The department that serves Canada's former soldiers should be left out of across-the-board federal budget cuts, the veterans' ombudsman says, citing a need to care for the injured and ill long after Canada's combat role in Afghanistan has ended.
"As a nation, we have the obligation to take care of the men and women that were put in harm's way to protect our rights and freedoms," Guy Parent wrote in an open letter to Canadians on Wednesday. "Ensuring that their needs are met is the nation's greatest and most meaningful expression of gratitude."
As Remembrance Day approaches, Mr. Parent said he's concerned that the federal government's bid to balance its budget by making cuts to all departments could hurt the country's ability to care for veterans.
Departments were asked to submit proposals this fall for ways to trim 5 per cent and 10 per cent from their budgets. Similar cost-cutting measures in the United States, Britain and Australia have exempted those countries' veterans affairs departments, Mr. Parent said.
"If the government ensures us that they will not achieve their economies on the back of veterans, then that means that the 5 or 10 per cent will have to come from the other portion of the budget, which is the salary of people and operations expenses," Mr. Parent said in a telephone interview.
"Any reduction in people would certainly have a negative impact on accessing programs and administering programs, so we are concerned."
Earlier this year, Veterans Affairs indicated its budget would shrink by $226-million over the next two years based on a projected drop in the number of veterans it serves, and a spokesman confirmed this fall that the department could shed 500 jobs over the next five years.
Mr. Parent said he couldn't comment on the projected decline in the number of veterans, but said the department should be prepared for veterans of the war in Afghanistan to come forward with complex injuries and mental health problems that take longer to surface than some others.
"Some of the people are not necessarily realizing now that they are suffering from the aftereffects of the mission, but will one or two years down the road," Mr. Parent said.
About 11 per cent of Canadian Forces veterans received disability benefits or services last year, and that number has been rising steadily since the mission began.
Mr. Parent said his office is reviewing mental health programming at Veterans Affairs "to ensure [the department]is prepared for the eventual surge of mental injuries that may occur post-mission Afghanistan."
And he called on Canadians to remember that sending soldiers to battle always has a long-term cost.
"We need to realize that this is an impact that will be consistent every time that we send people out in harm's way, outside the country to protect our values. … There will be an impact."