Defending Canada’s Veteran Affairs public servants « The Canadian Headlines Newspaper
by Jeff Rose-Martland
During the Veterans’ Affairs revelations of 2010 – the scandals, the failures, and the protests – there is one group who remained silent. We heard from veterans and politicians, citizens and pundits, soldiers and police officers, but this select group held their tongues. As much victims of poor planning, convoluted and unworkable policy, and bureaucracy which had lost its way as everyone else, these people kept quiet.
There are a couple of reasons for this: first, speaking out would cost them their jobs. Second, no one wanted to hear anything they had to say. With veterans spitting the word ‘bureaucrat’ like an epithet and government looking for scapegoats, who wanted to listen to the staff at Veterans’ Affairs?
Take the Sean Bruyea affair as an example: high level VAC officials briefed Ministers on Bruyea’s personal medical and financial information. Bruyea, involved in protesting the New Veterans’ Charter, found his benefits cut and claims stalled. There were even attempts by Veterans’ Affairs to have Sean commit himself to a mental hospital. All this came to light last fall. What did the government do? Apologise, settle Bruyea’s court case, and require all Veterans’ Affairs staff to undergo privacy training. The message? VAC staff messed up and we’ll make sure they know better. Implied course of events: the frontline staff was upset by Bruyea’s lobbying and tried to take him down.
But how sensible is that? Assuming that the front ranks at VAC even knew who Bruyea was, how do busy case workers find the time to coordinate an attack against him? And why would they? They follow whatever policy is set by government and the ministry; a lobbyist wouldn’t make any difference to how they do their jobs.
Here’s an alternative scenario: Bruyea ruffles feathers in the upper echelon of Veteran’s Affairs – the Ministers and Deputy Ministers. Orders are sent down: pull Bruyea’s files. Files are reviewed, annotated, and included in briefing notes (all of which has been confirmed). Decisions are taken to “take the gloves off” with Bruyea, after which Sean’s descent into the nightmare begins. Who can make such a decision or issue such an order? Not the people answering the phones.
The violation of privacy did not occur when some staffer pulled the file and passed it to their supervisor. What employee could deny the request of their boss without facing termination? No, the violation happened when Bruyea’s file went from the client side to the policy department.
Otherwise, where are the memos from the executive reminding staff about client privacy? Where are the letters from the Ministers saying to stop sending personal information? The logical conclusion is that the VAC frontline has been made scapegoats. They got ‘retraining’ while the people who were in charge of the department and, hence, responsible for this have not been reprimanded, punished, or charged. The perps got away and, like successful criminals, will likely re-offend.
Meanwhile, veterans have been playing ‘shoot the messenger’. Veterans blame VAC staff as much as government for their troubles and the public has sided with the vets. Most people now believe that Veterans’ Affairs employees are cold-hearted, anti-military types who derive sadistic pleasure from dragging out processes and denying claims. VAC staff has become the bogeymen of this affair and, as long as they remain so, little will change.
In the interests of fairness and truth, I want to address that myth.
I spent 3 years manning the phones in a call centre, providing technical support. According to job description, I was the go-to person, the one to call who could get things fixed. In practice, I was not allowed to do that job. With every issue, I faced rules, policy, regulations, limitations, things I wasn’t allowed to do, and departments that I was not permitted to speak with. Naturally, I got told off a whole bunch. Eventually, I left that job out of frustration.
We’ve all had jobs we didn’t like. Some of us have had jobs we liked, but hated the way we were told to do it. Imagine that your job is “to make sure our traditional and modern-day Veterans’ needs are met” – you listen to veterans, note the things they should qualify for, then go get them what they need. A good job, helping the veterans.
Except that you can’t actually meet that mission. Every program specifies who qualifies and uses different criteria to define veterans. Then, there are the numerous policies which interpret the program regulations and set guidelines for implimentation. In fact, there are so many definitions, policies, procedures, guidelines, rules, programs and criteria that you cannot even tell a client what their entitlements are
You carry an active case-load of fifty or more claims. You spend most of your time processing paperwork or reading policy. When you call a client back, you usually have to ask for more forms or, worse, you are informing the veteran that their claim has been denied for reasons which may may not be clear to you. As the messenger, you get told off a lot by people who trained on parade grounds and battlefields. That has to get to you. No matter how tough you think you are, no one can handle being repeatedly and personally called down in the dirt by the people you are trying to help. Perhaps you stop calling clients and insist on doing things via mail. Maybe you stop caring at all, just shuffle through your day, abanding all thought of trying to help veterans. Maybe you vent your feelings by directing your anger back on the veterans themselves, for causing you so much grief. Or perhaps you just call in sick, then go on leave, then quit.
Various veterans have said that things would be different if VAC hired vets. I disagree. I think things would be worse. Military and Police are trained to accept screwed-up regulations and to believe that those in charge are right. Stick veterans into a department loaded with policy failures and they wouldn’t be able to change anything. They’d be telling their comrades, “Hey, suck it up!” In fact, when they actually thought about what was involved, veterans I spoke to shuddered visibly at the thought of what VAC frontliners endure. Some even curb their language and have changed their opinions.
So, to those of you spitting “bureaucrat” and describing VAC staff in less than glowing terms, please, take some time to consider what they do, who they contend with. You don’t like the loud-mouth at the Legion? Try coping with large numbers of them and remaining patient and calm and polite. Could you do it? And consider this: VAC staff have absolutely nothing to do with setting policy or determining programs. Such things are set by politicians and executive staff, many of whom stand in the shadows. The people you speak with have no more say in your claim than you do, perhaps even less. While you were accusing VAC staff of being unsymathetic, did you show any sympathy for them? Did you appreciate their work on your behalf?
To those brave souls on the VAC Frontline: you are not alone. There are people out here who understand your frustration and appreciate your successes. We are labouring to ensure you endure fewer and simpler policies, that you have more control over decisions, and that you get the tools to fulfill the duty with which you have been charged – looking after our veterans.
The problem is policy. We must focus on correcting policy. Above all, we must remember that we are all on the same side.
Together, we can reach the goal of providing for every individual who served our national interest.
About the writer:
Jeff Rose-Martland is the founder of OurDuty.org, a citizens’ organization dedicated to ensuring that those who serve our national interests receive proper benefits.
 From Veterans Affairs Canada’s website: LINK