Former members of the military and public service workers say the government's contingency plans for closing Veterans Affairs offices are inadequate and that the vets who are elderly or disabled will struggle to keep their benefits.
Veterans and the Public Service Alliance of Canada, which represents the staff who will lose their jobs when nine Veterans Affairs offices are closed, told the media on Thursday that many retired military personnel need face-to-face help when trying to access the assistance to which they are entitled.
The Conservative government says it is closing the offices in Corner Brook, Nfld., Charlottetown, Sydney, N.S., Windsor, Ont., Thunder Bay, Ont., Brandon, Man., Saskatoon, Sask., Kelowna, B.C., and Prince George, B.C. by February to adjust to the changing needs and demographics of veterans across Canada.
Veterans Affairs officials point out that veterans will still be able to obtain help at Service Canada locations. They can also call the department, use their computers or request a home visit.
But Mike Barnewall, who was in the infantry for 6 1/2 years and lost his leg to a landmine in Afghanistan, told a news conference that those options are not viable for many vets.
"Trying to manage a veteran by way of phone calls and a website is an insult," said Mr. Barnewell.
"There are many my age with disabilities, PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder[, it's not going to cut it. There's this talk of funding. Well, if you close these offices, maybe we can use our fancy new fighter jets to fly the vets to the offices that are still open."
The veterans say that the telephones will not work for those who are hard of hearing and the department's telephone system is difficult to navigate for anyone who is elderly or who has PTSD. They also say that the computer interface does not work for the elderly and that, when completing forms that range up to 30 pages long, they need to be able to talk directly to experts.
"I guess what I am saying to our government is I suppose veterans just haven't sacrificed enough already so you seem to feel you have a reason to ask us to sacrifice yet again," said Mr. Barnewell.
As far as the home visits go, the workers at the Veterans Affairs offices say their caseloads are already so high that getting out of the office is difficult – a problem will only increase as the government moves ahead with its plans to cut nearly 800 jobs.
Erin O'Toole, a Conservative MP from Ontario who sits on the veterans affairs committee, asked the veterans if they would not be satisfied to be served by properly trained employees at one of the many Service Canada offices across the country.
Ron Clarke, a retired sergeant from Sydney, said he had no faith that the Service Canada workers will have the skills to deal with the complex Veterans Affairs issues. And Brenda Leblanc, who has worked as a Veteran's Affairs client service agent for 27 years, pointed out that Service Canada is also laying off employees.
"The government has spent thousands and thousands of dollars over the years training us on programs and systems to deliver the programs that the government has implemented," said Ms. LeBlanc. "Where is that expertise going to go? It's certainly not going to go to Service Canada."
One of the PSAC Leaders urged Mr. O'Toole to go back to the government and commit to keeping the offices open, to which Mr. O'Toole replied that he was in the process of sending a message to Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino about the need for proper training at Service Canada offices.
But Paul Dewar, a New Democrat MP, said that is not good enough.
"You have to understand that right now the people in Service Canada are already overburdened with the case load that they have," said Mr. Dewar. "You have to do more than to send along the information to your leader and our Prime Minister. You have to say this is wrong and [these closings] need to stop."