It’s hardly possible to remind ourselves too often of I. F. Stone’s great truth: All governments lie. Izzie, a great American muckraker, spent much of the twentieth century proving just how right he was, and it’s easy to imagine the fun he’d have in today’s Ottawa.
I know it feels that the Harper government is the most dishonest in our history. But there’s really no way of measuring such things — and it behooves the government’s critics to be evidence based, after all — and really, it doesn’t matter whether it is actually the very worst or not. (It has some pretty tough competitors, don’t forget.) Just check out any of the websites and blogs dedicated to tracking the lies of Harperland — this beyond actual public policies — and be confident that it stands among the Olympians of Canadian political mendacity.
But last week the government finally won the gold medal for perhaps the most despicable act ever of deceit and outright lying. And wouldn’t you just know, given the Harper record, that it was Canada’s veterans they lied to.
This space, to my own surprise, has covered the Harper government’s treatment of vets perhaps more than any other single subject. To be honest, it had never been a preoccupation of mine before this government made it one. The vast disjunction between its rhetorical pandering to all things military and its actual policies for vets has been nothing less than mind-boggling. And neverending. Each and every column has been spurred by an entirely different example of bad faith and betrayal of trust. And if you don’t believe me, there are countless vets lined up to share their own heartbreaking story.
Understand: I don’t mean here the failure of the Department of Veterans Affairs to spend its full budgetary allocation, instead returning a total of $1.13 billion to the treasury while veterans go begging for services. I don’t mean the decline in department employees since 2009 by fully 25 per cent, leading public servants to warn that the department “will not meet the needs of veterans, Canadian Armed Forces members and their families. Or the $2.6 million it failed to spend maintaining Canadian war graves in Europe, so that only 2,500 of 7,000 grave markers were properly tended to last year. I don’t even mean the shameless request by the department for another $5 million to spend this year on advertising how splendidly it takes care of vets, after spending $4 million last year on similar self-promotion.
No, this is yet a different travesty. Stephen Harper and his government have seemed inexplicably indifferent to vets returning from war zones with post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the latest Defence Department stats, 160 military personnel committed suicide between 2004 and March 31, 2014. That compares to the 138 Canadian soldiers killed in combat in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2014.
It’s a stunning comparison, isn’t it? By any measure it’s a crisis of epidemic proportions, and yet the government refused to take it seriously. Rhetoric? Of course; a great deal. Money? Some. Yet no serious attempt to deal with the problem. It’s truly baffling.
For years, vets and their advocates have pressed the urgent need for better mental health services, to little effect. Finally, last week, it became known that the Auditor-General was about to release a report showing that many vets had to wait months, even years, to access mental health benefits. Suddenly, the government was all over the issue.
Two days before the A-G’s report, two senior Harper ministers and Veteran Affairs Minister Julian Fantino held a press conference to announce spending of $200 million over the next six years on mental health services for vets. Just to ensure there were no ambiguities, a news release was also issued, which was then posted on the Veterans Affairs website. It said straight out that the government “has committed to providing an additional investment of approximately $200 million over the next six years.”
Immediately after the press conference, by the way, Mr. Fantino was shipped off to Italy on urgent government business, namely keeping him away from Canada so he couldn’t again abuse his stakeholders. But this minister is completely irrelevant to the government’s scandalous treatment of our vets. If the Prime Minister chose, he could order the mess to be dealt with this very day.
And so to the shabby punchline: The $200 million money is not for the next six years at all. It’s for the next 50 years, as the government was soon forced to acknowledge, maybe $4 million a year. According to Scott Maxwell, executive director of the activist Wounded Warriors Canada, the 50-year figure “has never been mentioned in any briefing, in any press release or conference.” The government willfully covered up the truth from beginning to end.
Mr. Maxwell’s members have vowed to remember this number, among others, at next year’s election. So should all Canadians who pretend gratitude to our veterans.
Is this the biggest lie a Canadian government has ever told? Hard to tell. But it surely is among the most contemptible.
This article was originally published in the Globe and Mail.
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