A fear of reprisals prevents many veterans from speaking out against the planned closure this Friday of a Kelowna office that helps them access benefits, a former serviceman says.
Many veterans worry they could lose some of their current entitlements if they are seen to be too vocal in their criticism of the federal government, Dale Dirks says.
"Most of the veterans are old buggers like me, and they're absolutely terrified they'll lose some of the benefits if they get really involved in this issue," Dirks, 73, said Wednesday.
"We all come from a military culture where the attitude is, 'Shut up and do as you're told,'" Dirks said. "Even though most of these guys are long out of the military, there's still that mindset."
The Kelowna office of Veterans Affairs is one of eight slated for closure in a move the government says is driven by the need to pare administrative costs and improve efficiencies.
"The bottom line is the government has improved the programs and benefits for our veterans,"
said Kelowna-Lake Country Conservative MP Ron Cannan. "Since 2006, we've invested $4.7 billion in veterans affairs."
But the reality, Cannan says, is that very few veterans have been using the services of the 10-person local office. "You could count the number of people who come in there on a daily basis on one hand," he says.
Although the Kelowna office of Veterans Affairs is closing, there is an employee at the federal government Service Canada centre on Queensway who is specially trained to handle veterans' issues, Cannan said.
In Ottawa on Tuesday, a scheduled meeting between a group of veterans opposed to the office closures and Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino was abruptly cancelled at the last minute.
"I thought that was a terribly disrespectful thing for him to have done," said Dirks, who was in
the military for 34 years before retiring as a Master Warrant Officer in 1992.
"That shows to veterans the public that he doesn't really care."
A testy meeting with the veterans and Fantino was held later.
Cannan expressed frustration with what he said were highly-orchestrated attempts by the opposition parties and the union that represents federal workers to sway public opinion on the issue.
"It's personally very upsetting how veterans are being used for partisan and political ends," Cannan said.