Changes to how veterans can access services have come under fire over the last week, after several offices were closed across the country and responsibility shifted into the hands of Service Canada workers.
Veterans across the country protested as eight Veterans Affairs offices were closed, including those in Kelowna and Prince George. By this Monday, all NDP, Liberals and independent members of parliament were calling for them to be re-opened. They also urged the Harper government to immediately address the mental health crisis facing Canadian soldiers and veterans by hiring appropriate mental health professionals, and to prioritize and conclude more than 50 military suicide inquiries.
That vote failed, with all Conservative MPs voting against it, including Chilliwack Fraser Canyon MP Mark Strahl.
In a phone interview from Ottawa on Tuesday, Strahl said the changes to Veterans Affairs operations are misunderstood.
“We think this is largely an administrative change,” he said, and services that were once available in those VAC offices will now be available in Service Canada offices. In many cases, the offices were housed in the same building.
This shift adds up to little change for the veterans in the Fraser Valley, who will still have to travel to Vancouver to visit the closest VAC office. However, in the same restructuring, more than 600 Service Canada offices will now be equipped to help veterans with their paperwork, accessing services, internet support, and other administrative duties.
That service will be available at the downtown Chilliwack Service Canada office by this week, Strahl said.
Likewise, he assured that Veterans Affairs case workers and registered nurses will continue to be available to veterans who are unable to travel to a VAC or Service Canada location.
“That service will not change,” he said.
Despite these assurances, many see the changes as a slow disarming of Veterans Affairs.
Chilliwack veteran Bernie McNicholl is among them. He feels sympathetic for those veterans across the country who are now without their familiar offices, and for those who already have to travel great distances to access services.
There are many services available online, but he knows that many veterans don’t even own a computer.
While McNicholl has a bad knee from his time in service, he’s thankful to be able to walk and get around to appointments. He often can be found sharing his stories with today’s youth, talking about his time as a rear gunner on 38 missions with the Royal Canadian Air Force, as well as time spent in the Canadian Army, operating tanks in the Gaza Strip.
McNicholl’s father was a First World War vet, and he has two sons that served in recent conflicts – one of which came home from Afghanistan needing two hearing aids. They are a proud military family, and both McNicholl and his wife Pat enjoy discussing history, the politics of war, and the effects on soldiers.
When a soldier showed signs of ‘weakness’ in the First World War, McNicholl said, they weren’t offered mental health services like they are today. Post traumatic stress disorder wasn’t understood, and neither were the nightmares, sweats, aggression, anxiety and depression that are now known as symptoms of the disorder.
The ‘lucky’ ones were tossed out of the military, dishonourably discharged. Ranks were stripped and medals rescinded, and they received a new label – LMF.
“Lack of Moral Fibre is what they called it,” McNicholl said.
Then there were those who weren’t so lucky. More than 300 soldiers were executed by the British government, only to be pardoned posthumously in 2006. Some were as young as 17, and were court marshaled for “cowardice.”
PTSD, depression and soldier suicide are becoming more understood in this century, when compared to the horrors of the First and Second World Wars.
By contrast, today there are nearly 400 mental health professionals working within the Canadian Forces – a number that Strahl agreed isn’t even enough to handle the workload, despite being the highest ratio of mental health workers to soldiers among the NATO allies.
“We are simply the best when it comes to providing mental health care,” he said.
But PTSD is unavoidable, he adds, and soldiers are still coming home with severe mental health issues. Something as benign as seeing a man wearing a backpack could trigger PTSD in a soldier coming home from conflicts where suicide bombings are common. The number of unresolved soldier suicides is sitting atat bout 50, and over the past two months alone at least seven Canadian soldiers are reported to have committed suicide.
“The thing with PTSD is that there are different triggers for everybody,” Strahl said. “You may have 200 people on a frigate, and one person will go on with life and think nothing of what they encountered, and someone else will have PTSD.”
While we’ve come a long way in understanding mental health, Strahl said the gap in mental health services is Canada-wide. While health services are generally a provincial issue, military services are federally funded.
“We have a system that is top of the class when it comes to our allies,” he said. “But we are working to do more. We would love to have more professionals to serve our soldiers, they are in short supply.”
You can’t compel a mental health professional to join the military, he said, but “they are trying to hire more.”
He added that our society’s attitude needs to continue to change, and encourage all people to seek out help when they need it.
“We’ve just had the Bell Let’s Talk day, and we’ve had the Defeat Depression walks in Agassiz and Harrison, and there really is an increased dialogue in all segments of the population. Our attitude really needs to change when it comes to mental health care. It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of sickness.”
He added that people in the military need to know that they can reach out, and help will be there for them.
For McNicholl, talking about his service is easy. He knows for others it can be debilitating.
“We all handle it in different ways,” he said.
Last week, he attended the funeral of his troop leader from his time in Egypt. There, he spoke with several officers about the state of affairs. They are all looking back and evaluating how the different governments have funded the military, and treated veterans.
“Harper is a great speaker and all that,” McNicholl said. “But look at what he’s doing to us. Now he’s going against the veterans, and and we must remember that at election time. They’re going to find a lot of us showing up and speaking up.”