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Lest Harper Forget

Risk of closures to Veterans Affairs offices expected to draw thousands to Sydney rally.

by Miles Howe

Veteran Dennis Minogue and Veterans Affairs caseworker Brenda Leblanc [Photo: Trevor Beckerson]
Veteran Dennis Minogue and Veterans Affairs caseworker Brenda Leblanc [Photo: Trevor Beckerson]

K'JIPUKTUK (HALIFAX) – For a head of state who has so deeply embraced – and in some cases manufactured - the pomp and pageantry of Canada's military history, as well as having increased Canada's current National Defense budget to never before seen levels, it is rather shocking that Stephen Harper's Conservative government is now planning on closing nine district Veterans Affairs offices across the country.

That the closures disproportionately affect the Atlantic provinces, with offices slated to close in Charlottetown, Sydney and Corner Brook, is a particular slap in the face of Maritimers, who in 2002 made up 21.6% of all military forces, despite making up only 7% of the population.

Most likely this over-representation amongst the military is not related to an increased propensity for war-making or nationalism amongst Maritimers, but is instead related to the reality of less opportunities available other than a military career in some of the worst economically depressed areas in Canada. A career in the military is also potentially one of the few routes available to Maritimers towards post-secondary education.

The Veterans Affairs offices slated for mothballing provide a range of face to face services to veterans, which include home visits, assessments, and access and provision of services.

Workers like Brenda Leblanc, from the Sydney office, have received years of specialized training, both in assisting her clientele, and also in understanding the wide range of programs and services available to veterans. Her specialized training, as well as that of her thirteen permanent co-workers in the Sydney office, will be replaced by a 1-866 telephone number and a Service Canada website. To Leblanc, this is problematic for a variety of reasons.

“It's going to cost the government millions to shut us down, in terms of the training we've received over the years,” says Leblanc. “The actual savings would be our salaries and the physical building that we're in. Many of our clients also are older and many have never used a computer before. A large percentage of our clients also have hearing loss, due to the nature of their jobs. I worry about them falling through the cracks.”

Despite the fact that the Sydney office serves 3200 'low-risk' clients and 160 'high-risk' clients, the federal government's position is that there will simply be no cracks to fall through. The official Veterans Affairs position is that: “Veterans will now have access to over 600 Service Canada locations, as well as services online and through the phone.”

Currently, however, Service Canada employees cannot access veteran's files. The guidance they might be able to provide to veterans risks being general at best, completely lacking of any personal context or value at worst.

The 'one-stop' Service Canada window service also risks destroying the personal relationships that veterans and their workers have established over the years; in the case of telephone or internet interactions even more so.

Military service people suffer disproportionately from a variety of psychological risk indicators, including life dissatisfaction, negative perceived mental health, alcohol dependence and major depression. Veterans are also at an increased risk of suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Personalized care and social interactions, according to Leblanc, sometimes begins at the Veterans' Affairs office. The office can be an otherwise lacking life line, especially for older veterans.

“We don't just deal with a client once,” says Leblanc. “They're our clients for life. If they need us, they know we're here.”

Closures to the regional offices also risks unduly affecting rural-living veterans, especially in Atlantic Canada. In 2011, in Ontario, 14% of the population lived in a rural area. In Nova Scotia, 43% still lived in rural areas.

So while Veterans Affairs offices will remain open in Halifax, St. John, New Brunswick and St. John's, Newfoundland, veterans without a case manager – if they wish to visit an actual human worker in a Veterans Affairs office – will need to travel hundreds of kilometres. At the Sydney office, for example, under 200 veterans had case managers, which leaves thousands of veterans who use the Sydney office in this 'road trip' situation.

These visits to the remaining regional offices, if not related to medical appointments related to their pensions, will also be out-of-pocket expenses for veterans.

“Why should small town veterans deserve less?” says Leblanc. “Veterans shouldn't have to chose where they live to receive services.”

One of the key justifications for these cuts, according to the federal government, is that Canada's veteran population is on the decrease, so that the personal services available at a Veterans Affairs office are simply no longer required.

While this may be true of the 'traditional' veteran population, which, according to the Public Service Alliance of Canada, has decreased from 63,000 to 49,000, the effect of the Harper government's recent militarization of the economy means that the regular forces veteran population has increased from 68,000 to 76,000.

The Canadian military is also a greying population; the average age of the 594,000 active service people was 56.

It isn't a governmental decision that veterans and their allies in Sydney, or across the country, are expecting to simply accept. A rally in Sydney is slated to begin at 10am at the Legion at 101 Dorchester Street on Saturday, November 9. Organizers expect thousands in attendance.

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