Some veterans who travelled to Ottawa in a last-ditch effort to persuade the federal Conservative government to reverse a decision to close eight Veterans Affairs offices broke down in tears, saying the cabinet minister responsible treated them disrespectfully.
Two of the seven men called for the resignation of Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino after they arrived Tuesday for a scheduled meeting only to be told that he had been called away on business.
Three other Conservative MPs – Laurie Hawn, Erin O'Toole and Parm Gill – turned up in Mr. Fantino's place and listened to the veterans plead for the offices to stay open but could provide no answers, the veterans said.
Then Mr. Fantino arrived unannounced in a back room of a Centre Block studio where the veterans were preparing to take part in an evening news conference. An argument ensued and the minister left, the veterans said.
"What he done to us today is unbelievable, unacceptable and shameful," Ron Clarke, a veteran from Cape Breton, told reporters after saying Mr. Fantino should be fired.
Mr. Fantino issued a statement saying he had met with the veterans and was pleased to assure them that, despite the coming closing of eight underused district offices, the government of Canada has increased the points of service for veterans by more than 620 locations since 2006.
"One of the most important parts of the job is to meet with veterans and hear their concerns firsthand," Mr. Fantino said in the statement. "We had a candid conversation today. I am always willing to hear from veterans face to face on any issue."
The eight offices that will cease operation are located in Thunder Bay; Kelowna, B.C.; Saskatoon; Brandon, Man.; Windsor, Ont.; Sydney, N.S.; Charlottetown; and Corner Brook, Nfld. The office in Prince George, B.C., was closed a year ago.
Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Stephen Harper also characterized the closings as a "significant increase" in service.
"There are a small number of service centres that are being closed that, frankly, serviced very few people, had very few visits," Mr. Harper said during the daily Question Period. "They are being replaced with 600 service centres across the country and, in an increased number of cases, employees will actually go and meet veterans, instead of the other way around."
Mr. Harper was referring to the 600 Service Canada offices that will take over the work done at the offices of Veterans Affairs that are closed. But the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), which represents the Veterans Affairs employees who will lose their jobs, says Service Canada workers have received only limited training in Veteran's Affairs services and programming.
The government did not respond to questions about how many veterans regularly visit the offices that are being eliminated. Nor would it say how much the move will save taxpayers.
The government says it will keep one dedicated Veterans Affairs worker as long as needed at Service Canada locations in cities that will lose offices. And department officials point out that it is also offering services online and by telephone.
But the veterans say the telephone service is impractical for those who are hard of hearing and the department's telephone system is difficult to navigate for anyone who is elderly or who has post-traumatic stress disorder. And they say the computer interface does not work for the elderly and that, when completing forms that range up to 30 pages long, they need to be able to talk directly to experts.
Paul Davis, a veteran from Newfoundland, said he was appalled that Mr. Fantino did not show up to the scheduled meeting. "I feel he had no intention in turning up," said Mr. Davis. "He should not be in office and I would like to see him resign."