A change in government and a new Veteran Affairs Minister has Indigenous veterans hoping the bad times are behind them.
Recently, Liberal MP Kent Hehr was sworn into Justin Trudeau’s cabinet as the new veterans affairs minister. Hehr also defeated a long-standing Conservative MP in the Calgary-Centre riding.
Alex Maurice, 60, of Beauval, Saskatchewan couldn’t be happier with a new government in place.
Maurice served from 1973 to 1981 with the Canadian Armed Forces. When he retired, he was one of the youngest sergeants in the military. Today, he is the president of the Aboriginal Veterans Association for his home province.
“[Trudeau] got a majority and I think the majority he got was based on the fact that Canadians believe he will work with us in a democratic manner,” says Maurice.
“I’m going to take him up on [the Liberals] saying that they’re going to re-open the veterans affairs offices the Conservatives shut down.”
In the last year, the Conservative government closed 8 district veterans affairs offices as a means of saving money -— including one in Saskatoon.
It's something Maurice says hurt veterans across the province, particularly those in the north. “A lot of the older veterans are in northern Saskatchewan and they don’t have vehicles” says Maurice.
“The closet contact now is when you dial that toll free number, Charlottetown answers you if you’re lucky. If not, no one answers you.”
Maurice saw the closure of those offices as a direct attack on veterans.
“Harper wanted to balance his books and he did it on the backs of the most vulnerable.”
In an email statement, Veterans Affairs said $5.3 million was saved during 2012-2013 after the closure of 8 district offices.
Dealing with closed offices is only part of the battle, Maurice says, adding that veterans are regularly denied the benefits they apply for with Veterans Affairs.
Maurice being one of them.
In 1981, Maurice suffered ear damage in his left ear from a gun blast. After a hearing specialist told him it was a pensionable injury, he applied for benefits from the military — but was denied.
“So I had to go through an appeals board process and I had to convince them that I had the injury from the gun blast.”
Maurice appealed and won shortly after leaving the military in 1981 and is receiving a small pension for his tinnitus.
But the tinnitus lead to vertigo, a disability Maurice only learned was pensionable back when Veterans Affairs forwarded him an application several years ago. He doesn't remember exactly when but knows only that that application was denied.
“I also have bad knees from running in combat boots and jumping out of planes,” says Maurice, who has heard those ailments are also eligible for benefits - but he says he won't bother applying.
“I wore my body out serving for the military and it’s frustrating the hoops they make you jump through, I give up now.”
John Jewitt, 55, agrees it is common for veterans to get frustrated by the system.
Jewitt is the Ontario representative of the Aboriginal Veterans Autochtones, an organization dedicated to Indigenous veterans.
“As veterans we call that an insurance company mentality,” says Jewitt.
“The insurance company mentality is to immediately deny an application and that’s the mentality that is in Veterans Affairs.”
Jewitt says veterans also struggle to get the information needed to even apply for benefits. He says not only is the Veterans Affairs website difficult to navigate but the department is trying to move away from actual paper work and more towards web-based applications.
The department has also made numerous changes to its application.
“I think it's wrong, especially with the older veterans located in the remote areas,” says Jewitt.
He questions how many veterans have access to computer, while most live on a fixed income.
In a statement provided to Ricochet Media, Veterans Affairs said that since 2010 the department changed its application 5 times as a means to reflect legislative changes and to simplify the application process.
At one time, as a means of keeping veterans up to date with all the changes, Maurice used to send newsletters to his fellow Saskatchewan veterans but says he had to stop because the cost of the stamps became too high for him to cover.
“We haven’t been able to give our veterans an update in terms of what is coming out of Ottawa.”
During the federal election campaign, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau promised veterans he would reinstate lifelong pensions for injured veterans, re-open closed regional offices, and expand existing programs for veterans and their families.
Jewitt says he and other Indigenous veterans are cautiously optimistic those promises will become reality.
“That is a pretty big promise.”