Prime Minister Stephen Harper calls enlisting in the military the “highest form of public service.” Why then is Veterans Affairs, the department which cares for the Canadian Forces when its members are injured, facing the largest proportional cuts of any other public-service department?
The budget axe has been looming over all federal departments. The current “strategic and operational review” is a euphemism for reigning in a federal public service that is out of control. In the last 10 years, the core public service has grown by 34 per cent (versus 12 per cent at Veterans Affairs) and total government program expenses have swelled by 84 per cent (versus 67 per cent at Veterans Affairs).
Perhaps most galling for Canadians who have passed through two recessions in two decades and have seen no real growth in their earnings, public service salaries have increased by 22 per cent over and above inflation.
Few could credibly argue against the need for Ottawa to be managed better.
However, the axe started swinging at Veterans Affairs well before the current budget. As early as 2010, the department offered up more than 500 job cuts to begin this fiscal year. Bureaucrats eager to please Treasury Board then subsequently followed with $223-million in spending cuts in each of the next two years.
The government justifies these planned cuts by arguing the rapidly declining population of Second World War requires fewer employees to care for them. But ministers and senior bureaucrats rarely mention the fact there are nearly 700,000 veterans of post-Second World War conflicts. Last year, the casualty rate of injured Canadian Forces veterans reached 8.9 per cent, surpassing the casualty rate suffered during the Second World War.
Sadly, the department’s policies have been so restrictive that all of the universal programs that improved the well being of Second World War veterans, and Canada economically, have been denied to other Canadian Forces veterans. These programs, to name a few, included a choice of university or trade school as well as housing and business start-up grants. We often look disparagingly at our neighbour to the south but the G.I. Bill has put more than 22 million veterans and family members through post-secondary education and upgrading in the United States.
Such economically sound programs as well as the hundreds of ignored recommendations to repair the department will be impossible if there are any cutbacks at Veterans Affairs. The department has 3,753 full-time-equivalent positions spread among 4,457 employees. Eliminating 500 positions actually represents almost 600 jobs or more than 13 per cent of the department’s employees.
Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney has repeatedly promised there will be no cuts to benefits or pensions. This is misleading. Departmental reports confirm that almost all of the annual $223-million in cuts will come directly from compensation and income programs.
In addition to these draconian measures, Veterans Affairs is also facing an additional cuts of between 5 or 10 per cent of this current budget. Since employee costs represent about 10 per cent of the department’s budget, it would be impossible not to cut programs and benefits or else there would be zero employees at Veterans Affairs.
Should the department sadly succeed in transferring its last remaining hospital to Quebec, an additional 1,400 jobs will be lost. Whatever plan goes forward, the result will reduce Veterans Affairs to its smallest size since it was created nearly 70 years ago.
Being the only federal department with its head office in Charlottetown, where it employs more than one third of its workforce, Veterans Affairs is a management nightmare for the government. The department is often criticized for having an insurance mentality. In some aspects, veterans and their families could only be so lucky. Stunningly, Ottawa does not set aside money for potential or real injured soldiers as insurance companies must do.
The government’s poor fiscal planning is in effect punishing veterans long after they have made their sacrifice. Broken bodies and broken minds are the soldiers’ end of the contract. Cutting programs and services when Canada has failed to uphold its end of the deal is wrong. Making proportionally greater cuts is easy when the targets are disabled veterans and their families, reluctant to defend themselves against the country for which they were willing to die.
Such cutbacks for veterans are not only mean-spirited; they are a clear breach of Canada’s contract with its troops.
Sean Bruyea is a retired Canadian Forces intelligence officer and a graduate student in public ethics at Saint Paul University in Ottawa