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Veterans Affairs staff cut despite warnings from managers since 2009

Erin O'Toole (centre), Minister of Veterans Affairs, and Walter Natynczyk (right), Deputy Minister of Veterans Affairs, take part in the Veterans Affairs stakeholder summit in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 14, 2015.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Senior Veterans Affairs managers have warned every year since 2009 that the department may not have the capacity to meet the needs of its clients, even as the federal government slashed the size of the staff and failed to spend millions of dollars that had been allocated for veterans' services.

The alarms were raised with increasing urgency over the five-year period, with the most recent report on departmental risk, a document that is compiled annually by top-level bureaucrats, stating bluntly that there may not be enough staff to meet the country's obligations to retiring members of the Canadian Forces.

Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O'Toole announced this week that the department would hire a minimum of 200 employees in the coming months. At least 100 of them, he said, will serve as case managers to help vets get access to support services and more than 100 will assess disability claims.

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The promise that the Veterans Affairs work force will be increased comes after the the department trimmed staff every year since 2009, shedding about 900 jobs, with some of the biggest cuts taking place in the disabilities awards branch. It also comes five months after the federal Auditor-General reported many vets are waiting months – and in some cases, years – to access mental-health disability benefits.

Mr. O'Toole became minister in January after Julian Fantino was demoted over his handling of the veterans portfolio. Mr. O'Toole's staff did not respond to questions about why his predecessors cut the department's work force while being warned that services to veterans could be affected.

But when asked late last year about the staff reductions, Conservative MP Parm Gill, who was then the parliamentary secretary to the veterans' affairs minister, said: "We make no apologies for reducing bureaucratic expenses at Veterans Affairs Canada."

Frank Valeriote, the Liberal veterans' affairs critic, said Wednesday it is obvious that the government was told about the impacts its cuts would have on the department but chose to ignore the warnings. And even though the government is now hiring again, Mr. Valeriote said an additional 200 people will not make up for the loss of 900. At the end of 2014, Veterans Affairs Canada had 3,188 employees, down from 4,137 in 2009.

The government "willfully violated their obligation to veterans knowing there would be an impact," Mr. Valeriote said. "They placed them at risk because they were desperate to balance their budget in 2015."

The annual risk assessments conducted by the department show senior managers were concerned about a lack of resources dating back to the time when the number of employees started to shrink.

The 2009-10 risk report says Veterans Affairs "may lack the culture and capacity (programs, resources, contracts, communications) to respond to changing expectations, needs and administrative demands in a timely and effective way …"

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The report of 2010-11 echoed that statement and also said a decreasing work force and rapidly changing processes were increasing the risk of employee burnout.

By 2011-12, the managers were warning that there was a risk that "VAC's programs, services and service delivery model will not meet the evolving needs of Veterans, CF (Canadian Forces) members, and their families."

In 2012-13, they repeated that caution and also said there is a risk that the policies of the department would not be responsive to veterans' needs, based on evidence, or aligned with the government's priorities.

And this year, in the 2013-14 report, they said: "The department may not have the required numbers of staff with the required competencies and corporate knowledge to meet short and long-term program and service obligations." It has been a challenge, they said, to maintain the existing workload while concurrently reducing overall resources.

In addition, the managers said there is a lack of consistency in the delivery of services and benefits across the country.

Meanwhile, it was reported last November that Veterans Affairs Canada had returned $1.13-billion to the federal treasury in unspent funds since the Conservatives came to power in 2006.

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Stung by criticisms that the Conservative government has been failing the military men and women who have risked their lives in the service of their country, Mr. O'Toole has made a series of announcements over the past two months that were aimed at improving services and benefits.

This week, Mr. O'Toole held a closed-door meeting with a large number of veterans' representatives and several of those who attended said the minister appears to be listening. It was at that meeting on Tuesday that he announced more people would be hired to process disability claims.

"It's about service excellence," the minister said, "and it's about recognizing that we weren't meeting the objectives that we wanted to."

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