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A veteran places his poppy on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier during Remembrance Day ceremonies in Ottawa on Nov. 11, 2009. (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
A veteran places his poppy on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier during Remembrance Day ceremonies in Ottawa on Nov. 11, 2009. (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Tories mull shrinking Veterans Affairs as old soldiers fade away Add to ...

Canada's veterans are ebbing away, and as they go, government officials are asking how much of the Department of Veterans Affairs should go with them.

Every month 1,700 more veterans from the Second World War and Korean War die. Of the 1.1 million men and women who fought in the Second World War or in Korea, only 155,700 are still alive. Yet the operating budget of Veterans Affairs, which cares for surviving servicemen and women, has climbed by $325-million to $3.4-billion since 2006.

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Four weeks ago, Keith Coulter, the former commissioner of prisons, submitted a report to Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn on the future role and responsibilities of the department.

The report is confidential. But Mr. Blackburn confirmed in an interview that it deals with how a smaller department will handle a reduced caseload. "We know that we will need fewer employees in the future," he said. No decision has been made on whether layoffs will be needed or if the work force can be trimmed through attrition or reallocation. "But this department is still important, and there are new services to deliver to the new veterans," Mr. Blackburn said.

Don Stewart and George Metcalfe are vice-presidents of the residents council at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, which houses the largest long-term-care facility for veterans in the country.

"Well, I figure four more years, there's not going to be very many veterans here," Mr. Stewart acknowledges. Mr. Metcalfe is more colourful in his use of language: "I could see where Veterans Affairs could be assimilated into another department as the number of veterans decreases - you know, as us old buggers die off."

The average age of the 500 men and women in Sunnybrook's veterans wing is 88.

As the needs of veterans diminish with the passing of the oldest generation, one question is whether an entire department is necessary to manage the transition into society of current veterans of a much smaller Canadian Forces. About 2,200 veterans of the Afghanistan campaign are receiving special services.

"Two competing principles are at work here," observes Brian Lee Crowley of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute for Public Policy, an Ottawa think tank.

"On the one hand, we have great pressures on the government to reduce spending, and so abolishing the Department of Veterans Affairs might result in some administrative savings, say by rolling it into the Department of National Defence," he said.

"On the other hand, if there is one group to whom the country owes an undeniable debt of gratitude that should be manifested in solicitous attention to their needs, it would be those who risked their lives on behalf of the country. I tend to come down on this side of the conflict."

As does everyone else.

"There is an extraordinarily powerful emotional sentiment within the country to not mess with the department for a very long time," says Senator Colin Kenny, chairman of the standing Senate committee on national security and defence. Any government that tries to disband the department to save administrative costs, he believes, "would do so at its peril."

The current Conservative government, which venerates the military, is especially unlikely to act.

The challenge, say those at Veterans Affairs, is to craft a smaller, more responsive department that serves the needs of a new generation of veterans.

Those who served in the Second World War have always been well looked after. Services for them included land grants, education programs and disability pensions.



Don Stewart, left, and George Metcalfe paint while taking an art therapy class at the veterans’ wing of Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.





Today, programs for those still in their own home look after cutting the grass and shovelling the snow, housecleaning and meals on wheels. Such things as hearing aids and medication are paid for. Veterans who can no longer live at home are placed in a long-term care facility. When they die, the surviving spouse continues to receive equivalent benefits.

A New Veterans Charter, enacted in 2006, provides benefits for veterans of the Afghan mission, although critics maintain they are inadequate and there is too much red tape.

"There is a class system within veterans groups," says Colonel Pat Stogran, who serves as the Veterans Ombudsman. Governments are far less unconditional in their commitment to veterans today than they were after the Second World War, Col. Stogran believes, and financial compensation and other support for wounded veterans, be those wounds physical or psychological, are less generous than they were then.

Ken Miller, the department's director of program policy, responds that the needs of modern veterans are very different from those who came home after the Second World War, when the government sought to accommodate a million men whose lives had been interrupted, and to prevent a recession by stimulating the economy through transfers to veterans.

Today, he said, the emphasis is on integrating former military personnel into the economy and society, bearing in mind the nature and severity of any injuries they might have sustained.

Among the dwindling band of veterans at Sunnybrook, respect for the department remains undiminished after more than six decades. Asked how he would feel if Veterans Affairs were abolished, Mr. Metcalfe replied: "Badly."

Mr. Stewart agreed. "They come to bat for you. … If you have a pain in your butt and you go down there and tell 'em, they'll fix it."

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

 

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