This year on Remembrance Day, people across Canada will take a moment to honour those who served and those who died in both peacekeeping and major actions which Canada has taken part in over her military history.
According to Veterans Affairs Canada, we lost 300 of 7,000 in the South African War between 1899 and 1902; we lost more than 68,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders of around 650,000 in the First World War; more than 47,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders of more than one million who served in the Second World War; we lost 516 of 26,791 who served in the Korean War; we lost 158 of the 40,000 who served in Afghanistan, and more than 1,800 who have given their lives during the many peace actions, foreign military actions, domestic operations, and training. In fact, Canada’s history of military service goes back to the dim early days of the country’s beginnings, in the late 1700s.
And almost since those first days, Canada has had a long tradition of treating those who come back from the front poorly.
Soldiers who returned home in the First World War, for example, found themselves lacking pensions or other financial help and were forced to create their own organizations to help one another in true brothers-in-arms fashion.
The Canadian government of the day instituted a number of policies designed to help re-integrate the soldiers when they came home, including medical treatment and financial aid, but these policies were little more than stop-gaps.
By 1922, most of those programs had been cancelled, and with 20 per cent of all veterans unemployed with few prospects, the Canadian government seemed to talk a lot about the importance of sacrifice, but had no stomach to take care of those who answered the call, in spite of the fledgling pension act.
It seemed apparent the government of the day had few ideas about what to do with all those returning soldiers, injured or otherwise.
The demobilization years following the Second World War saw tremendous improvements in how veterans were treated, in part due to the fact many policy makers were veterans themselves. The 1930s saw improvements in every major area for returning soldiers.
For those who were white, anyway.
Aboriginal and visible minorities who answered the call to war found themselves treated as second-class veterans upon their return to Canada. First Nations vets found their benefits in the hands of their Indian Act agents, people who were uninformed about the range of benefits available to them and suffered the subsequent loss of those benefits through inaction. Not so surprising, not when the stance of the Canadian military at the time was that those of First Nations decent were less than desirable candidates as soldiers.
Imagine the sense of irony which must have been experienced by returning First Nations soldiers after fighting and defeating a racially-motivated ideology in the Nazis to be the subject of racially-motivated segregation themselves.
The benefits listed in the Veterans Charter were extended to returning Korean War soldiers beginning in the 1950s, but veterans from police and peacekeeping actions, for example, which took place during the Cold War years until the 1990s, faced limited access to these benefits and were sometimes openly questioned if they were in fact true veterans at all. Heading into Afghanistan, there were still many unresolved issues with military service benefits.
In May 2005, a new veterans charter was brought into being, a “living document” which would change and adapt as issues arose.
However, the slow way in which government changes are made, coupled with inadequacies in the charter itself regarding benefits, have left many of today’s veterans once more feeling like they are being swept under the rug by their government. Earlier this year, Legion Magazine released the details of a 15-question survey collected over the course of a year, resulting in some 2,200 responses. About 96 per cent of those were from Canadian veterans or active members of the Canadian Armed Forces or Royal Canadian Mounted Police. And 77 per cent of those respondents were unhappy with the level of service being given to veterans today. Nearly half of all respondents indicated they were unhappy with the service in the most negative way possible.
“The number of responses is significant and the data does not lie,” concluded Legion Magazine writer Adam Day. “Canada’s veterans believe VAC offers poor service, insufficient benefits and too much confusing bureaucracy.”
Interesting that the Conservative Party of Canada, and, in fact, all right-leaning political parties, fancy themselves the real supporters of the military. This current government is no different. In the past eight years we have seen new paint jobs, restoration of traditional names, and more coins, stamps, and nods to our veterans as they have again and again been paraded around for votes and approval ratings. And all the while, their rights and benefits are slowly being whittled and trimmed and absorbed by that great amoeba known as the federal bureaucracy.
It’s simply not enough to expect business-as-usual for veterans, not when we as a nation have a long and miserable track record of caring for them. It’s time to listen to what they are saying and to fix the problems with the system. It’s time to end the anger and bitterness and allow them the real peace they deserve.
Or perhaps members of our current ruling government would be interested in taking the place of some of our soldiers the next time they are called on to risk their lives?
Yeah, we didn’t think so either.