A good read from Sean Bruyea:
Will a new Minister at Veterans Affairs do the same old thing?
By Sean Bruyea
Removing Minister Kent Hehr from Veterans Affairs Canada was the right thing to do. The new minister, Seamus O’ Regan must do better.
Just six days prior, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau commemorated the calamitous losses Canadians suffered on the beaches of Dieppe 75 years ago. In the midst of a downpour, the Prime Minister folded his umbrella noting that enduring rain is nothing compared to the bullets of war.
Such apparently unscripted compassion has been the hallmark of Trudeau’s repeated promises to make things right for Canada’s veterans. Sadly, nothing has meaningfully changed in the department mandated to care for them. Its persistent affliction: a profound cultural disconnection from veterans’ needs in the only federal department located outside Ottawa in Charlottetown P.E.I.
The best Kent Hehr could muster in his almost 22 months as Minister was an unimaginative barrage of talking points written by an insensitive senior bureaucracy. When challenged by media or veterans, he was prone to outbursts of self-righteous parroting or to abruptly end Town Halls, hastily heading for the door.
One would expect that the tragic circumstances that led to Minister Hehr becoming a quadriplegic and his ensuing struggles would have engendered sympathy, compassion, and a sense of urgency to make real and substantive changes at Veterans Affairs. Unfortunately, he frequently appeared insincere and indifferent to the suffering of veterans, preferring to let former Chief of Defence Staff, Walter Natyncyck run the show as the department’s Deputy Minister.
A myth has plagued the Veterans Affairs portfolio: one needs to be either a military veteran and/or disabled to grasp the job. Perhaps Kent Hehr in achieving so much had forgotten what it was like to struggle. It has been far easier to recite scripted media lines and blame disabled veterans than admit congenital failings of a senior public service that often harms far more than it helps.
Walter Natynczyck like the Veterans Ombudsman, Guy Parent, spent their adult lives in uniform then glided into privileged positions to serve bureaucratic commandments. They could not and have not been able to understand the urgency of needed changes that would improve the lives of veterans. Likewise they have sidelined and/or berated those that voice their concerns, especially via the media. Like all military members, they come from a dysfunctional military culture that views exercising freedom of expression as a betrayal of Canada and the uniform.
Kent Hehr was a pushover, more a bureaucratic puppet than an inspiration of leadership for veterans. He appeared to be following orders not giving them at Veterans Affairs. To his credit, he has been in fine company with most ministers over the past five decades lacking the moral or political courage to push back against inane bureaucratic initiatives and inherent resistance to positive change.
Minister O’Regan likewise could bring assets or emotional baggage to the job. His struggles with alcoholism may offer personal insight into the single biggest health obstacle faced by both serving members and veterans: mental health. A note of caution: recovery is difficult with individuals running the gamut from the compassionate to those in deep personal denial of one’s own pain. The consequence is an impatience, selfishness, and insensitivity to others’ suffering lest it remind them to take responsibility for their own life.
The male population post-World-War II at Veterans Affairs was once overwhelmingly comprised of military veterans. It also engendered a culture that was often cruel and hardhearted to fellow veterans, especially those from the Canadian Forces who never served in a “real war” like World War II.
If Minister O’Reagan and the Trudeau government truly wish “real change” as they promised, then cultural change at the department must be their focus. It is the root of all evil in Veterans Affairs. Contrary to endless bureaucratic protestations, unilaterally and heartlessly switching from lifelong pensions to one-time lumpsums for disabled veterans was a callous cost-saving scheme. The proof lies in the dithering on the Liberal campaign promise to return to lifelong pensions: it will cost too much to switch back.
Replacing Guy Parent and Walter Natynczyk are necessary if the new minister wishes honest, independent, and gutsy advice.
Comprehensively rethinking the multitudinous advisory groups and stakeholder committee meetings would also go a long way towards soliciting courageous, trustworthy, knowledge-based, and credible advice that will help all veterans and their families. Creating new groups with open nomination processes requiring clear credentials whether they be education, valid experience, and/or a proven right to represent the disabled veterans appointees claim to represent would be a good start. Operating them in complete transparency is a must that would also fulfill Liberal promises of the same.
Profound and authentic change will only occur if Canadians understand the true costs of serving in uniform. Veterans deserve their reconciliation commission through a fully public judicial inquiry into the treatment of veterans and their families over the past five decades. They need to tell their story and Canadians need to listen.
It would be regrettable if Seamus O’Regan were appointed because of his journalism background and a mediagenic personality with the potential to spin the truth. Since multiple veteran scandals in 2010, the Department has been on a seven-year spin-fest, employing more than three dozen individuals in their communications directorate, including two director generals and five directors. Veterans don’t deserve to be browbeaten with the implication that since Veterans Affairs is so tremendous, any failure to receive help must be the veterans’ fault.
The Liberals through Seamus O’Regan can effect meaningful change. Let’s hope they don’t spend the next two years until the election manipulating silence in the veteran’s community while bullying, berating, or benching anyone who speaks out. Canadians in uniform fought and died for this democracy. Let’s repay them the very least of what they are owed: their democratic voice and fulsome participation in an open and transparent path to healing; not ceremonial figureheads, propaganda, and endless excuses to avoid doing the right thing.
Sean Bruyea, vice-president of Canadians for Accountability, has a graduate degree in public ethics, is a retired Air Force intelligence officer and frequent commentator on government, military, and veterans’ issues
A good read from Sean Bruyea: