Layoffs shell shock Veterans Affairs

Canada's Veterans Affairs Department is expected to get smaller by 500 jobs over the next few years, a House of Commons committee was told Tuesday as senior officials defended $226 million in planned budget cuts.

Keith Hillier, the department's assistant deputy minister of services, told the all-party veterans affairs committee that the job reductions will be implemented as painlessly as possible.

There were reports last week out of Charlottetown, where the bulk of the department is located, that as many as 800 jobs could be lost out of a total workforce of 2,200.

Hillier's testimony provides the first official confirmation of the workforce reductions.

"Over the next five years, there will be a transformation of Veterans Affairs," he said. "At the end of the day, it will be a smaller department."

Roughly 30 per cent of the department is eligible to retire over the next few years, and "consequently we believe we can manage this change through attrition and good human resources planning and staffing," Hillier said.

Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney has spoken in generalities in the past, saying the government was looking to reduce "red tape" for ex-soldiers and RCMP members who apply for benefits.

Hillier said the department is moving more towards the use of electronic records, something that will improve efficiency.

The department has argued that the overall budget cut is justified because the number of Second World War and Korean War veterans is dwindling, but critics argue that the number of new clients more than offsets those who've passed away.

As many as 1,500 elderly veterans are passing away each month.

"The department is at an historic crossroads," Hillier said. "The needs and demographics of those we serve are changing and (changing) dramatically."

In addition, the department has been ordered to further reduce its budget between five and 10 per cent as part of the Harper government's program review — an exercise that Hillier says is now completed and being reviewed by Treasury Board.

The Royal Canadian Legion is on the record as opposing the program review cuts and has argued that the department should be exempt, as governments in the U.S. and Britain plan to do.

Veterans ombudsman Guy Parent told the same committee last week that a smaller veterans population should not be used as an excuse to cut the overall budget.

Both Hillier and Eve Adams, the Conservative junior veterans affairs minister, objected to the use of the word "cuts" to describe what was happening at the department.

Hillier insists that benefits and individual services to veterans will not suffer and that budget documents that outline the overall reduction in the department's $3.5-billion budget is not carved in stone.


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