This week’s Remembrance Day ceremonies at my granddaughter’s public school reminded me once again what most Canadians don’t remember on Nov. 11. Of course we all give thanks to our troops past and present. But I wonder how many are incensed at the way the physical and psychological needs of today’s soldiers are being neglected once they come back home. Some 152 Canadians have died in Afghanistan. Fully twenty times that number have returned alive but damaged.
The truth is that for most of us, whether we support or oppose Canadian participation, the Afghan war is a remote abstraction. Except for the tiny number who have enlisted and their families, the war touches no Canadian directly. Despite the extra costs of waging war, no extra contributions are asked of us, including those among us who keep getting richer and richer even as the war and recession continue. Imagine the heartfelt sacrifice Defence Minister Peter MacKay seems about to make on behalf of his boys and girls if, following Jim Prentice, he too jumps to Bay Street.
Not a single business person has stood up and offered to share the sacrifices of those noble soldiers they all support so patriotically. None is offering to take home a less staggering amount in earnings. Those powerful lobbies representing business interests have not demanded higher taxes from their members to help the government provide jobs and training and scholarships and homes and proper treatment for returning troops. In fact, as everyone knows, they very publicly demand the very opposite.
Not only do our vets sacrifice alone, when they return home their sacrifices are somehow forgotten. Somehow, we’re more committed to honouring them than to helping them. A Progressive Conservative member of the Ontario Legislature wants to honour our troops even more by giving the rest of us a statutory holiday every Remembrance Day. Hey, more time for shopping! But how does it honour wounded or traumatized returnees if they can’t get the support they need and have earned?
The Royal Canadian Mint pays for an entire page in The Globe advertising its new commemorative poppy coin and its Remembrance Day collector cards. The cards sell for $9.95 (not $10?), half of which will go to the Military Families Fund. I first discovered this fund a year ago, on the eve of Remembrance Day 2009. An organization I’d never heard of called the True Patriot Love Foundation held a gala in Toronto to raise $2-million for this fund, which assists military families facing urgent financial need resulting from conditions of service.
The Chief of Defence Staff, General Walter Natynczyk, was there to tell the 1,700 glitterati that part of the foundation’s mission was – what else? – “recognizing the sacrifices that our men and women in uniform and their families are making today.” But no one at the Mint or at the gala seemed to ask the obvious question: Why should military families need private charity if they have issues arising from serving overseas? Two million dollars is chump change for any government. Stephen Harper's office alone now costs us $10-million a year. So why do our vets and their families need $2-million from private sources? What if they need more than $2-million? Why should the soldiers we honour so loudly be dependent on charity?
Ask Patrick Stogran, who has spent three frustrating years desperately trying to get someone to actually care about the needs of our vets instead of just loving them with occasional private handouts. Mr. Stogran is – sorry, was – Canada's first veterans ombudsman, and a man not easily scorned in the way this government treats anyone it can’t control. First, he was appointed by Stephen Harper. Second, he’s a 30-year veteran. He knows first-hand how messed up many soldiers are when they return from the front lines and how pitifully little has been done to help them.
“What I am here to do,” he said, “is to expose to Canadians what I perceive as a system that for a long time has denied veterans not just what they deserve, but what they earned with their blood and sacrifice.” Good enough reason for the government to not to re-appoint him.
When it comes to our vets, Harper government rhetoric and its policies are in titanic battle. Only under extreme duress do the Tories alter policies to reflect rhetoric. On his way out, Mr. Stogran ratcheted up the pressure.
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.”
Or this: “I was told by a senior Treasury Board analyst … that it is in the government's best interest to have soldiers killed overseas rather than wounded because the liability is shorter term.”
Then came a rash of truly extraordinary personal stories. For criticizing the benefit system imposed on vets, retired Canadian Forces captain Sean Bruyea found practically the entire Veterans Affairs department –hundreds of seemingly under-utilized bureaucrats – pouring over his confidential medical and psychiatric files for information they could use to discredit him.
The Department of National Defence similarly seems to forget their soldiers once they’ve returned. The department apparently prefers to drop disabled vets in the black hole of civilian life rather than find them productive non-combat jobs. Canadians were also stunned by the testimony of Sheila Fynes, whose son committed suicide three years after returning from Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder. Seeking answers that were not forthcoming, DND treated her as some kind of enemy agent instead of as the grieving mother of a troubled soldier.
What kind of public servants are these? What kind of government is this?
Finally Stephen Harper was forced to act. The government took out a newspaper ad with the brazen caption “Our Veterans Matter,” outlining a number of ways “the Government of Canada has recently increased support for modern-day Veterans in need of services and care adapted to their reality.” This clumsy formulation begged the obvious question. Canada has been in Afghanistan and troops have faced a new reality for seven years. Why is increased support only now being announced?
There’s another problem. Vets aren’t remotely satisfied with this panicky response. Mr. Stogran, the ex-ombudsman, is considering a class-action lawsuit against the government over the “shoddy treatment” meted out by “a terrible system …with an insurance industry culture.”
And vets themselves hit the streets this past weekend. They staged an unprecedented series of nationwide demonstrations to publicize their long list of grievances, including their dissatisfaction with the so-called New Veterans Charter introduced by Mr. Harper in 2006. Yet these vets, still suffering from their wartime experiences, were not much remembered in Friday’s ceremonies.
It’s curious. The dead are the heroes. They can rest in peace knowing we remember and honour them. The survivors are not so sure.