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Cuts at Veterans Affairs stir fears for security of soldier benefits

Canada has finished its combat mission in Afghanistan, but is still taking steps to secure benefits for soldiers who have returned home amid planned staffing cuts and shrinking budgets at Veterans Affairs.

David Goldman/Associated Press

Canada's combat mission in Afghanistan has ended, but advocates for a new generation of veterans say the battle to secure benefits once soldiers return home is just beginning.

A combination of planned staffing cuts, a shrinking Veterans Affairs budget and across-the-board austerity measures has some worried that benefits they say are already difficult to access could slip further out of reach.

"There's a joke that's going around that you better get your things in soon because Veterans Affairs is going to run out of money," said reservist David Macdonald, who was seriously injured several years ago in Afghanistan.

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A projection by the department that its budget will shrink by $226-million over the next two years has some advocates fuming. The department says the reduction is based on an expected decline in the number of clients it works with, as aging Korean War and Second World War veterans gradually die.

For the first time this year, the total number of modern-day Canadian Forces veterans receiving disability benefits from Veterans Affairs surpassed the number of traditional veterans – those from the Korean War or earlier – on the department's roster.

Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney said veterans won't see their benefits reduced. "We've been very clear that there will be no cuts to veterans' benefits," he said. "The only thing we are cutting in this department is red tape."

He added that he's working to make the department more relevant to a new generation of veterans, citing the 2006 New Veterans Charter as an example of his government's efforts to create a more effective "bridge to civilian life" for younger soldiers.

But the charter has also frustrated some because it scrapped a monthly pension system in favour of lump-sum allocations for soldiers disabled because of service. A recent change allowing veterans to collect the money more gradually if they prefer has done little to quell concerns that younger injured veterans will get less money in the long term than their predecessors did.

Veterans Affairs has also said it could cut 500 staff positions over the next five years and, like other federal departments, it submitted a proposal this fall detailing, as requested, how it would cut 5 or 10 per cent from its budget to contribute to the Conservative government's efforts to balance the books.

Former soldier and veterans advocate Sean Bruyea said the department should be expanding, not cutting its services. "Soldiers go off to war because they believe they will be 100 per cent cared for," he said. "They accept an unlimited liability to their country. It should be quid pro quo."

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