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Vets Shut Out as Part of Harper's Divide and Conquer Strategy, Critics Say

Access to PM seems to depend on agreement with Tory policies: NDP.

By Jeremy J. Nuttall 18 Aug 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee's Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

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'The ones who praise get the meetings,' says NDP Veterans Affairs critic Peter Stoffer.

The group of veterans shut out of a Fredericton Legion hall on Monday have joined the ranks of those on Stephen Harper's pay-no-mind list as the prime minister seeks to avoid those who don't agree with his policies, critics say.

That list includes veterans who don't like the closure of services offices or reductions in staff tasked with helping them navigate the benefits system.

Monday's newest second-class warriors were mostly Afghanistan veterans representing the organization Marijuana For Trauma, which seeks to help veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder with marijuana treatment.

They wanted to talk to Harper or Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O'Toole about holistic treatment for the disorder, but couldn't break the line of the Conservative security staff, who denied them access.

Meanwhile, inside the Legion hall rented by the Conservative Party of Canada, veterans who would have been pre-approved under the party's campaign-stop policies listened to Harper make promises about veterans and the military.

While the approved veterans were given access, others had to wait outside and only got a glimpse of the prime minister as he entered and exited the building.

New Democrat Veterans Affairs critic Peter Stoffer said that such actions and policies have divided Canada's military veterans against each other.

"You always hear some veterans groups praising the department and other groups criticizing the department," Stoffer said. "The ones who praise get the meetings. The ones who criticize, they are reluctant to want to meet with."

Stoffer said it's a classic case of divide and conquer that's been going on for some time.

The Tyee asked the Conservative party how it chooses what veterans groups it will meet with, but it did not respond.

Divisions cause stress: advocate

Michael Blais, who runs the organization Canadian Veterans Advocacy, said that divisions among veterans have caused him stress.

He said it seems that whenever he speaks out against a policy or criticizes the government, there is a contingent of Tory supporters that goes after him.

"They're usually veterans, some are serving. They feel I'm too harsh on the Conservatives," Blais said. "I feel it's not the Conservatives [who are responsible], it's the government, and the government must be held to account."

Another group of veterans who disagree with Harper's policies is rallying under the banner "Anyone But Conservatives -- Canadian Veterans Campaign 2015."

The organization is asking Canadians to vote for any alternative to the current government, citing Conservative decisions such as replacing lifetime pensions for injured vets with lump-sum payments, cutting 900 jobs from Veterans Affairs Canada since 2006, and closing offices around the country.

"[The Conservatives] saved $3.9 million by closing nine Veteran Affairs offices while having the gall to spend $4.5 million for Hockey Night in Canada TV ads to tell Canadians how great a job they are doing to help veterans," said the group in a statement Monday.

Blais said he isn't aware of any veterans groups that actively support the prime minister, but knows of plenty that stay silent.

Gov't underspent on vets: Liberal candidate

For Andrew Leslie, a retired general and the Liberal candidate for the Ottawa riding of Orléans, the bigger problem is how the Conservatives have treated veterans on the whole during their time in office.

Leslie said that Harper has under-spent on Veterans Affairs by more than $1 billion since 2006, but has tried to fool Canadian voters by announcing the government will allocate more money to veterans, such as a $200-million announcement last fall.

Initially, the $200 million promised in mental health spending was thought to be allocated over six years, but the fine print later showed it was 50.

Leslie said that allocating more money to vets doesn't mean it has been spent.

"[Harper] has pointed to the budget increases to the department of Veterans Affairs, but he neglects to tell Canadians that he has deliberately lapsed or not spent money that he's told the Canadian people he has spent on vets," Leslie said.

"Think about what $1 billion could have done to ease the pain and suffering of those who have literally risked it all for us."

Leslie said that funding could have gone to front-line services, keeping support offices open, and more caseworkers to help veterans navigate the benefits system.

Leslie referred to the Conservative government's handling of Veterans Affairs as a "decade of deceit."  [Tyee]

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