Former soldiers from different parts of the country are gearing up to fight the impending removal of the veterans' ombudsman.
Several veterans, representing different interests, were planning a news conference Tuesday in Ottawa to protest the Conservative government's decision not to appoint retired colonel Pat Stogran to a second term as the voice of injured soldiers and RCMP members.
Dennis Manuge, who has fought the clawback of long-term disability benefits all of the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, said the writing is on the wall and veterans will not let the advocate go without a fight.
"It just seems everybody in Ottawa that tries to do their job and let the government officials and bureaucrats know what's failing and what's wrong and what needs improvement are being canned," said Mr. Manuge, a former army corporal who suffered a debilitating back injury in 2000.
He's one of up to half-a-dozen veterans who will speak and lend their support to Col. Stogran, a former ground commander in Afghanistan whose appointment three years ago as the first-ever veterans' ombudsman was hailed by Conservatives as the beginning of new era in the treatment of retired soldiers.
Col. Stogran was notified early last week that his appointment will not be renewed, according to federal government sources. Word of his anticipated removal leaked late Friday.
He met with Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn over weekend, but refused to comment about the outcome of their discussion. A spokeswoman for the minister also declined to comment.
Never one to mince words, Mr. Stogran's criticism of the federal bureaucracy's treatment of injured soldiers and policies, such as the replacement of pensions with lump-sum payments and disability stipends, has grown more harsh. He's said Veterans Affairs has adopted a "penny-pinching insurance company mentality" toward its clients.
Liberal MP Dan McTeague, who fought for improved benefits for wounded soldiers, said ditching Col. Stogran would be a colossal setback for veterans and accused the government of wanting to shoot the messenger.
"The Conservative message appears to be: 'You become a lapdog, not a watchdog,' " Mr. McTeague said.
"I'm absolutely appalled, as I think most Canadians are, that the Conservatives are throwing away the very person they appointed, someone who had some tough news to tell them. We didn't appoint him. They did, and he happened to tell them something they found inconvenient."
The Tories have consistently made political hay with their message of standing behind the troops, and Mr. McTeague predicted support from veterans will take a hit.
"I can't see how the Conservatives will be able to darken the door of any legion in this country with Stogran's dismissal hanging over their heads," he said.
NDP veterans critic Peter Stoffer said Col. Stogran joins a long list of federal appointees who've been booted out because their views conflict with the government line.
"The moment you poke your head out the sand and say, 'I disagree with you,' it gets chopped off," Mr. Stoffer said Monday. "The problem is the Conservatives are so insecure and so anal in their approach to government that they really don't know how to take criticism."
Critics have argued that certain portions of the New Veteran's Charter, conceived in 2005 under the Liberals but enacted in 2006 by the Tories, creates a system that is expressly meant to limit Ottawa's long-term financial liability to soldiers.
Wounded soldiers were formerly given a monthly pension payment for life and they were guaranteed payment would increase if a condition got worse.
But the new charter gives disabled veterans who've been through rehabilitation a lump-payment and a monthly cheque that represents 75 per cent of their salary before their release from the Forces. The monthly cheque continues only until they find a civilian job.
Those who are too injured to work receive three quarters of their salary until age 65. Critics argue that someone who is too ill to work has no way of building up decent retirement savings and the cut-off will leave old soldiers destitute.
There have also been complaints that young veterans are blowing their lump-sum payments.
The department recently released a survey claiming 69 per cent of veterans who received the tax-free, lump-sum payments are happy with the new system.
The Royal Canadian Legion piled on to Mr. Blackburn, saying veterans are increasingly concerned that the system is being dismantled and will not be there in the end "to tend to their needs" in the future.
"It is discouraging to note that Veterans Affairs Canada while encouraging dialogue and discussion through the advisory committee process does little substantially to address those very issues that are raised during the process," said an Aug. 10 letter, signed by Patricia Varga, the Legion's Dominion president.
Mr. Blackburn recently suggested that the department will get smaller as more Second World War vets, the biggest client base, passes away.
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