Mr. Speaker, I am thankful for this opportunity to speak on this very important motion that will be voted on tonight in the House.
What I hope to do in my short time, before I hand it off to my colleague from St. John's East, is to talk about some things that no one has talked about here today. I have listened to the debate and there are some things that have been said that are counterintuitive and do not make any sense, so I am going to try to make sense of some of them and try to get to the bottom of things.
I first want to talk about the offices closing. Veterans this week came to Ottawa hoping to meet with the Minister of Veterans Affairs about the impending closures. They were joined by some concerned staff and members of PSAC. Unfortunately, they were snubbed by the minister, if I can put it that way. He kept them waiting, failed to show up at the scheduled meeting, and then disrespectfully dismissed their concerns. Those are not my words, but the words of the veterans who came to Ottawa, including Roy Lamore, a Second World War veteran from Thunder Bay. They were rightly upset, which people saw on the news last night, and a number of them have called for his resignation.
The thing that sticks out in my mind and perhaps in many people's minds was indeed Roy Lamore, who has been a activist for veterans for over 70 years in this country. It was he who said “hogwash” just before the minister walked out of the meeting. We are probably going to hear more of that kind of terminology later, as time goes on.
Just before I stood to speak, there was a conversation going on back and forth about the number of veterans. I remind people that these offices also deal with 25,000 RCMP veterans and their families. That is often forgotten in this discussion. There are 25,000 RCMP veterans and their families. When Conservatives talk about investing $4.7 billion in Veterans Affairs, consider this: when Ste. Anne's Hospital is transferred and all the other cuts happen, there will be approximately 2,000 people cut from Veterans Affairs.
If we look at the Conservative cuts across all of the departments on a percentage basis, Veterans Affairs has the largest personnel cut of any department and the staff involved will all be gone by 2015, some time in the next year. All of those 2,000 people will be gone. That is the first point. It is a little counterintuitive for the government to say it is increasing service but cutting 2,000 people. How does it rationalize that? It says it is transferring the offices to 620 Service Canada points. I want to say a couple of things about that.
I heard Conservative member after Conservative member today say these people will be trained. We know from the 2012 ombudsman's report that the government does not have a good record of training anyone. I want to talk about that a little later when I talk about mental health. At least 620 people are going to be trained. These are not new positions at Service Canada, but people who are already there. Keep in mind that Service Canada is already understaffed and overworked. If anyone has to go to Service Canada for any help, that person would find that is very readily the case. Some of the people who are already there will supposedly be trained in Veterans Affairs issues. That is one of the things that disturbs veterans, particularly wartime veterans, the most.
In short, the government is going to let go of all the people who already have expertise, the people whom veterans have been dealing with, in some cases for many years, helping them with their issues. It will then train new people who will have Veterans Affairs business on top of all their other business, such as CPP disability, EI and all sorts of other things. To say the service is going to be better, well, it is absolutely impossible that it would get better.
What happens now in a typical Service Canada office? People wait in line for maybe 15 or 20 minutes or half an hour, if they are lucky, and then they will see someone who will say, “Have a seat over there while we wait for someone to be free”.
Now we could assume that 620 people are going to be trained by the current government, but in fact they are not going to be trained. So it is going to be a fiasco for those who are 93 years old to make their way to the Service Canada office to get some kind of service. It is a big problem.
Service Canada staff are excellent. Those people work hard and do the best they can, but to add more duties and training onto a job they do not really have or know anything about is going to be very difficult for the veterans.
I have received a couple of emails from constituents asking what exactly the closures mean. They hear the back and forth. They hear from the veterans and the minister, but what does it actually mean?
Well, this is what it means. One office has already been closed, more are closing, including the office in Thunder Bay. These offices provide critical and specialized services for the Canadian Forces and, as I said before, 25,000 RCMP retired members and their families. These services include assistance with accessing benefits and services, support for mental health services issues, crisis intervention, and helping elderly veterans access services to live independently in a one-on-one environment. It also means that veterans will have to travel to other cities if they want that face-to-face interaction for front-line services, or be forced to try to access service online or by telephone.
Last week I tried the 1-866-522-2122 number. Although I did not get anyone, it seemed as if the message I got was, “Well just hold on and enjoy 40 minutes of flute music and we'll see if we can get back to you”. It is just not a suitable situation.
Of course, many seniors do not have online services or cannot get access to them. I live 30 minutes from Thunder Bay and I do not have cellphone service or Internet service. I am not exactly sure how seniors across the country will be able to access these services. Of course, it is especially difficult for elderly veterans or those suffering from PTSD.
Veterans will lose that long-term relationship they have, and I think that is one of the things missing from the government's discussion here. Many of these veterans have built up long-term relationships with staff at regional offices, which is especially important for veterans young and old, wartime and modern veterans who have complex needs, particularly mental needs. To deal with telephones, or to go online, or to travel a long distance simply does not make sense. It would involve travelling long distances to meet people who likely would not have the same training as the people who are there now.
I will give one simple example of the difficulties that people have not talked about.
One of the services that the wartime veterans get is snow removal. What used to happen was that the Veterans Affairs office would help the veteran coordinate the snow removal service, ensuring that someone was hired to remove the snow, making sure they got paid, and so on and so forth. What will happen now is that the veteran will get a cheque at the beginning of the snow season based on last year's snow.
Last year in Thunder Bay there was hardly any snow, but there is lots of snow this year. So when the veterans run out of money halfway through, can members imagine their phoning or being online with Service Canada saying, “I've run out of money for my snow removal”. Is that going to get sorted out? I do not think so. It would get sorted though if Veterans Affairs offices remained open and if there were that face-to-face contact.
It is really disingenuous for the government to say there are fewer and fewer veterans. There are more veterans. There will be almost 6,000 new veterans released from the Canadian Armed Forces in the next year.
I could go on and on. I know members would like me to, but in closing, I would appeal to the minister that at the very least he keep these offices open until all of these other people, these 620 people or so, are trained.