Services provided to Canada's veterans should be spared from the chopping block as the Conservative government determines what must be cut in this month's federal budget, the Official Opposition says.
Peter Stoffer, the NDP veterans affairs critic, has introduced a motion in the Commons that calls on the government to spare the department from the financial hit that is expected as the government grapples with a multi-billion dollar deficit. It also asks for assurances that programs and services will be provided to all military and RCMP veterans and their families in a timely and comprehensive manner.
"You should not be balancing the books of your nation on the backs of the heroes of our country," Mr. Stoffer told a news conference on Monday where he was joined by a number of veterans and veterans advocates, including former ombudsman Pat Stogran.
Veterans across the country are already having difficulties receiving their entitlements, Mr. Stoffer said. "If you cut that department by any amount, even more veterans and their families – and RCMP members and their families – will find it difficult to access services and benefits."
The government has said it will reduce the budget of the Veterans Affairs department by $226-million over two years, arguing that the money is no longer needed because the number of traditional veterans from the Second World War and Korea will decline significantly over the next five years as they succumb to old age.
In addition, the department is facing the same cuts of between 5 per cent and 10 per cent that will affect all departments as the government looks to balance the books.
Veterans Affairs Minister Stephen Blaney has said there will be no reductions to veterans' benefits as the department goes through a belt-tightening exercise.
"We will never forget the sacrifice of the brave men and women who have served their country. Our government has promised to maintain benefits for Canada's veterans, including the enhanced benefits that we have introduced," said Codie Taylor, a spokeswoman for the minister. "We will be asking the NDP to amend their motion to recognize the important difference between providing critical services and benefits to veterans and spending on inefficient bureaucracy."
By mid-afternoon on Monday, New Democrat MP Robert Chisholm had introduced amendments to the motion which the NDP said were designed to allay an suspicions that it is opposed to cutting red tape. They call on the government to commit every dollar of Veterans Affairs spending that is deemed by the government to be unnecessary to programs and services for military and RCMP veterans and their families.
But Mr. Stoffer said it's not possible that the cuts to the department's budget will have no affect on the services provided the veterans.
The proposed cuts will mean the loss of an additional 500 jobs at the Veterans Affairs department, which will mean a loss of 1,800 positions from a department that originally employed 4,100 people, he said.
"If indeed that transpires," the NDP MP said, "this will be the greatest cut to any department in the House of Commons. We're asking the government to go the other way."
The federal Liberals agree with Mr. Stoffer's motion. "My hat goes off to Peter Stoffer and the NDP for getting this to the floor of the House of Commons," said Sean Casey, the Liberal veterans affairs critic who sat through the news conference. "It's something that we've been trying to do for months."
Veterans are already being told they have to wait months to find out if they qualify for benefits, Mr. Stoffer said, and some case workers are handling more than 900 people.
Veterans say that, in 2006, it took an average of two minutes for their calls to the department to be answered but now it takes an average of 10 minutes and sometimes much longer.
"The fact is it's going to be more and more difficult to meets the needs of our veterans that are coming down the pipe, and those we already have, because right now so many of them are being denied benefits," Mr. Stoffer said.
Mr. Stogran, the former veterans ombudsman and a retired colonel, said when the government buys a truck or a plane it calculates how much it will have to pay for that equipment through its entire life cycle. It should be doing to same for the men and women in the military, he said.
Sean Bruyea, a veterans advocate, said the government has already admitted it is cutting money from income and compensation programs. If the cuts that are coming in the budget mean veterans have to wait for extended periods of times to get the benefits to which they are entitled, Mr. Bruyea argued, "the government is saying: 'You know what, your sacrifice wasn't worth it."
The government has already asked people to sacrifice while they are in uniform, he added, "and yet the government isn't willing to sacrifice when it comes to budget crunch time."