Scheer promises to clear backlog of veterans waiting to receive benefits

CANOE COVE, P.E.I. — Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer asked Canada's embittered military veterans to welcome his party back into their hearts Sunday after a tumultuous 13 years of what many former soldiers consider betrayals by both the Harper and Trudeau governments.

As prime minister, Scheer said, he would personally preside over a Conservative plan to clear a growing backlog of applications for benefits within two years and also establish a fair and reliable pension system — two long-standing irritants between the two governing parties and the veterans community, long considered a core constituency for the Tories.

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"To every veteran who has struggled and who has continued to struggle without the support and benefits you have earned through your service, my message is this: You have been betrayed, but you deserve better," Scheer said.

Robert Gould, who served in the armoured corps for 25 years, spoke with Scheer after the announcement and said his fellow service men and women are frustrated that they've been used as political pawns. He told Scheer that he feels as though both Liberals and Conservatives hate veterans.

"You guys seem to hate us a little bit less than the other parties do," Gould told Scheer. "We'd like to see you step up…be a party for veterans and a party that veterans can count on."

The leader responded that his government, if elected, will raise the bar much higher.

Many advocates, as well as the union representing Veterans Affairs workers, have long demanded more staff for the department, which was hit with deep cuts and layoffs while Stephen Harper was prime minister.

When asked how veterans could be assured that a relationship with a new Conservative government would be better than the previous one, Scheer did not directly acknowledge the issues they faced under his Tory predecessor.

"As leader of the Conservative party, we have a new opportunity to make these types of commitments," Scheer said. "This is my personal commitment to them as leader of this party: As prime minister I will take a personal interest in ensuring the commitments we made today are followed through on."

Scheer said erasing the growing backlog of nearly 40,000 veterans waiting to hear whether their financial assistance would be approved will require a new investment. The parliamentary budget officer has pegged it at $50 million over two years.

The federal Liberals did promise during the last election to address veterans’ anger and frustration over delays in the delivery of services and benefits, which included a promise to hire more staff such as arbiters and case managers for the most severely disabled.

But while the Liberals have hired several hundred front-line staff as well as more case managers, those investments have not kept pace with growth in demand for services and benefits over the past four years.

Staff were hired through a one-time, $42-million cash injection in last year's federal budget to specifically address the backlog, but have only recently been deemed ready to start making a dent in the problem.

Relations with veterans began to go off the rails in 2005, when the Liberal government of Paul Martin proposed a new pension arrangement that was enacted the following year by the Conservatives under Harper, albeit with the support of all parties. The new system, dubbed the New Veterans Charter, replaced a lifelong disability pension with a lump-sum payment and combination of rehabilitation and income replacement.

That new system was widely panned and prompted a number of legal challenges, and the Liberal alternative introduced in 2017 didn't go over much better, since it didn't satisfy the Liberal commitment in 2015 to reinstate the original pension system.

The military community also railed against the Conservatives for shuttering Veterans Affairs offices across the country in an effort to cut costs, a move that was largely reversed by the Trudeau Liberals, who made it a core element of their 2015 campaign.

Scheer also promised to strengthen post-service transition supports, help more veterans get service dogs, enshrine in legislation a guarantee that every veteran is treated with respect and gets services in a timely manner, and support commemoration projects such as the National Memorial for Canada's War in Afghanistan.

Veteran Tyler Cody came to listen to Scheer speak because he said he's open to listening to any politician's plans. However, he said he didn't get reassurance that any party will actually bring solutions.

"I am not any more optimistic about Scheer or Trudeau, any of them," he said.

Scheer stopped at a shellfish festival in Charlottetown Sunday afternoon where he tasted some spicy hot sauce and talked with locals selling cheese and milk. Scheer also learned to shuck a shell and was called a natural.

The East Coast has been a Liberal stronghold. Specifically, Malpeque, where Scheer made his Sunday morning announcement, has been held by the Liberals since 1988 and by incumbent Liberal candidate Wayne Easter since 1993.

However, the Tories have been able to make small gains in certain ridings, including St. John's East, where Scheer campaigned Sunday with candidate Joedy Wall.

Easter released a statement slamming the Conservatives' record on veterans under Harper, and saying that the Liberals re-opened veterans offices in P.E.I. that the Tories had closed and re-hired laid off staff.

Scheer made a stop in St. John's, N.L., later Sunday and acknowledged in the last election the Liberals went 32 for 32 in Atlantic Canada, but said the people in the area are ready for change.

"We are going to turn Atlantic Canada blue," Scheer said to cheers from a crowd of around 100 supporters.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 22, 2019.

— With files from Lee Berthiaume

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