Vince Rigby is frustrated. The former peacekeeper and Cape Breton resident recently told the Cape Breton Post, "I haven't got a counsellor any more so I have no idea what treatments are out there available to me.”
Rigby lives in one of nine cities across Canada where the government shut down Veterans Affairs offices a year ago. This has meant that veterans in Corner Brook, Charlottetown, Sydney, Thunder Bay, Windsor, Saskatoon, Kelowna and Prince George have lost access to crucial in-person services.
“I have spent my entire career working with veterans, including many years helping people like Rigby file complex claims for disability support,” says Carl Gannon, National President of the Union of Veterans Affairs Employees. “The maze of paperwork would be intimidating for anyone to navigate, but is particularly daunting for elderly veterans or those struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.”
Since the offices were closed in January 2014, veterans say they now must drive for hours to see someone in person or wait on hold on the phone. Despite the best efforts of Veterans Affairs Canada workers, the new system is virtually impossible for them to manage. Employees at Service Canada do their best, but are not given the specialized training and access to the veterans’ files that are needed to help veterans with complicated pension and benefit claims.
And while the government assured veterans that there would be case managers available in every city where an office was closed, these workers can barely keep up with the demand. The number of files on their desks continue to grow and this only frustrates veterans more.
In November 2014, Auditor General Michael Ferguson released a report that only served to reinforce what we are hearing from veterans on the ground.
One in five Canadian veterans suffering from a mental illness and injury is being forced to wait more than eight months before their requests for help are answered.
According to Ferguson, more than 700 of the nearly 3,000 veterans who applied for mental health support last year waited more than four months and more than 500 weren’t provided an answer by the eight-month mark.
Despite former Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino’s claim that veterans’ concerns about the closures were unwarranted last year, the department conceded defeat in December. Under fire for poor service, the government said it wanted to fill dozens of front-line staff positions across the country and sought out people who were willing to work “as soon as possible.”
Shortly after that, the government announced it was committing $200 million to help veterans deal with mental health issues. But buried in the fine print was the fact that this money is to be doled out over the next 50 years. Yes, you read that right. And you can only imagine how insulting this was to elderly veterans will likely won’t see a cent of this money in their lifetimes.
Erin O’Toole, the new Veterans Affairs Minister, announced last week that he was planning to adopt a "veteran-centric" approach to policy and programming. Already under fire from veterans’ advocates for shutting them out of government consultations, O’Toole said he seeks to create "a culture that strives for service excellence."
If he is serious about improving services, O’Toole should listen to veterans like Rigby:
"We're still here, we still want our office back," he said. "We're not leaving. (We want them) to do the right thing and open up our office."
Re-opening frontline offices across the country and reversing cuts to Veterans Affairs Canada would go a long way in re-establishing trust with Canada’s veterans.
They fought for us. Now it’s time to fight for them.