Veterans Affairs Canada announced this week it will begin making monthly visits to help veterans in the territories and other northern communities access services.
The move is part of a larger plan to expand services for veterans across the country, including the reopening of nine Veterans Affairs offices that were closed by the former Harper government, and the opening of a 10th office in Surrey, British Columbia.
The three territories have never had their own regional offices. But now, Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr says, a mobile team of three frontline staff will travel to Whitehorse, Yellowknife or Iqaluit each month on a rotating basis.
“It’s a real improvement on the services that we’re delivering to veterans and their families located in this area of the country,” he said.
Hehr said the mobile team will be able to help veterans and their families get medical examinations for disability pensions, complete forms or find a case manager, among other things.
Currently, Yukon veterans often have to travel to Vancouver to access services like mental health care. Hehr said the mobile team won’t eliminate the need for veterans to travel outside the territory, but the three staff will act as “conduits to open up doors and to get families the help they need where and when they need it.”
“So we believe that this will allow families and veterans to get more help with less travel,” he said.
The team will be based in the three northern capitals, but Hehr said the staff will be able to travel to other northern communities as well.
He said the mobile team will be more effective than setting up a fixed office somewhere in the North.
“Our veterans in the North are in a very expansive region,” he said. “So, sure, we could put up a nice office somewhere, but we don’t sense we would get the most bang for our buck out of that proposal.”
The cost of reopening the nine closed offices, opening the tenth office in Surrey and establishing the mobile northern unit is $78.1 million.
Hehr said Service Canada offices in the North will refer veterans to the mobile team, and he expects more veterans to come forward as they hear about the new services.
Joe Mewett, president of the Whitehorse branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, said it will make a big difference to have staff here that people can meet in person.
“We don’t have the face-to-face input that people down south get,” he said. “They’ve got a place where people can walk into and get all the information. We don’t have anybody to talk to here.”
He said older veterans especially aren’t used to using computers to access services.
“They’re used to going in and talking with someone face-to-face. They find it easier that way,” he said. “They don’t want to talk to somebody on the phone. They don’t like doing that.”
He said Veterans Affairs has already sent up someone from Vancouver a couple of times this year and has signed up several new clients just based on those visits. “These are people that they would not have been able to contact if they hadn’t come here,” he said.
Veteran and Porter Creek Centre MLA David Laxton said Veterans Affairs has a number of programs that people in the North might not be aware of until they speak with someone in person. He said department staff are also able to assess if veterans are struggling with unreported injuries or mental health issues when they meet them one-on-one.
Both he and Mewett agreed that the Yukon doesn’t have enough veterans to warrant a permanent Veterans Affairs office in the territory. They estimate there are between 200 and 250 veterans in the Yukon.
But if the mobile team makes consistent visits to the territories, Mewett said, “you’re going to see a huge improvement for the North.”
This year’s federal budget included $5.6 billion to improve veterans’ benefits and services. As of May 2016, the department had hired more than 250 new frontline employees.
Contact Maura Forrest at email@example.com