Not any more

Ambush on The Hill

In Canada on November 7, 2010 at 09:36

By spring 2010, Pat Stogran realized he was fighting a losing battle.

Staff at Veteran Affairs Canada told him they wanted to help former soldiers but were constrained from doing so by senior managers.

Stogran worried about the “insurance company mentality” that seemed to dominate Veteran Affairs Canada (VAC). He believed that soldiers unable to conclusively link their injuries to military service were being denied help.

In his view, VAC and the Veterans Review and Appeal Board, which helped retired military personnel redress disability claims, had forgotten who they were there to serve. Veterans were being treated like the enemy.

Stogran had also observed a growing reluctance among senior federal bureaucrats, including those at the Privy Council Office and Treasury Board, to help soldiers, particularly those returning from Afghanistan.

The goodwill that VAC had promised in the early days of his tenure dried up as Stogran and his staff raised countless questions about the handling of veteran benefits.

Stogran says the department usually refused to answer. Typical was the time he asked to be briefed on the government’s decision to compensate certain veterans who’d been exposed to Agent Orange. VAC’s response? It sent Stogran the press release it had issued to the media.

“We started putting pressure on,” Stogran says. “They basically told me to pound salt. It became clear they weren’t going to co-operate. It was a waiting game for me to leave.”

VAC declined to comment, but Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn says he has always encouraged the department to co-operate fully with the ombudsman.

Greg Thompson, former minister of Veterans Affairs, also insists Stogran had the department’s full support. He adds that veterans were, and are, well served by VAC. “Canada ranks up with the best of the world. Whether it’s (Stogran) or someone else who brings the shortcomings to the attention of that department, they’re more than willing to address it.”

Stogran wore out his welcome in a hurry. Those in the Harper government who worked on the veterans affair portfolio did not appreciate him telling the media that the government was uncaring and made up of heartless bureaucrats.

The ombudsman started to pop up everywhere: at Commons and Senate hearings, and, of course, in the media where he highlighted problems with the handling of everything from post-traumatic stress to the funeral expenses of fallen soldiers. 

Insiders agreed VAC didn’t always treat veterans properly, but they wanted Stogran to detail his concerns in reports to Parliament, rather than in the media.

Stogran says he filed such reports but that did not produce results.

In the spring of 2010, his office sent the government a report to warn that senior bureaucrats in key agencies — Treasury Board and Privy Council Office — had grown desensitized to veterans. It stuck in Stogran’s craw: The same bureaucrats who supported the decision to send soldiers into battle seemed unwilling to support them when they returned home.

At the same time, VAC bureaucrats had created the New Veterans Charter, which Stogran considered flawed and motivated by the desire to save the government money.

As a courtesy, Stogran sent his report to Treasury Board. It did not respond. He also sent it to PCO, which thanked him for his observations.

Frustrated by the inaction, Stogran decided to go public. “Deputy ministers make more on average in one year than a person who loses two legs in Afghanistan can expect to be paid out for the rest of their life,” Stogran told the Citizen. “Figure that one out.” 

He pointed out that monthly disability payments — to soldiers who lost legs in the Afghan war, for example — had been replaced by one-time payments of up to $250,000.

He lamented changing attitudes within the government. “It used to be that when you would go to PCO or Treasury Board with a new program or an entitlement, the response was, ‘Our veterans deserve it, bring it on, we’ll present it to the political masters.’

“Now if it involves new monies, it doesn’t even leave the department.”

Treasury Board and Privy Council Office officials have declined to respond to Stogran’s allegations. But VAC has countered Stogran’s charges with an e-mail, noting that funding decisions were made by the government, not by central agencies. It pointed out that funding for veterans increased to $3.41 billion in 2010/2011 from $2.9 billion in 2005/06.

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Stogran knew it was a risk to criticize senior bureaucrats. 

After all, the Harper government was known to fire watchdogs, or shorten their leashes. Among those on the list? Peter Tinsley, chairman of the Military Police Complaints Commission, and Linda Keen, former head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

Even still, Stogran believed Harper was committed to his blunt-talking Veterans Ombudsman. He figured he was in for a bumpy ride thanks to his comments, but didn’t anticipate they’d derail his second term.

A few weeks later, a letter arrived at Stogran’s office. It was around 5 p.m. in August, Friday the 13th. The letter began with platitudes but ended with news that he was out of a job. Effective Nov. 10 — one day before the country would stop to remember the sacrifices of its veterans.

Stogran’s supporters considered the decision punishment for the retired colonel’s vocal criticism of politicians and public servants. Angry e-mails circulated, as did a petition aimed at saving the ombudsman’s job.

Veterans Affairs Minister Blackburn maintains that Stogran’s high-profile criticisms had nothing to do with his ouster. “Mr. Stogran was not fired,” he explained. “We think, after three years, a new person will give new suggestions.”

Blackburn says the Conservative government is committed to providing the best care and benefits to its veterans. “It’s our government who decided our veterans should have an ombudsman to protect them,” he pointed out. 

Stogran says the news came as a relief. “They made my decision about what should come next pretty easy.”

Stogran decided to go down fighting. He called a press conference for Tuesday, Aug. 17.

He hoped media coverage would pressure the government while educating Canadians about the situation.

He phoned Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Walter Natynczyk to ask for his help to get injured Afghan veterans to the press conference. Stogran made it clear the soldiers would talk about their challenges rather than the politics of the situation.

Natynczyk instead suggested Stogran invite a veteran like Paul Franklin, someone who was already out of the military. He advised Stogran that he couldn’t send serving soldiers.

Even still, a half dozen injured Afghan war veterans, all serving members of the Forces, arrived at Stogran’s office. Just before they were to face the media, they received a phone call from a military officer who pointed out that Natynczyk did not support their decision to appear.

Fearing repercussions, the soldiers and Stogran decided the soldiers should stand down. 

A military spokesperson acknowledges that Stogran asked Natynczyk to “facilitate the attendance of wounded soldiers” and that the general “did not support facilitating their attendance.” However, the spokesperson added, Natynczyk would never stand in the way of soldiers talking about their own circumstances.

During the press conference, former soldiers no longer in service explained how they’d been abandoned by VAC and the government. Among them was Brian Dyck, a Gulf War vet living with ALS. Dyck, who had weeks to live, had been refused benefits, even though some countries, such as the U.S., have recognized that Gulf War veterans have higher-than-usual rates of the neuro-generative disease.

The reaction to Stogran’s dismissal was swift. Opposition politicians accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper of axing Stogran to avoid criticism.

Government insiders say the Conservatives were most worried about reaction in western Canada, long considered the core Conservative base. Newspaper editorials, letters to the editor and other media commentaries were firmly in favour of Stogran. 

In an attempt to put a positive spin on the situation, some Conservative MPs started to claim that the order-in-council governing the ombudsman’s office didn’t allow for Stogran to be re-appointed. “When our Conservative government created the position in 2007, we made the decision the appointment would be for a three-year, non-renewable term,” Conservative MP Leon Benoit wrote in a letter to the Edmonton Journal. Other Conservative MPs explained the same in e-mails to veterans.

In fact, the order-in-council states clearly that the position is renewable. 

In the weeks that followed, Stogran became the Conservatives’ worst nightmare.

With nothing to lose, he took his message to TV, radio and newspapers: VAC was broken. The government was doing a major disservice to its veterans. 

Some in the bureaucracy watched with disdain. Most work in Ottawa happens behind the scenes where consensus is crafted and programs move forward slowly. Stogran wasn’t following that time-honoured tradition.

Stogran say he’d tried, but it didn’t work.   

Around the time of Stogran’s media blitz, severely injured Afghan war veterans started to speak out on their own to highlight the failures of the New Veterans Charter. 

The tactics worked, Stogran’s supporters say. Consider what happened next:

On Sept. 17, the prime minister intervened in the case of Brian Dyck. The government overturned VAC’s decision and cleared veterans with ALS to receive disability benefits and home-care support. Dyck died shortly after.

Two days later, the government announced plans to amend the New Veterans Charter. It said that $2 billion would be set aside during the next couple of decades to care for wounded veterans.

On Sept. 27, Blackburn intervened to reverse a VAC decision to seize a disability payment from the bank account of a veteran’s family. Stogran had raised the problem with VAC. When the department refused to budge, Stogran brought the issue to the Citizen. Within hours of the front-page story, Blackburn acted to return the money.

On Sept. 28, Blackburn and MacKay announced another $52 million for new initiatives to support injured military personnel.

Even still, Stogran says the money and announcements fail to address the real problems.

The system is broken, he says, and senior bureaucrats have abandoned those who have served Canada. Injured veterans have been forced to plead for money that they earned through their service. 

“It’s political smoke and mirrors for them to say $2 billion is coming over the next 20 years and that the cheque is in the mail,” said Stogran.

Just thinking about it makes him angry. “I know young people who have given their legs to this (Afghan) war. Right now, the money being allocated is not getting to the soldiers.”

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

  1. And the beat goes on……

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