Eight Veterans Affairs offices at the centre of a battle between former soldiers and the federal Conservative government have been shuttered, but the actions this week of the minister responsible for the closings have left him a target of ongoing anger.
Protests in the cities across Canada that lost their Veterans Affairs offices drew crowds as large as 1,000 on Friday.
Veterans wearing black armbands laid wreaths outside doors that will not reopen. In Sydney, N.S., former soldiers carried signs telling Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino to “fight the next war yourselves.”
The protests were organized by Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), whose members have lost their jobs. But the veterans who took part say they are the ones who will bear the brunt of the closings.
In addition to Sydney, the Veterans Affairs offices have been shut down in Kelowna, B.C., Saskatoon, Brandon, Thunder Bay, Windsor, Ont., Charlottetown and Corner Brook. A ninth office has already closed in Prince George, B.C.
The government says the work will now be done at 650 Service Canada locations across the country. It also says veterans have access to the department online and by telephone and will continue to receive visits at home upon request.
Bruce Moncur, a veteran of Afghanistan who lost a portion of his brain in a friendly fire incident in 2006, spoke at the protest in Windsor.
“It was intense,” Mr. Moncur said in an interview afterward. “I had to stop my speech a couple of times because of the overwhelming response.”
Mr. Moncur was one of the former military men who travelled to Ottawa to meet with Mr. Fantino earlier this week, only to be told at the last minute that the minister could not make it.
Later, just as the veterans were about to appear at a news conference, Mr. Fantino appeared to speak with them. Some harsh words were exchanged and the minister walked away.
“It was just a travesty,” Mr. Moncur said. “We set up that day around his schedule and he is the one that missed the meeting.”
Mr. Fantino apologized the next day, saying he “absolutely regrets” arriving “very late.”
Mr. Moncur said the words of contrition were a step in the right direction. But “if you don’t have access at the top,” he said, “then the 650 other access points will be a failure.”
Mr. Fantino has dismissed the Friday protests as a stunt organized by the union. He said during interviews this week that the veterans were “duped” and “used” by PSAC.
That only served to inflame the anger of Rob Cutbush, a Navy veteran and a local legion president who took a day off work to speak at the protest in Thunder Bay.
“What right does he have to tell me, as a Canadian citizen who defended democracy for 25 years, who I can talk to, speak to or associate with?”
In the House of Commons on Friday, the opposition continued to pound the government over its treatment of veterans, chipping away at the Conservative boast that it has been a champion of Canadians who have served in uniform.
“Veterans are rightly furious with the government,” said Nathan Cullen, the NDP House Leader. “Why are Conservatives just steamrolling ahead with reducing services and increasing cuts to the brave men and women of this country?”
It was left to Parm Gill, parliamentary secretary to Mr. Fantino, to reply.
“A critically injured veteran does not have to drive to a district office,” Mr. Gill said.
“We will send a registered nurse or a case manager to them in the comfort of their own home to assist them where the service is required. Veterans who are seriously injured can count on our government to shovel their driveways, cut their grass and prepare their meals in their homes.”