It is a story that has often been told. When their father died, the children put on a lavish, expensive funeral and poured out their grief.
When their mother died, the funeral was even bigger and more elaborate, with outpourings of filial devotion to match.
But some close to the parents were not impressed. The children had rarely visited, hadn’t helped out when their folks’ pensions proved inadequate, and largely left them to shift for themselves during the father’s final illness. The widow had been abandoned completely until it came time to bury her.
In the parable above, the hypocritical children are the Canadian government, the parents are the veterans who offered up their lives for that government, and the funerals are the Remembrance Day ceremonies held across the country each November.
Another perspective: after the tragedy of the Vietnam War, there emerged in the mid 1970s the secondary tragedy of shunned and neglected veterans of that war who protested their treatment with the catch phrase “Where’s my parade?” I remember a warrant officer in my squadron, a Second World War veteran, discussing the Vietnam vets over a beer on Remembrance Day. “They should consider themselves lucky in that respect,” he said. “Only the dead get parades.”
What the warrant officer was deliberately and cynically overlooking was the fact that, rather than a parade, veterans want the acknowledgment, respect, and appreciation of their sacrifices that a parade might symbolize. Without the rest of it, a parade signifies nothing.
Not that Remembrance Day ceremonies signify nothing. It is fine and fitting when those who died for Canada are commemorated and honoured.
It is less fine and less fitting when those who served their country and survived are quickly and conveniently forgotten.
It was announced in August that Col. Pat Stogran, who led the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry in Afghanistan in 2002, would not be reappointed as Veterans Affairs Canada ombudsman. We soon knew why: he had lashed out at bureaucratic indifference and accused Veterans Affairs of fostering a “penny pinching ”˜insurance company’ mentality” that was leaving disabled veterans in poverty.
Stogran followed Peter Tinsley, former chair of the Military Police Complaints Commission, and one-time RCMP watchdog Paul Kennedy as federal appointees who were not kept on because they took their mandate too seriously for a government that is eager to show it can take a meaningful role in military alliances but is far less keen to take responsibility for the consequences.
If “penny-pinching, insurance-company mentality” seems like an unfair accusation, consider the lifetime lump-sum payment of $276,089 now handed to disabled veterans. The insulting quote is more unjust to insurance companies, which would expect to disburse an estimated $800,000 to $1.2 million for lifelong disability incurred under a private-sector policy.
For most of us, Canadians who risked their lives for freedom are heroes. To the government, they seem to be a nuisance.
Retired Canadian Forces captain Sean Bruyea is a veterans advocate who criticized the benefits system and apparently lit a fire under the civil servants at Veterans Affairs that got hundreds of them working away diligently.
Unfortunately, what they worked on was examining Bruyea’s medical and financial files for information that might be used to discredit him.
After the federal privacy commissioner pronounced the bureaucrats’ actions an “alarming” invasion of privacy last month, Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn had to issue what the media termed “a rare government apology”. Although Bruyea accepted the apology, veterans are still reeling from the news that Veterans Affairs employs hundreds of people. Knowing, though, how those people spend their time gives vets a better understanding of why their claims take years to process.
The government seems to aim at reducing its obligations to veterans to lip service, yet its insensitivity has affected even the poppies that symbolize Canadians’ far deeper commitment to remembering those who served. The day after the Royal Canadian Legion’s annual fundraiser began with the pinning of a poppy on Gov. Gen. David Johnston, NDP MP Malcolm Allen pointed out that Ontario’s new harmonized sales tax included the annual poppy order and has nearly doubled the tax bite on a campaign that collects donations for veterans’ services across the country. (On October 28, the federal government finally announced that it would refund the HST charged to legions on their poppy purchases.)
MPs will be at the cenotaphs on Remembrance Day, poppies neatly pinned on their lapels. At those rites, they might hear the lines from Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen” that are recited at the end of every legion meeting: “They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old / Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn / At the going down of the sun and in the morning / We will remember them.”
And what of those who served but were left to grow older, who are wearied by age and condemned by the years? When will they be remembered? The government’s guilt will not be gotten rid of by some solemn ceremony when they are dead.
Verne McDonald, onetime air-force brat and reservist in Canadian Forces Communication Command, is a 15-year member of the Royal Canadian Legion.