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The Globe and Mail

Nova Scotians protest closure of Veterans Affairs offices across the country

A retired sergeant who helped organize a rally in Nova Scotia on Saturday protesting the federal government's plans to close regional Veterans Affairs offices country-wide says the cuts could be serious for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ron Clarke, who suffers from the condition, said he needs face-to-face interaction for help. He said closing nine regional offices means veterans won't get the care they need.

"A telephone, an iPod, these things will not do," said Clarke in an interview from Sydney, N.S., on Saturday. "We have to have... [someone] to talk to and we need that when we need it. Not tomorrow, or two days later.

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"Why disrespect us like that? We fought for our country, now we need people to fight for us."

Clarke said a group of veterans led protesters on a march from a legion hall in Sydney to the local Veterans Affairs office on Saturday morning, where speeches were made about the value of services being provided by Veterans Affairs workers.

Police estimated the crowd at around 2,000 people.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada, the union that represents workers in Veterans Affairs offices, said postcards addressed to Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino with a message of opposition to the cuts were also distributed for the public to send.

A spokesman in the minister's office said in an e-mail that demand has dropped at the Sydney office to about seven visits a day.

The statement said the department is increasing the number of case workers in some regions and continues to deliver personalized benefits like home visits from registered nurses and snow clearing.

Nearly 300 positions are being eliminated due to federal budget cuts.

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The department's headquarters in Charlottetown, locations in Ottawa and field offices across Canada will be affected by the overhaul, which will be rolled out over the next two years.

Brenda LeBlanc, a Veterans Affairs client service agent of 27 years, said 17 people work in the Sydney office, only two of which are relocating to Halifax. She said she personally deals with 900 of the office's 4,200 clients.

"They will not be getting home visits, they will not get to see anybody," said LeBlanc, who is retiring when the office closes at the end of February. "Regardless if these people are 18 or 98 years old, people are going to fall through the cracks."

Clarke said he recently tried out an app that connects veterans to a nurse, who assesses the veteran's issue and can send a counsellor to see him/her within 48 hours.

"I said to her, 'If I had a rope tied to a pole outside and I'm ready to tie the other end of it around my neck, what do I do then'... and she said I'd have to phone 911," said Clarke.

"That didn't make any sense to me."

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