Federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair chats with World War II veteran Larry Costello (above) during his visit to Royal Canadian Legion Br. 157 last Thursday afternoon (Aug. 21).
By Ron Giofu
Federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair returned to Amherstburg and vowed to re-open Veterans Affairs offices if the NDP forms government after the 2015 election.
Mulcair, who also visited the town in March, was at Royal Canadian Legion Br. 157 last Thursday afternoon where spoke to and heard from veterans relating to concerns over veterans affairs. Accompanying him were Essex MPP Taras Natyshak and Windsor West MPP Lisa Gretzky.
The federal NDP leader told the group the Conservative government has cut $236 million from Veterans Affairs and closed nine Veterans Affairs offices, including the Windsor location.
“When we form government next year, we will re-open every one of the Veterans Affairs offices,” Mulcair said.
Mulcair said Veterans Affairs would be a top priority.
“I consider one of the most important things a government can do is honour those who served this country,” he said. “We’re not just going to talk about it, we’re going to get it done.”
Mulcair added that the NDP “think it’s a legal obligation and a moral obligation to be there for (veterans).” He said there is “an attitude coming from the top” to cut and that has become the mentality with that department.
Afghanistan veteran Bruce Moncur said Minister of Veterans Affairs Julian Fantino walked out of a meeting with veterans while Liberal leader Justin Trudeau allowed one question and a photo opportunity when veterans met with him. He also alleged Essex MP Jeff Watson heckled opposition speakers in the House of Commons speaking on the matter.
“There’s no denying Veterans Affairs is broken,” said Moncur.
Moncur, who noted he had five per cent of his brain removed due to injuries he suffered in battle, added there needs to be improved compensation for veterans who have served.
Vietnam veteran Mike Lepine feared veterans who can’t get to an office or get frustrated trying to reach Veterans Affairs staff by telephone could “fall through the cracks.” He said veterans hear about how much the government cares for them but doesn’t believe that is the case.
“The message has to get there,” he said. “The iceberg has to melt at the front, which is at Parliament Hill.”
World War II veteran Larry Costello also called for offices to re-open and believed that people handling cases for veterans should have a better idea of what those veterans have experienced.
“We’ve got to do something to get Veterans Affairs offices open again and helping veterans,” he said.
Mike Akpata, an Afghanistan veteran, said returning veterans need better job training, access to education and skills development. Akpata believed “reservists become lost” when they return and with many unable to find work because of “gaps” in their resume due to their service.
“When you leave the family of the Legion, you are left in the wind twisting,” he said.
Akpata also suggested that the government acknowledge returning veterans with at least a card of thanks, including a number they can call if they need assistance.
“When I got home, my neighbours thanked me for my service,” said Akpata. “Maybe my government can do so too.”
Jeff Gravel called for better compensation for veterans when they return.
“No one wants to get rich out of this,” said Gravel. “I think people just want fair compensation.”
Adam Grant, a fellow veteran, believed the government is treating veterans like “an extraneous expense.
“At the end of the day, veterans feel used. They feel betrayed,” said Grant.
Grant said veterans have learned skills while in the military but are having trouble finding work and instead are treated like a “photo op.”
Essex MP Jeff Watson said Friday that the Conservative government has modernized Veterans Affairs, stating that veterans can access services through Service Canada offices.
“Now we have services in Amherstburg, Belle River and Leamington as well as Windsor,” said Watson.
The Essex MP stated the Windsor office was a 10,000 square foot building with six employees and 23 managed cases.
“That’s a colossal inefficiency,” said Watson.
Watson said he found Mulcair’s comments “ironic,” stating the NDP has routinely voted against Conservative measures that Watson said makes things better for veterans. He stated his government has maintained or expanded services while saving in infrastructure costs.
“Veterans Affairs had to undergo a modernization in service delivery. That is what has been done,” stated Watson.
Veterans can access staff in person at a Service Canada office, by phone or electronically, he added.
“We have invested $4.7 billion in new money since 2006, all of which Mr. Mulcair and the NDP voted against,” said Watson.
There are a series of training and education initiatives the government offers, he continued, and that he believes the NDP are using their dislike of the government to “get in the way” of the support for veterans.
As for the comments regarding him heckling, behavior Mulcair described as “undignified,” Watson denied that occurred.
“I don’t heckle anyone speaking on Veterans Affairs,” he said. “I can’t respond to comments that don’t have substantiation.”