Not any more

Veterans’ ombudsman fires broadside at government

In Canada on August 17, 2010 at 21:01

OTTAWA — Surrounded by former soldiers who have been battling the bureaucracy for benefits, Canada’s veterans’ ombudsman ripped into the federal government Tuesday for what he described as turning its back on the people who have put their lives on the line for their country.

"Our heroes are suffering," said Pat Stogran, the veterans’ champion who has been told by the federal government that his three-year term will not be renewed this fall.

"What I am here to do is to expose to Canadians what I perceive as a system that for a long time, has denied veterans not just what they deserve, but what they earned with their blood and sacrifice," Stogran told a news conference on Parliament Hill.

Stogran said he will spend the remaining three months in his job casting a spotlight on the "long-standing and deeply rooted" practice which treats veterans unfairly.

He said that after he was appointed in 2007 by the Harper government, it became clear that he was expected to "behave as a complaints manager" accountable to the Veterans Affairs Department, not as an advocate for veterans.

The ombudsman’s supporters say he is being replaced as punishment for his public criticism of politicians and public servants.

"Let there be no doubt that replacing the veterans’ ombudsman at this point in time will clearly set the office back many, many months," Stogran said.

In the meantime, he wants Canadians to put pressure on the government to do some things differently.

"In the United States, they look after their veterans," said Stogran, a retired colonel. "To all Canadians, these are your sons and daughters, your brothers and sisters. The time is now for you to do something about it."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper defended the government’s decision to replace Stogran, saying it was "understood right from the outset" that it was a three-year term.

"There are no positions for life," he said. "That’s the way we do things."

Harper said his government has invested a lot of money in programs for veterans.

"These are people who made huge sacrifices for this country and we have a very important responsibility to ensure their welfare," he said.

Strogran was flanked at Tuesday’s news conference by several veterans who angrily spoke of how they — and many others like them — have run up against a bureaucracy filled with red tape and obstructionism.

Former soldier Brian Dyck spoke of how he served for Canada in the first Gulf War and was required to take pills to protect against possible biological weapons. Later, at the age of 41, he was diagnosed with ALS, known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a degenerative nerve disease that is fatal.

Dyck, speaking from a wheelchair, said his efforts to receive benefits have been unsuccessful.

His message to the government was simple: "If you not willing to stand behind the troops, feel free to stand in front of them."

Other complaints from veterans were wide-ranging: a refusal to properly help those affected by the spraying of the toxic defoliant Agent Orange at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in past years; inadequate payments for those on long term disability; and a widely-panned Veteran’s Charter in recent years that institutes lump-sum payments instead of guaranteed monthly pension payments.

Dennis Manuge, a disabled former soldier who served in Bosnia in 2001, said he feels betrayed by Canadians and is so frustrated that he is on the verge of "ultra radicalism."

"Some folks wear a yellow ribbon, some folks wear a poppy for a week, and for one day, we remember," said Manuge, stressing that Canadians need to offer their support to veterans year-round.

Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn said Tuesday the decision not to renew Stogran’s term is not connected to his outspoken criticism and that he welcomes an "independent" voice from his replacement. Blackburn said he is already moving to improve service by reducing bureaucratic delays and by reviewing whether the Veterans Charter should be amended.

"We are in action. We are in a good direction for our veterans," he said.

Stogran and some veterans are critical of lump-sum payments to wounded soldiers, brought in under the New Veterans Charter.

Under the new charter, disabled veterans who follow a rehabilitation program will receive a lump payment and a monthly cheque representing 75 per cent of their "pre-release" salary until they find a job in civilian life. The lump-sum can be up to $276,080 based on the extent of the disability.

If they are too injured to work, they receive 75 per cent of their salary until age 65, as well as access to programs and funds for specific needs.

Under the previous system, injured soldiers were guaranteed monthly pension payments for life, and those pensions increased if a condition worsened.

Stogran said he was fielding cases of young veterans, some dealing with mental health issues from their time in Afghanistan, who had quickly spent all their lump sum payment, leaving themselves destitute.

© Copyright (c) Postmedia News

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