The line of veterans sitting before Stephen Harper on Thursday were conspicuous.
Were they aware about how cleverly they were being used?
This week, Harper has been flying around small communities in the North – Resolute Bay, Tuktoyaktuk, Inuvik, Cambridge Bay and Churchill. Whitehorse represented his first touchdown in a city with many veterans.
And so, they were seated before 350 invited and painstakingly screened Conservative Party guests.
Veterans, “put it all on the line for Canada,” Harper told the largely partisan crowd. “And I applaud all you have contributed.”
It was funny sentiment that runs counter to the experience of Pat Storgan, the veterans’ ombudsman whom Harper appointed three years ago.
Last week, Storgan laid bare the Harper government’s two-faced approach to the nation’s soldiers.
While sitting ministers sing their praises, the government is nickel-and-diming veterans who have been scarred physically and emotionally in the nation’s service.
These heroes are suffering, said Storgan.
The system has denied veterans not just what they deserved, but what they earned with their blood and sacrifice, said the retired colonel.
The bureaucracy is clogged with red tape and obstructionism.
And Storgan brought proof – a group of veterans who have been chewed up by the system.
Brian Dyck served in the first Gulf War and took pills to protect against possible biological weapons. Today, he’s been diagnosed with ALS, a fatal degenerative nerve disease.
He’s been denied benefits, according to a report in the Montreal Gazette.
Others complained about a refusal to help soldiers affected by the spraying of Agent Orange at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown, shorting veterans on long-term disability payments and a new practice to issue lump-sum cheques to soldiers, including those suffering from mental illness.
In the past, they received a monthly pension that would have increased in the face of a worsening health condition.
The lump sum option may sound attractive – a chunk of cash to lay down on a home, a business or an investment. It’s meant to.
But make no mistake, it’s a federal cost-saving move.
The feds often cite the maximum payout, which is $276,089. But such a payout is little better than a lottery win – only 31 of 19,500 soldiers have received that much money.
The average lump-sum payout has been a smidge over $38,000, according to Sean Bruyea, a retired Canadian Forces intelligence officer and soldiers’ advocate, who recently wrote a piece for the Winnipeg Free Press.
Prior to 2006, when Harper’s crew implemented the lump-sum approach, injured soldiers received a lifelong monthly payment (tied to increases in public-sector salaries) of up to $2,400, plus stipends for spouses and children.
Now, the extra cash for spouses and children has been nixed from the calculation. So has the index to public-sector salaries.
So how do Canada’s veterans fare?
Well, according to Bruyea, “Canada has twice as many veterans as Australia and yet we provide services for only one half as many clients as Australia’s Department of Veterans Affairs, whose $12-billion budget is four times as great as Canada’s.”
It needs to be noted that Storgan, who’s been a strong advocate for Canada’s veterans, and often critical of politicians’ indifference to their plight, is out of a job.
Harper is not renewing his three-year term.
The government didn’t want a veterans’ advocate, noted Storgan. It wanted a complaints manager.
It wanted a sop.
Storgan isn’t that guy. The next appointment probably will be.
We dispatch our soldiers to the worst places in the world.
They dodge bullets and bombs and breathe toxic chemicals.
Sometimes they face down 12-year-old boys armed with AK47s and rocket-propelled grenades. Sometimes, they must decide whether to shoot these children.
Imagine that for a moment.
They do all this in the service of this country. And, not surprisingly, more than a few come home with scars, emotional and physical.
And Ottawa challenges their claims, ties them up in bureaucracy and tries to wriggle out of paying them benefits. That’s the culture.
When a guy fights to improve things for veterans, embarrassing his political masters, his term is not renewed.
And then, at first opportunity, Harper gathers up a bunch of veterans, places them before a national audience and says how much he admires them.
In essence, he shamelessly uses them again.
They deserve better.