring designed to put concerned veterans and Canadians at ease. A closer look at the process shows that this simply is not an economically-feasible alternative.
With the closure of the Thunder Bay office, for instance, a Veterans Affairs Canada worker now must travel from either North Bay or Winnipeg—both of which are at least a nine-hour drive each way.
The costs of a single trip to serve a single client with a home visit now must include a per-kilometre rate of $0.57 for mileage, an overnight accommodation, and two days’ worth of personal expenses.
Now what happens if 100 clients require this service twice a year? Multiply that by nine times, once for each office closure, and keeping these offices open suddenly looks like an enormous bargain.
In the end, what really bothers me most is that Canada’s veterans should be the very last people we cut services to, but they aren’t by a long shot.
This is especially true when we remember that last year, the Harper Conservatives spent $2.5 million on an advertising campaign for a job grant that doesn’t exist and continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on Economic Action Plan ads to increase their party’s support and improve their re-election chances.
And here we are closing nine small Veterans Affairs offices because we have to “rein in spending.”
With the suicides of eight veterans in just the past two months, I should be writing about how the Government of Canada is improving services for Canada’s veterans and how we are going the extra mile to help these brave men and women.
Instead, I have to write about the service cutbacks and office closures that are being implemented by the Harper Conservatives.
In the words of Thunder Bay veteran Roy Lamore, what is happening to Canada’s veterans at the hands of their own government is “an absolute disgrace.”
Canada’s active military personnel, our wartime and modern veterans, and their families deserve justice and to be treated with dignity by their own government, and my NDP colleagues and I will not stop working until they are.
They fought for us; now it’s our turn to fight for them.

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