Afghanistan, fatigue blamed as veterans issues go missing in action on election trail

Veterans issues go missing

Mark Ross first applied to Veterans Affairs Canada for assistance with post-traumatic stress in June 2019. More than two years later, he is still waiting to hear whether his claim has been approved and the government will cover the costs of his treatment.

“That's the reason I'm upset,” the former soldier said in a recent interview from his home in Pembroke, Ont. “Because they say if it’s post-traumatic stress, they’ll hear it very quickly and they'll do everything. Well, I'm 100 weeks now.”

Like Ross, tens of thousands of other Canadian veterans have been forced to wait months and sometimes years to learn whether their requests have been approved for disability benefits stemming from psychological and physical injuries sustained while in uniform.

The backlog is among several issues that have become a source of stress, frustration and anger within Canada’s veterans’ community but was noticeably — and unusually — absent from the federal election campaign.

Canada's veterans' community is far from united, but it is large, with roughly 700,000 Canadians having served in uniform. When it has mobilized in the past, political parties have stepped up with a number of grand promises.

The most famous example was in 2015 when veterans mobilized against the Harper government’s decision to close several Veterans Affairs Canada offices across the country and fire hundreds of departmental staff, which started the backlog.

That fight coincided with the high-profile Equitas lawsuit, in which six Afghan war veterans were fighting in court to bring back lifelong pensions for disabled soldiers, a program that had been adopted after the First World War but replaced in 2006 by a system characterized by lump-sum payments.

While exact numbers are difficult to confirm, it is largely accepted that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s promise to reopen the offices, hire back staff, stop fighting the Equitas lawsuit and reinstate the pension system won him many votes.

Yet, while the Liberal government did reopen the offices and hire staff, the backlog continued to grow as demand outpaced resources, adding what the veterans’ ombudsman has repeatedly warned is additional stress and hardship on injured veterans.

The Liberals also continued to fight Equitas, which the Supreme Court threw out in 2018, and they created their own pension system rather than reinstating the old one, which the parliamentary budget officer in 2019 found would have provided more money to veterans.

Then-Conservative leader Andrew Scheer sought during the 2019 election to parlay the sense of betrayal many former service members felt toward Trudeau into support for the Tories, which many see as the party for which veterans traditionally vote.

Among Scheer's promises were to clear the backlog, introduce legislation enshrining in law a "military covenant" between the government and veterans, and the creation of a "reliable, dependable pension system" that is "fair to Canada's most disabled veterans."

Fast forward two years and the issue has been noticeably absent from this election campaign. None of the leaders have gone out of their way to court the community or highlight their party’s promises, while the issues that arose in 2015 and, to a lesser degree, 2019 have largely flown under the radar.

That is despite what Jim Scott, president of the Equitas Society, which spearheaded the lawsuit by the same name, says is continuing frustration over the fact there are now three separate systems offering different benefits to veterans with the same injuries.

Many like Ross are also upset the backlog of disability claims stands at around 40,000.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the short length of the campaign have been cited as among the reasons veterans' issues have not come up. Another factor, advocates say, is the community’s focus on saving hundreds of Afghans who served alongside Canadian troops as interpreters and support staff from 2001 to 2014 and who are now at risk of Taliban retaliation.

“It's demanded the attention of a lot of veterans because they cared deeply about their colleagues that they worked with in Afghanistan,” Oliver Thorne, executive director of the Vancouver-based Veterans Transition Network, said in an interview Wednesday.

“They're literally offering the shirts off their back because they care so deeply. So I think we may be seeing is veterans are so focused on trying to assist with the Afghan evacuation effort that perhaps they're less vocal about their own needs.”

Scott acknowledges a level of fatigue within the community as well, with many veterans tired of fighting what has to this point been a largely losing battle for the benefits, services and respect that were promised to them.

“Veterans have just moved on,” Scott said in an interview Thursday. “A lot of them just said: ‘You know, this is an unhealthy place for me to be, fighting the government. At the end of the day, I need to move on. Because I'm not getting any support.’”

He said he is also concerned that with the war in Afghanistan increasingly disappearing into the rear-view mirror, Canadians don’t have as much of an attachment to the military and those who have served in uniform.

That doesn’t mean parties haven’t included promises in their platforms for veterans. The NDP, for example, have promised to create one pension system, while the Conservatives say they will reinstate the lifelong pension for veterans with moderate to severe injuries.

O’Toole and People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier are the only two leaders to have signed a pledge put forward by the Equitas Society, committing to introducing a social covenant with military members and a bill of rights.

Yet none of the leaders have gone out of their way to talk about their promises. Even O’Toole has talked about his 12 years in uniform but not the fact he is a veteran.

The Conservative leader on the campaign trail also hasn't emphasized his role as veterans affairs minister during the last 11 months of the Harper government, for which he had received some praise for having started to undo the damage caused under the watch of his predecessor, Julian Fantino.

The lack of discussion on veterans issues during the election doesn’t sit well with Royal Canadian Legion dominion president Bruce Julian.

“We've found unless those issues become public and are brought forward where the public can see them and discuss them and take a position, they … don't become priorities of governments when they take power," he said in a recent interview.

Back in Pembroke, Ross isn’t surprised by the lack of attention on people like himself.

“We've been swept under the rug for years,” he said. “They don't want to bring it up (in the election), they don't even want to bring it up in Parliament. Because it's a touchy issue and there's never any answers coming out of them.”

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