Mr. Speaker, I stand in support of this motion put forward by the hon. member for Châteauguay—Saint-Constant. The motion would immediately address the mental health crisis facing Canadian soldiers and veterans by hiring appropriate mental health professionals, by reversing the decision to close veterans offices, and by prioritizing and concluding more than 50 outstanding boards of inquiry on military suicides, so that grieving families might have answers and closure.
I want to begin with the story that I tell every November 11, Remembrance Day. I share the same story every July 1. July 1 is known far and wide as Canada Day, but in Newfoundland and Labrador July 1 is also Memorial Day. Canada Day does not begin in my province until noon on July 1. Until then it is Memorial Day.
July 1, 1916, is known as the bloodiest day in Newfoundland and Labrador history. On that day, near the small town of Beaumont-Hamel, France, during the Battle of the Somme, 801 Newfoundland and Labrador officers and soldiers, most of whom were in their late teens or early twenties, went over the top. The next morning, only 68 answered the roll call, out of 801. The rest were either killed, wounded, or missing.
A general wrote this to the then prime minister of Newfoundland, Sir Edward Morris, about the courage and discipline displayed by the members of the Newfoundland Regiment in their first battle on the western front at Beaumont-Hamel:
It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour, and its assault only failed of success because dead men can advance no further.
I see that statement as the highest compliment to any soldier.
For the small nation of Newfoundland, the loss was absolutely devastating. It was felt in every town, every outport, and every family. The Newfoundland Regiment was renamed the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in 1917, the only time in the history of the British army that such a designation has been given during a time of warfare.
Our First World War soldiers were known as “fighting Newfoundlanders”, a designation that carries over to this day, mostly in reference to the spirit of the fighting Newfoundlander.
Our contribution to the First World War was not just in blood. The debt we took on as a nation to supply a regiment is partly to blame for our financial crisis of the 1930s, which led to Newfoundland surrendering its democracy in 1933 in favour of government by commission. It is the only time that a democracy has been voluntarily surrendered.
Be it the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War, the Gulf War, or Afghanistan, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have always stepped forward. When Canadians agree to serve in the forces, they accept what is called unlimited liability, that they may be killed in service. Without question, it is the ultimate sacrifice for Canada. In return, we owe them the best care possible. Our veterans are not getting the best care possible.
Why do I say that? Why do veterans say that? Let us start with mental health. The question of whether Canadian Forces personnel receive timely and appropriate mental health care has been a long-standing concern, especially in light of the fact that Canada's combat mission in Afghanistan is coming to a close and thousands of soldiers are returning home with mental injuries. Many of our soldiers and their families say that they cannot get the help they need.
There have been eight suicides in the past two months alone. As it stands, there are at least 50 outstanding boards of inquiry into suicides of members of the Canadian Forces.
On January 31, tomorrow, eight regional veterans offices will close, including the veterans office in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, my home province. The Corner Brook office provides front-line services to 1,500 veterans on the west coast of the island.
Once the office closes, veterans who are in desperate need of in-person, front-line service will have to travel eight, nine, or ten hours by car to get to the nearest office in St. John's on the east coast of Newfoundland. That is eight, nine, or ten hours.
The Conservatives say there is always the Internet; there is always the telephone. Back in November during a rally outside the veterans office in Corner Brook, Hedley Smith, a legionnaire from the west coast city, had this to say about the Internet and telephone:
A lot of these [veterans] are deaf, old and crippled and can't understand anything they hear on the telephone. They need one-on-one service. That's the way that it's got to be.
Nineteen-year-old Bertram Hillier was among the soldiers in the last draft of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment who went overseas to fight in the Second World War. He had this to say about the closure of the Corner Brook office:
I haven't got that much education and they help me a lot with filling out forms and things like that.
Everything I want, I come here and there's no problem.
There is a problem now.
Veterans who accepted the unlimited liability, who served their country knowing and prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, now feel abandoned by the current Conservative government.
Veteran members of the Canadian Forces serve our country with courage and distinction. Our responsibility, our duty, is to be there for them in their moment of need, not to abandon them to budget and service cuts. I call that the ultimate insult.
The Conservative government's treatment of our veterans and forces is disgraceful, and it manifested itself this week when a delegation of veterans from across the country, including a veteran from Corner Brook, came to Ottawa for a meeting with the Minister of Veterans Affairs. They came here in a last-ditch bid to persuade the Conservative government to reverse its decision to close the eight remaining Veterans Affairs offices across the country.
What did the Minister of Veterans Affairs do? He left the veterans waiting for 70 minutes, and then he turned his back on the veterans when they got frustrated. The minister has since apologized, which is a start. As the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore said earlier today, “...it was not the minister's finest day.”
In the end, the west coast of Newfoundland will still be without a Veterans Affairs office, effective tomorrow.
Corner Brook veteran Paul Davis was a member of the delegation that came here to Ottawa this week. I met with him myself. Mr. Davis is 66, and he had this to say:
We have 1,500 veterans on the west coast who depend on the DVA office in Corner Brook. Now we have nowhere to go with our problems, no one to talk to now.
While there will be one dedicated person at the local Service Canada office to deal with veterans, that one dedicated person will have to do the work of the seven people who worked at the Veterans Affairs office, and that is not going to cut it.
What should happen? Hire long-promised mental health professionals to assist soldiers and veterans. Hire them now. Reverse the decision to close Veterans Affairs offices and prioritize and conclude the more than 50 ongoing boards of inquiry on military suicides. That is what should happen now.
The men and women of our military left heaven on earth—Canada—to serve in what was “hell on earth” in many cases, as the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore said.
The men and women of the Canadian Forces stood on guard for us. They stand on guard for us. Our veterans, seniors in many cases, are now forced to stand on guard for their own because the current Conservative government is not standing on guard for them.