By: Sam Mathers, News Editor
Just over a week ago, Remembrance Day ceremonies were held across the country. Each year, at the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month, Canadians pay respect to the men and women that have fought and continue to fight for our freedom. But are veterans made a priority in Canada? After closing its doors in 2014 due to federal budget cuts, Thunder Bay is set to reopen its Veterans Affairs District Office in January, but some have their doubts. Poppies may remain on coats for the next few weeks, but one can’t help but wonder if the phrase “lest we forget” is in fact, forgotten each year until November 11th.
Kent Hehr, Minister of Veterans Affairs, announced in August that Thunder Bay’s office would reopen its doors after closing in 2014. Despite protests, the previous Conservative government closed eight Veterans Affairs District Offices across Canada, citing the need to save $5 million a year. The offices were replaced with Veterans Affairs employees in Service Canada offices, and existing Service Canada staff were trained by Veterans Affairs to be able to provide some information to veterans. For Robert Cutbush, a veteran who served 25 years in the Royal Canadian Navy, the loss of face-to-face contact was a major downfall of the closure. Taking a lot of unnecessary time out of the day – like being placed on hold for upwards of thirty minutes just to be able to leave someone a short voicemail – Cutbush describes the experience of the last two years as “frustrating.” He remarked that it would be easier to spend a day travelling to a city with a Veterans Affairs District Office to see someone face to face. Not to mention having to explain and open up about inner trauma over the phone, which has also posed much difficulty.
With the priorities of the Canadian government often lying elsewhere, Cutbush speaks out on this issue and helps newer veterans navigate a system he knows well. In the last election, a lot of promises were made in regards to veterans affairs – fighting the closure of the district offices, restoring life long disability benefits, increases to awards and impairment living allowances – yet not many have been kept. He feels at times, that veterans are used as political pawns, and says, “As a veteran, as a member of the Canadian Legion, it’s my job to hold their feet to the fire.”
The Thunder Bay Veterans Affairs District Office is scheduled to reopen this January. It will employ 8 staff to serve 1,700 veterans in “getting their benefits, their forms, and the information they need to build their lives,” according to the announcement made by Hehr. But rumors are already circling that the office won’t open until May. Cutbush describes the announcement as “bittersweet.” He says that he is wiser now, and more patient. He will believe it when he sees it.
We are extremely lucky to live in a time and place where war is not an immediate threat – as Canadians, we have a lot of freedoms that others don’t – but that seems to make us disconnected from the sacrifices that have been made in the past and unaware of the sacrifices that are still made today. Cutbush says it might be due in part to the humble Canadian attitude that says “I’m just doing my job, I don’t need a victory parade for everything I do,” but he also wants people to be aware of the trauma veterans face. Cutbush wants people to know that “it’s a real thing – people come back in body bags and people come back broken.”