The department of beleaguered Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino shed nearly a quarter of its work force over the past five years even as bureaucrats warned that the changes could put the delivery of services to veterans and their families at risk.
The downsizing occurred at a time when soldiers were returning home from Afghanistan with a myriad of physical and psychological injuries, and as growing numbers of veterans were butting heads with a Conservative government they accused of being indifferent to their needs.
Figures posted by the federal Treasury Board on an internal government website show the number of employees at Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) declined from 4,137 in 2009 to 3,188 last March. The most dramatic drop occurred between 2013 and 2014, when the department lost more than 400 people.
At the same time, officials in the Veterans Affairs department warned in a government report this year that: "The primary risk being mitigated by the department is that modernization of VAC's service delivery model will not be achieved as expected, and will not meet the needs of veterans, Canadian Armed Forces members, and their families."
Mr. Fantino, a former police chief, is the fourth minister to hold the difficult portfolio since Prime Minister Stephen Harper took office in 2006 – and has had the most trouble. Calls for his resignation came this week after the government said it would spend $200-million over six years for veterans' mental health, but staff in Mr. Fantino's office later acknowledged the money would actually flow to the vets over several decades.
"The plan is worth even less per year than the savings from closing the nine veterans services offices," Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau told the House of Commons on Tuesday. "It is by now clear to all that the Prime Minister owes veterans an apology."
Mr. Fantino was travelling on official business in Italy last week when the Auditor-General released a report saying many vets are waiting months or years to access mental-health disability benefits.
And, although opposition MPs say Mr. Fantino was invited to appear before the veterans affairs committee of the House of Commons to answer questions about the supplementary budget estimates for his department, as most ministers do, he did not agree to appear.
Those estimates show the Veterans Affairs department is asking for another $5-million to spend on advertising this year. That is about equal to the annual cost of running three occupational stress injury clinics for veterans with mental problems, such as the one in Halifax that will be created with the new funding.
Mr. Fantino's spokespeople did not reply Tuesday when asked why he did not appear at the committee. Nor did they answer questions about how the department is coping with reduced staff.
Stephen Lecce, a member of Mr. Harper's own communications team, has been sent to Mr. Fantino's office to act as the interim chief of staff. That prompted NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair to ask why the Prime Minister felt it necessary to impose third-party management on one of his own ministers. "If he's lost confidence in his minister, why is [the minister] still there?" asked Mr. Mulcair.
Mr. Harper did not directly respond. But, with regard to the announcement of mental-health supports for veterans that was made last week, he said: "Using the Auditor-General's standards of accrual accounting over a life cycle, the costs of these new announcements to the government are, in fact, $200-million over the next six years. Obviously these funds are available to veterans over many decades, over their lifetime."
Frank Valeriote, the Liberal veterans affairs critic, said the essential point about the money is that "veterans get it over 50 years."
Mr. Valeriote said the fact that the department staff has been reduced at the same time bureaucrats worried aloud that services to veterans could be put at risk "is a contradiction of what they say and how they respond. And that is exactly what our veterans have been facing …"