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Veterans rally to save regional offices from ministry’s chopping block

Veteran Ron Clarke of North Sydney, N.S., stands at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on Oct. 2, 2013.

DAVE CHAN/The Globe and Mail

As a member of Canada's armed forces, Ron Clarke served his country in Cyprus, Germany and Africa. As a veteran, he is in Ottawa to take on the federal government.

Mr. Clarke, 73, arrived in the nation's capital this week to join other veterans and public-service workers as they protest the plan to shutter nine Veterans Affairs offices across Canada by February, 2014.

"One-on-one is what we need, not doing the long-distance thing," said Mr. Clarke. He said he visits the Veterans Affairs office in Sydney, N.S., about five times a year and, when it closes, he will have to drive at least five hours to Halifax.

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The other locations on the chopping block include Charlottetown; Windsor, Ont.; Thunder Bay; Brandon; Corner Brook; Saskatoon and Kelowna, B.C. The office in Prince George, B.C. has already been shut down.

The veterans and the Public Service Alliance of Canada will be airing a video on YouTube on Thursday morning that highlights the issue. They will also be releasing a list of Conservative MPs whom they intend to lobby heavily between now and Remembrance Day because their constituencies include, or are near, the offices slated to close.

Mr. Clarke, a retired sergeant and Cape Breton chapter president of the Canadian Association of Veterans in United Nations Peacekeeping, said he was a long-time Conservative supporter – but not any more.

"A lot of veterans that I know who used to be Conservatives are changing their stripes," he said. "We thought they were going to be the answer to everything. And they did some fine things. And I agree with them cutting their budget, I agree. But not with the veterans."

Veterans Affairs officials said in an e-mail that the government is moving its resources to the places where they are needed most. The department has opened support centres that have been integrated with National Defence and will continue to help veterans at Service Canada locations, they said, adding that many services are available online.

But Mr. Clarke said is is a "joke" to ask veterans to trade personal interaction for a computer interface. "In Cape Breton the veterans average 65 to 68 years old," he said. "We don't know how to do that electronic stuff. We're not into that."

It has been a difficult week for Veteran Affairs Minister Julian Fantino and his department.

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The protest over the planned closing of Veterans Affairs offices comes three days after the Veteran's Ombudsman said the New Veterans Charter, which was overhauled in 2011, deprives some injured vets of adequate compensation for their pain and suffering and will leave hundreds of severely disabled veterans without benefits when they reach retirement age.

Mr. Fantino has already said the charter will be subject to an extensive review once Parliament returns on Oct. 16.

But, on Wednesday, the government also said it would appeal a September decision by of a B.C. Supreme Court justice who ruled that a class-action suit launched over the charter by injured Afghanistan veterans could go ahead. The veterans say the charter is discriminatory and their lawyers argue that the federal government has a "sacred obligation" to care for members of the military who are injured overseas.

Michael Blais, the president of Canadian Veterans Advocacy who took part in a meeting Wednesday with Mr. Fantino and representatives of other veterans' groups, said he was "very disappointed" in the government's decision to fight the ruling.

The government "is continuing to take young men and women through the court process," said Mr. Blais. "This is unconscionable. The government should be embracing their sacred obligation, not abandoning it."

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