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What Harper really thinks of Canada's vets

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Peacekeeping monument in Ottawa. Photo: Tjololo Photo/Flickr

Remembrance Day has always sent ambiguous messages to Canadians -- are we celebrating the glories or the horrors of war? -- but the valour of those who fought has rarely been in doubt. To the dead we could only give thanks. To the survivors, we had a debt that must be paid in full.

Given the particular devotion of the Harper government to all things militaristic, especially the heroism of the troops it dispatched to Afghanistan, it was a given that when our boys and girls came home, their every need, material and psychological, would be cared for.

For reasons that defy rational analysis, this has been very far from true. I'm not sure how many Canadians understand this baffling phenomenon. Yet simply following the Globe and Mail's coverage in the days around Remembrance Day last week reveals much of the real story.

On Nov. 9, for example, the Globe ran a story titled Families Say Nursing Home Neglects Vets. The culprit was the Sunnybrook Health Centre in Toronto, which gets funding from both the federal and Ontario governments.

On Nov. 10, a story headlined Veterans Minister Closed Privacy Probe told the remarkable story of retired captain Sean Bruyea. His criticisms of the benefit system imposed on vets led to a major violation of his confidential medical and psychiatric files by the Department of Veteran Affairs, which was hunting information it could use to discredit him. Now the Minister has instructed the veterans' ombudsman to shut down his investigation into this clear breach of Captain Bruyea's privacy, one of nine complaints of privacy violations in five years.

Again on Nov. 10, in portraits of three vets, the Globe introduced Major Mark Campbell who lost both his legs in Afghanistan to a roadside bomb. Major Campbell is suing his employer, the Canadian Forces, who "abandoned" him and his family. His wife, a full-time forces reservist, feels "betrayed" by the military. They say "they have been forced to claw for every benefit and that the military has fought them along the way. In particular, he has waged a battle against Canada's New Veterans' Charter which -- despite its rosy name -- he says dramatically clawed back benefits for injured soldiers in the midst of the Afghan mission." He found that "the institution you've devoted your entire life and loyalty to has turned around and stabbed you in the back."

On the same day, a letter to the editor argued that instead of spending $28 million to commemorate the 200-year-old war of 1812, the money could better be spent "assisting veterans who served and suffered in more recent conflicts."

Finally, on the day after Nov. 11, a front-page story announced that Canadian Forces families won support for mental health. The article noted that it took "repeated criticism from Canada's military ombudsman" before the military offered such support.

Such stories actually began to appear soon after the Harper government came to power. The bitter attacks launched against his government by disillusioned vets began early and have continued ever since. When it comes to our vets, Harper government rhetoric and policies are in a virtual war, with pro-vet policies being the big loser.

Who would have foreseen that this government, of all governments, would see veterans repeatedly demonstrating publicly to protest their treatment? This year, disabled veterans and military widows assembled on Parliament Hill, as reported by Canadian Press, "to paint a stark picture of bureaucratic indifference and red tape that flies in the face of reassurances from the government, which says the care of military families is a top priority."

The report continued: "Few of the government's touted programs meant to help combat veterans find civilian jobs actually help the disabled, said retired master corporal Dave Desjardins, who is paralyzed from the waist down... Tracy Kerr, wife of a triple amputee who fought in Afghanistan, said she and her family have battled for years to get basic needs, such as a lift to get her husband in and out of the bathtub."

Who could have believed that disabled vets would take their own government to court to make it stop clawing back part of their pensions? Or that their own government would spend $750,000 in legal fees to fight them? Or that their government would not admit defeat until a judge sides with the vets?

Who would have thought that the first veterans ombudsman, Colonel Pat Stogran, a 30-year vet, would not be re-appointed because of his harsh criticisms of the very government that appointed him? "It is beyond my comprehension," Col. Stogran declared, "how the system could knowingly deny so many of our veterans the services and benefits that the people and the government of Canada recognized a long, long time ago as being their obligation to provide."

And he added this stunning revelation: "I was told by a senior Treasury Board analyst… that it is in the government's best interest to have soldiers killed overseas rather than wounded because the liability is shorter term." How could the government survive such a scandal?

Who would have believed, as CP reported, that a fund earmarked to give impoverished veterans a dignified burial has turned down more than two-thirds of applications made since 2006? Or that of the requests approved, Ottawa offers just over $3,600 to cover costs?

Reporter Murray Brewster offered an interesting perspective. " The Harper government through Veterans Affairs has poured millions of dollars into the restoration of local war monuments over the last two federal budgets. These photo-op friendly projects are unveiled by local MPs with much fanfare," he wrote.

It's funny with this government. The war dead are the heroes. They can rest in peace knowing we remember and honour them. The survivors are not so sure.

Photo: Tjololo Photo/Flickr

This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.

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