Veterans urge Stephen Harper government to avoid ‘Cadillac’ version of war commemorations

Posted on February 11, 2014 in Governance Debates – News
February 10, 2014.   By Lee Berthiaume, Postmedia News, Ottawa

Veterans’ advocates are urging restraint as the federal Conservative government prepares to spend what could be hundreds of millions of dollars to commemorate the First and Second World Wars starting later this year.

The Veterans Ombudsman’s office and the Royal Canadian Legion say it is important and necessary for the government to mark Canada’s contributions and sacrifice during both conflicts, which included such defining moments as Vimy Ridge and Dieppe.

But they oppose extravagant displays of pomp and ceremony at a time when they say many Canadian veterans are not getting the services and support they so desperately need.

“I understand our role on the world stage and what we should do to commemorate the fantastic deeds that have been done in the past,” said deputy veterans ombudsman Gary Walbourne.

“But I don’t know if we need the Cadillac version for every event.”

The Conservative government has not said how much it is budgeting for the commemorations, which will mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War and the 75th anniversary of the Second World War and run through 2020.

But the $30 million the government spent two years ago to commemorate the War of 1812 is expected to be just a drop in the bucket given the higher profile and greater importance attached to the two world wars.

The veterans ombudsman’s office released a report in the fall that found a number of problems with the veterans affairs system, including hundreds of disabled veterans at risk of living out the rest of their lives in poverty.

“Yes, there’s a need and a place (for commemorations),” Walbourne said. “But there are bigger needs and requirements that are needed today, that are urgent today.”

Veterans Affairs spokeswoman Janice Summerby said the government “remains committed to making sure all of Canada’s veterans and their families have the support they need – when they need it and where they need it.”

But the Royal Canadian Legion has called on the government to come clean on how much it plans to spend between now and 2020, when the last events are scheduled to take place.

Legion spokesman Scott Ferris said a “balance” is needed between commemoration and supporting veterans, and the organization wants to ensure the government doesn’t sway too far towards the former, particularly given recent budget cuts at Veterans Affairs.

“There are some significant outstanding needs that veterans must have addressed,” he said. “And we have to keep that all in mind, while we still ensure, of course, that commemoration activities happen, and they happen well.”

Hundreds of employees have been laid off at Veterans Affairs Canada as the Conservative government has cut more than $129 million from the department’s budget since 2011, with another $132 million planned by 2016.

Just last month the government closed nine Veterans Affairs offices across the country in an effort to save about $4 million per year, which prompted angry protests.

The government says the offices were casualties of a decline in the number of Second World War and Korean War veterans in those locations.

But some have noted the money spent commemorating the War of 1812 could have been used to keep the offices open seven years.

“It’s really convenient to make these ceremonies,” Afghan veteran Bruce Moncur said last month. “But I think the money would be better spent helping the veterans who need the help so badly.”

Heritage Canada is the lead department when it comes to commemorations, but other departments such as National Defence and Veterans Affairs are often pulled in.

National Defence is already bracing for the worst after senior officials warned last year that $22 million set aside by the department for the commemorations wouldn’t be enough, and that the actual drain on resources and personnel could threaten the military’s ability to do its job.

NDP veterans affairs critic Peter Stoffer said no matter which department is responsible for leading the commemorations, there are only so many taxpayer dollars to go around and whatever is spent on commemorations is not available for veterans.

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