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Retired colonel Pat Stogran, whose term as veterans ombudsman is not being renewed, speaks to reporters as discharged soldier Dennis Manuge looks on in Ottawa on Aug. 17, 2010. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Retired colonel Pat Stogran, whose term as veterans ombudsman is not being renewed, speaks to reporters as discharged soldier Dennis Manuge looks on in Ottawa on Aug. 17, 2010. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Veterans advocate won't go quietly Add to ...

The Veterans Ombudsman isn't the first watchdog Stephen Harper has gotten rid of, but he is certainly the loudest.

Claiming he was mere "window dressing" for an "obstructive and deceptive" bureaucracy, Pat Stogran promised veterans Tuesday he would use his remaining three months on the job making sure "Canadians know how badly so many of you are being treated."

Once again, the Conservatives have silenced a voice of dissent from within the government. Once again they will reap the political consequences.

Paul Kennedy at the RCMP complaints commission, Peter Tinsley at the Military Police Complaints Commission, Linda Keen at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, and now Mr. Stogran - all of them lost their jobs or did not have their tenure renewed after criticizing actions of the government or its agencies.

He may not be a watchdog, but Munir Sheikh's resignation from Statistics Canada earlier this summer created controversy for the Tories. Mr. Sheikh resigned rather than appear to endorse the deeply flawed new census that the Conservatives have ordered up.

In Mr. Stogran's instance, the Conservatives risk alienating veterans - a core constituency of the Conservative coalition - after removing their public advocate. But consistently, Mr. Harper has been willing to pay the political cost to silence those criticizing from within.

Of course, any government has the right to not fund organizations or to replace public servants whose views are antithetical to the government's values.

And it wasn't actually this Conservative government that Mr. Stogran was criticizing. The veterans who surrounded him at Tuesday's press conference have long complained of stonewalling and obstruction by Veterans Affairs - all the way from the use of Agent Orange at CFB Gagetown starting in the 1950s to police officers who served in Afghanistan but are not eligible for veterans' benefits.

Their claims have been debated in Parliament, the courts and the media. And Liberal governments were every bit as culpable as this Conservative one for any shortcomings. The New Veterans Charter that the ombudsman claims fails to adequately serve the needs of new veterans was passed unanimously in the House in 2005, under a Liberal government.

But then, Mr. Stogran's biggest problem is not with politicians, but with the culture of secrecy within the department that produced "non answers" when he tried to get to the bottom of things.

"I can't get inside the system to understand" the government's reasoning, let alone adjudicate the validity of complaints, he said.

He has a point, Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn acknowledged in an interview.

"Sometimes, at the beginning, an ombudsman may have some difficulty obtaining all the information and to have all the collaboration with the employees of the department," he said. The Conservatives created the office of the Veterans Ombudsman and Mr. Stogran is the first to hold the job.

Mr. Stogran is being replaced because it is time for a new ombudsman to offer new perspectives, the minister said. "It will be good for our veterans and good for our department."

A new ombudsman may well take a more flexible and effective approach than Mr. Stogran's bullish style, preferring results to rhetoric when handling veterans' claims.

But by joining an ever-lengthening list of silenced critics, his departure reinforces the concrete-hardened impression that the Conservatives will tolerate no dissent. The men and woman of the armed forces will decide what they think of what's been done to their man in Ottawa.

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