War veterans across the country are urging the government to reconsider its decision to shut down nine Veterans Affairs regional district offices that they rely heavily on to get frontline services and are reacting with anger to Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino for asking veterans to make use of mobile apps, such as “PTSD Coach Canada” and “OSI Connect,” to get “customized mental health support.”
“He can kiss my Highland ass,” said Ron Clarke, 73, a retired Army sergeant who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and says that veterans suffering from PTSD need one-on-one service from Veterans Affairs Canada staff workers, not mobile apps, online services, or toll-free phone help, in an interview with The Hill Times last week.
The federal government is planning to close nine district Veterans Affairs offices in seven provinces by the end of February 2014 as a cost saving measure announced in the 2012 budget. The offices are located in Corner Brook, Newfoundland and Labrador; Charlottetown, P.E.I.; Sydney, N.S.; Windsor, Ont.; Thunder Bay, Ont.; Brandon, Man.; Saskatoon, Sask.; Kelowna, B.C.; and Prince George, B.C. saving the government an estimated $3.78-million.
As a result, 89 employees will lose their jobs in the nine offices which include case managers, client service agents, disability pension officers, nurses and administrative staff.
Veterans say they depend on these workers for help in getting psychiatric and medical care, finding community resources and undertaking paper work required to access their benefits and pensions.
They say they feel betrayed by the closures because the government promised it would be take care of from the day of their enlistment to the day they died.
Veterans and members of the Union of Veterans Affairs Employees (UVAE), a union under the umbrella of Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), gathered in Ottawa on Oct. 3 at the Chateau Laurier Hotel to brief media and to register their protest against the closing of the offices.
In telephone interviews last week with The Hill Times, veterans said that their fellow retired soldiers who belong to different age groups, including seniors living with serious injuries, disabilities, and mental health issues, rely on Veterans Affairs services in these regions. They said that challenges of PTSD are dealt with much more effectively with case officers in one-on-one meetings and without delay.
In a letter to the editor to Cape Breton Post published on Oct. 9, Mr. Fantino (Vaughan, Ont.) wrote that his government is committed to providing services to the veterans according to their needs. He pointed out that on top of other services, veterans can also get help from mobile apps and online help.
“In addition to personalized home visits, Veterans Affairs Canada employees are also available by phone at our toll-free number to assist veterans with their needs. Furthermore, veterans are able to access information about programs and services online — including the innovative mobile apps ‘PTSD Coach Canada’ and ‘OSI Connect’ that provide customized mental health support,” wrote Mr. Fantino.
“We will ensure that all transitions happen as seamlessly as possible as we bridge to our innovative partnership with Service Canada, which has 600 locations throughout the country,” stated Mr. Fantino.
But veterans interviewed insisted that any technology related help is ineffective compared to face-to-face service.
“The people [Veterans Affairs workers] we have in the office, they’re very personable. We have trigger points. It’s not good to mess around with our trigger points because it upsets us,” said Mr. Clarke who served in the Canadian Army for 36 years and was diagnosed with PTSD largely because of his service in Vietnam and relies on services of the local office in Sydney, N.S.
“They [case officers] know what our trigger points are. We can talk to them in a nice civil manner and explain our problems to them. We know that they are there to hear it and they are there to help us, not like a telephone,” said Mr. Clarke, who was diagnosed with PTSD in 2004 and has been working with the same case officer for years.
Mr. Clarke explained the triggers: “If we were to run into somebody who is offensive, that’s a trigger point. Sarcasm, that’s a trigger point. To mention something about our experience overseas, a trigger point. They know these things,” he said, adding that if the Sydney, N.S., office closed, he will have to travel for hours to get in-person service.
Terry Collins, 46, another veteran suffering from PTSD said that after reading Mr. Fantino’s letter, he thinks Mr. Fantino does not understand the severity of PTSD at all.
“Is he [Minister Fantino] for real? First of all, you have to know PTSD, what PTSD is and what it does to a person before you can implement programs such as this. He obviously does not know what PTSD is or how it affects people,” said Mr. Collins who served in the Army for about 22 years and is suffering from PTSD because of his work in Afghanistan. He now uses the services of Veterans Affairs office in Sydney, N.S.
“When PTSD is rearing its ugly head to us, we don’t have the patience, we don’t have the willpower to stay on a phone or a computer and keep going with requests from that device, if you know what I mean. I challenge Mr. Fantino to follow a vet who has PTSD through some of these suggestions that he’s making here, to some of these programs, and see how long that vet would put up with this.”
John Yeo, a retired physician assistant in the medical corps, told The Hill Times in a phone interview that for challenges like PTSD, in-person help is always more useful.
“Doing it over the phone, it’s like a mail order. One-on-one is better for both sides—for client and the interviewer,” said Mr. Yeo who retired as a warrant officer after 32 years of service, lives in Prince Edward Island and uses the services of Veterans Affairs’ Charlottetown office.
In an email to The Hill Times, Joshua Zanin, director of communications to Mr. Fantino echoed his boss’s comments.
“Our government is dedicated to ensuring veterans and their families have the support they need, when and where they need it. To that end, services are now being offered conveniently to veterans at 600 Service Canada offices in every region of the country. In addition, we’ve improved services to veterans by increasing the number of case workers in the regions where veterans need them most,” wrote Mr. Zanin in his email.
“Since 2006, our government has invested almost $4.7-billion in new funding to enhance veterans benefits, programs and services. That includes extensive new support focusing on the health and well-being of our ill and injured Veterans and their families,” Mr. Zanin stated.
Meanwhile, veterans and members of PSAC’s Union of Veterans Affairs Employees (UVAE) told The Hill Times that they are starting a campaign to approach 24 Conservative MPs who are either veterans themselves or have ridings nearby Veterans Affairs Canada offices that the Harper government is scheduled to close and are encouraging them to make on-the-record statements asking the Prime Minister to stop the planned closings of Veterans Affairs Canada offices.
Mr. Clarke told The Hill Times that he already had a brief chat with Justice Minister Peter MacKay (Central Nova, N.S.) a few months ago in Cape Breton, N.S., after an event in which he asked then-defence minister to use his clout to stop the closure of Veterans Affairs offices.
Mr. Clarke said that Mr. MacKay declined to accept his request, saying that the Conservatives do not have to worry about the Cape Breton region because there’s no Conservative MP in the area.
“I already had a chat with him and he was not favourable. He felt that because there was no Conservative MP base in Cape Breton that he was not too worried about repercussions. I want Mr. MacKay to know there are going to be repercussions in his own riding,” Mr. Clarke said adding that he’s planning on meeting with Mr. MacKay again in the coming weeks. He said if he gets another negative response, he will let people know in his riding about Mr. MacKay’s position and will ask his constituents to vote for a different party next time.
In an email response, Mr. MacKay acknowledged that he did have a meeting with Mr. Clarke and listened to his views. Mr. MacKay, however, did not confirm or deny Mr. Clarke’s version of events.
“I have and will always express my profound admiration for our nation’s veterans, including Mr. Clarke. I expressed this to him when I met him briefly in January, and listened attentively to his concerns,” Mr. MacKay wrote in an email to The Hill Times.
“As a former minister of National Defence, I have witnessed first-hand the tremendous courage and sacrifice military service demands of our men and women in uniform, and I know we owe a great deal to our veterans, including Mr. Clarke. Which is why our government has substantially increased the budget for Veterans Affairs, and the delivery of benefits and services for our veterans. Our government, and Minister of Veterans Affairs Julian Fantino, remains fully committed to providing veterans with the support they need, when and where they need it. I am confident that our government will continue to build and improve on the services we provide to Canadian veterans.”
Yvan Thauvette, national president of PSAC’s Union of Veterans Affairs Employees, toldThe Hill Times that veterans will approach 24 Conservative MPs and if the MPs refuse to accept their requests, they will be held accountable in the court of public opinion.
“If these MPs really listen to what veterans are saying, I don’t see how they can decide not to work to keep these offices open. If these MPs refuse to listen to what veterans are saying, we will work with veterans to make sure Canadians know that, because they must be held accountable in the next election. We will do our best to make sure Canadians know,” said Mr. Thauvette