Say office closures show lack of respect
© Derek Montague
Happy Valley-Goose Bay veterans Craig Harvey (left), Ken Mesher and Max Peddle are concerned about the state of veterans affairs in Canada.
The closure of eight Veterans affairs offices across the country by the federal government has sparked a national discussion about how we treat the men and women who served Canada in uniform.
Fuel was added to the fire when CBC News captured Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino’s contentious meeting with a group of veterans in Ottawa on camera.
Veterans in Happy Valley-Goose Bay have been paying close attention to Fantino and news of the office closures. With the office in Corner Brook closed as of Jan. 31, some Labradorian veterans are concerned about being further removed from important services.
“Before, we were fairly comfortable with the office in Corner Brook, but now we have to go to St John’s,” says veteran Max Peddle, who served three tours with NATO in Europe, and one United Nations tour in the Middle East.
“I think we need to get a message to Ottawa, and to the Prime Minister’s Office, that we still, as veterans, defended two square feet we stand on. But the people who defend us is not there; you have the wrong people in the office.”
Vets are skeptical
Like many other veterans across the country, Peddle is skeptical about whether or not Service Canada can provide the same level of service to veterans that the Veterans Affairs offices did.
In Labrador, where there is no Veterans Affairs office, it’s difficult enough already for a veteran to find out where to turn for help, according to Peddle.
“It’s the policy being implemented by the government that’s the problem,” says Peddle. “And that’s kind of sad when you listen to a veteran along the coast of Labrador or whatever, trying to get out to Veterans Affairs.”
“I’ve never seen a veteran yet that wanted a million dollars. They just needed help.”
Craig Harvey, a Canadian Forces veteran who served a tour in Bosnia, is worried that the office closures will just be the beginning of more cuts to veteran funding.
“The closures themselves is an insult to the veterans who served this country from every war to present-day Afghanistan,” says Harvey. “And unfortunately, this is only the tip of the iceberg for more closures coming.”
“I think the government of Canada (is saving money) on the backs of the men and women who serves their country, including the RCMP.”
Both Peddle and Harvey agree that those appointed to help veterans with their issues need to have vast knowledge of what it’s like to be in uniform. Harvey believes that there’s too many “political appointees” running the show.
“They have no idea what the military is about, or the RCMP,” says Harvey.
“There needs to be change within the organization and within the Government of Canada to recognize the fact that the men and women who put on the uniform to serve our country demand, and expect, that the country will stand behind them.”
One of the most important, and complex, issues facing veterans when they return from combat is post-traumatic stress and mental health issues. Peddle and Harvey say that many veterans still don’t know where to go for help when dealing with their trauma.
“I’ve seen it as a young kid, World War 1, World War 2, the guys coming back; they were just left alone. We thought we’d improved the organizations…” says Peddle.
“In fact, right now, I’m dealing with a case right here in Labrador.
“I’ve been notified that (there’s) a possibility of a suicide. That’s pretty serious, because the veteran has likely given up hope. And I’m trying to encourage him.”
Peddle has personal experience dealing with such trauma. While on his United Nations tour in the Middle East in the late 1980s, he was, briefly, held hostage by the Syrian militia at gunpoint.
Peddle had crossed the border from Israel to Syria to pick up a few Christmas trees for the men. He says the hostage-taking was a case of mistaken identity.
“The uniform that we wore over there was not a Canadian Forces uniform. It was a Pakistani uniform,” says Peddle. “Although we were easily identified with a blue beret on our head my uniform had UN patches on it. My name was in Arabic as well as English…”
“My companion…he was the first guy that was grabbed and put over the jeep with an AK-47 stuck in his head and than I felt one in the back of mine.”
Peddle and his companion were released after a couple of hours, but the frightening incident left its mark on him.
“That’s as fresh today as it was 20 years ago,” he says.
A big adjustment
Harvey has been involved in steering veterans in the right direction in order to seek help for their problems. According to Harvey, veterans often have to reach out to each other, because they don’t know where else to turn.
“It’s an adjustment to try to get back and to try to live a normal life,” says Harvey.
“Unfortunately…when you’re in areas in this world where there’s a lot of armed conflict; a lot of things happening to kids, women, and children…it’s not an easy process…when you come back to Canada, on your own land, your mind is still off and active over there. Because you don’t forget it, you live with it and move on.”
“It’s not an easy process. Since December, I’ve assisted four people to seek out help in Ontario…”
Harvey believes the stigma often associated with soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder prevents many veterans from seeking out help from military organizations. It’s a stigma, he says, that was created by the military and the government.
“One of the biggest problems any soldier…would have is to admit that he has a problem. And that’s not an easy thing to do when you’re in a paramilitary organization,” says Harvey.
“The tendency was that, back in the early 90s, as soon as somebody admitted they had some form of mental health issue, they were released from the military. And the services that they were provided for the mental health aspect of it, was usually done through a social worker or a psychiatrist.”
The disastrous meeting between Fantino and the group of veterans in Ottawa has also raised questions about the level of respect government, and the general public, show to the men and women in uniform.
Ken Mesher served 14 years a Canadian Ranger during peacetime and has been a member of the Royal Canadian Legion for 26 years. After seeing the way Fantino spoke to those veterans, he felt angry.
“I was flabbergasted. He had no respect for our veterans…really, it made my blood pressure boil,” says Mesher.
“The way your veterans are being treated is ridiculous. The federal government (is) giving no assistance to our people…”
Harvey said he felt shocked when he saw Fantino on television. He even accused the Veterans Affairs minister of acting like a bully.
“I was, personally, in total disbelief and totally disgusted. It’s no wonder why the general public in Canada have no respect for politicians…when you treat people like this.”
Peddle, on the other hand, said that he’s seen this type of political behaviour in the past, and wasn’t surprised by Fantino’s words and actions.
“I didn’t expect any better, because I’m kind of used to this stuff. It’s just a smoke screen…but that guy (Fantino); you may as well be talking to a wall. Does he have the knowledge? Does he have the experience to deal with the situation?” asks Peddle.
“And I could see the frustration on these veterans, because, obviously, the minister is not capable of answering or doing that job. That’s a big problem with politics.”