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Gerald Caplan

Attempt to silence veterans' watchdog gives him a bigger voice Add to ...

It appears that the Harper government now needs to hire a veritable army of watchdogs that Canadian governments have institutionalized to defend the public interest against - Canadian governments. It's been one of the proudest achievements of our governance system that we the public have forced our governments to hire independent souls to ensure the public interest is not violated by them.

So we have, for a few examples among many, an RCMP complaints commissioner, a military police complaints commissioner, a Canadian nuclear safety commissioner and a veterans' ombudsman. By no coincidence at all, several of these positions have come open after the Harper government decided their appointees had a misguided concept of the public interest. Digging deeply into lessons taught by Lewis Carroll, Franz Kafka and George Orwell, as has been their practice, the Harper government has clarified exactly what it expects from these appointees: An understanding that protecting the public interest means unquestioning loyalty to the Harper government.

The qualifications for these vacant positions haven't changed, merely their interpretation. The right woman or man will be passionate, dedicated, bold, tough. Each will passionately defend the Harper government against all criticism. They will all be tough and disciplined in repudiating those who blame the Harper government for their ills. They will speak out boldly and fearlessly about the impeccable job the Harper government is doing in all areas.

It's a seeming paradox that one of the genuine contributions of the Harper government to the commonwealth was the creation of the latest of these public advocates, an independent Veterans' Ombudsman. But its purpose, we can now see, was to stand up for the Harper government against our war veterans. But in retired colonel named Pat Stogran, the government seemed to have selected the wrong man for the job. Stogran apparently shared the plausible assumption that the Harper government cared about the welfare of our troops not only in the field but when they returned home bearing the deep scars of their military experiences.

This was an easy mistake to make. After all, anyone who had opposed the Harper government's war policies in Afghanistan were given the Joe McCarthy treatment, smeared as something close to traitors betraying the brave boys and girls who were putting themselves in harm's way in a distant land. As the Prime Minister repeatedly observed in a nice Orwellian twist, it was those who wanted to bring our young women and men home who were actually responsible for the danger they faced in the field.

It is surely no large surprise to learn that going off to fight is not good for anyone's health. More than 1 in 5 Canadians soldiers are known to leave Afghanistan with psychiatric problems, though experts are certain this considerably lowballs the real figure, given what soldiers face there. A significant number return home deeply traumatized. As Pat Stogran discovered, to his horror, some of them become spouse abusers, drunk drivers, druggies, homeless, uncontrollably violent, attempted suicides and drunken thugs. Those who have endured multiple deployments become the walking wounded. Their families are often shattered, with all members facing their own psychological or physical nightmares.

Given the very loud commitment of our government and military brass to the troops, Stogran apparently took for granted that everything possible was being done to help returned vets cope. But he soon found that was simply wrong. Three years ago he began informing the government and military brass what was really going on. After two years of being ignored, he began shouting about it publicly. For still another year his cries drew only meagre media attention.

But the Harper government has now fixed that problem. A government that truly cared about our troops would have unequivocally embraced Stogran, promising to rectify the shoddy treatment that our vets receive. Besides being the right thing to do, the government must know that opposition parties will surely now make the scandalous treatment of returned soldiers a major campaign issue. But it appears that the Harper government hates criticism even more than it loves our soldiers.

The Prime Minister has announced that Stogran's present contract, which ends in three months, won't be renewed. That's his penalty for doing his job as independent ombudsman exactly as it should be done. But in turfing him out, the Harper government has assured that Stogran's voice, on behalf of our vets, will finally be heard. And what that voice says will shock many Canadians.

Our veterans, Stogran has been trying to tell anyone who'll listen, have long tried to get government attention for a whole array of heart-rending grievances but have been repeatedly frustrated by bureaucracy, paperwork, indifference and a bagful of delaying tactics.

Stogran himself has documented the red tape at Veterans Affairs Canada that so many vets complain about. He's exposed poor communications, overly complex application forms, duplication of efforts in applying for benefits, lack of personal contact and the rejection of serious claims for unsubstantiated reasons.

Few programs have existed to help vets cope. "We tried to set up a program of stress inoculation. I brought it to the powers-that-be." But he was ignored. "I've been ranting and raving," he said a year ago, but "it's fallen on deaf ears." Compensation issues, too, have rankled many vets.

But to the real surprise of many, the Harper government seems to have far more important priorities than the needs of our vets. One of those priorities is to have a compliant ombudsman. Stogran, however, refused to be silent in the face of grave injustices against his clients. He had to go.

But he's going with a bang, not a whimper. He's determined to make the world aware how little has been done to meet the grave problems so many vets face.

Listen to this comment:

"It is beyond my comprehension how the system could knowingly deny so many of our veterans the services and benefits that the people and the government of Canada recognized a long, long time ago as being their obligation to provide."

And this stunner:

"I was told by a senior Treasury Board analyst, who shall remain nameless, that it is in the government's best interest to have soldiers killed overseas rather than wounded because the liability is shorter term."

Try reading this astonishing statement again, and compare it to Stephen Harper's innumerable effusive tributes to those enlisted Canadians who have sacrificed so much. It kind of makes you think.

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