Paul Manson is a former chief of the defence staff. He is currently the patron of the NATO Veterans Organization of Canada.
Traditionally, Canada's veterans have enjoyed outstanding moral support from a grateful public, in recognition of the nation's solemn obligation to care for those who have served and suffered in harm's way. But the veterans landscape is changing. With a steady decline in the huge numbers who served in the Second World War, today's veteran community is characterized by a new set of men and women whose military experience stems from the Korean conflict, the Cold War, peacekeeping missions, upheaval in the former Yugoslavia, the first Persian Gulf war and Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, there have been significant changes in the array of organizations serving the veterans community. The Royal Canadian Legion, formed in the aftermath of the First World War, is still the largest and best known. Predating the Legion by many years is the Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans in Canada, also with branches across the country. Another organization, the National Council of Veterans Associations, brings together mostly 1939-45 groups, but it remains an effective advocacy voice. It also has close links with the War Amps.
The post-1945 era has seen the emergence of two peacekeeper organizations, namely the Canadian Association of Veterans in UN Peacekeeping and the Canadian Peacekeeping Veterans Association. Then there is the newer NATO Veterans Organization of Canada, plus a host of small associations representing specific groups such as regiments, naval formations and squadrons, which are primarily collegial in nature, with minimal advocacy activity.
Significantly, a recent phenomenon has altered the landscape, with the appearance of several veterans' advocacy groups that comprise little more than a website and a handful of officers, with few members in the traditional sense. Small as they are, these have dominated the headlines by virtue of a non-traditional, militant approach in support of veterans' causes, notably in the form of aggressive and occasionally vitriolic attacks on the federal government, the Prime Minister, Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino and the bureaucrats of his department.
To be sure, the record of both Conservative and Liberal governments over the past few decades has been less than perfect. Our military's heavy involvement in Afghanistan obviously raised the temperature of the debate. Like all wars, this one took a toll on those who were engaged in the conflict, reminding Canadians of their obligation to care for those who suffered as a consequence of military service. In 2006, the government introduced a New Veterans Charter in an attempt to articulate this obligation in practical terms, but not all of it was deemed satisfactory. This dissatisfaction led to a comprehensive review by the Parliamentary Committee on Veterans Affairs, whose recent report generated mixed reaction among veterans' organizations.
In the midst of all this, the militants have vigorously broadened their attacks on the government, largely over alleged failures in the medical treatment and financial compensation of disabled military personnel, especially those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or other debilitating injuries. They have also derided the government for having closed a number of Veterans Affairs service centres across Canada. Lately, their campaign has taken on an ominous political tone. With an eye to the coming federal election, these vocal advocates are calling on Canadians to vote against the Conservative government for what they see as its inadequate response to veterans' needs.
Many of today's veterans – perhaps the great majority – are uncomfortable with parts of this rhetoric, even though they agree with the need for action. One reason for the discomfort is a growing feeling that the aggressive approach may very well be counterproductive – it could alter the positive image the Canadian public holds of its veterans, and in turn influence government support for their community. More to the point, unduly antagonizing the officials of the Veterans Affairs department can scarcely lead to a productive working environment in the search for solutions to current problems.
In all of this, the mainstream veterans' organizations are becoming increasingly concerned about what is seen as an unhealthy trend toward confrontation, militancy, bitterness, unionism and politicization in the veterans' community.
Part of the problem is that the proliferation of diverse veterans' organizations in this country tends to dilute their collective power and message. Each of the many groups has a legitimate role to play in representing its own members, but what's missing is an ability to speak with a common voice, incidentally reinforcing what has been a very sensible input from the Veterans' Ombudsman.
Recent attempts to bring the diverse traditional vets' groups together are beginning to show some modest success. But much more needs to be done collectively to debate the really important issues of the day, to decide on realistic solutions and to present these politely but forcefully. In the absence of such a process, the veterans' agenda will continue to be captured by the few who, by playing the political game, are seen to be risking the good name Canadian veterans have earned over the years.
The veterans' cause must transcend party politics and campaign issues. Mainstream veterans firmly believe that political gamesmanship is not the answer. It might appeal to some partisan interests, but only at the expense of broad public support – without which the veterans' community at large cannot expect fulfilment of the nation's solemn obligation toward them.