Before the end of next week, Stephen Harper's Tories must solve a martial conundrum almost worthy of Sun Tzu: How do you finish a war while fighting with soldiers?
The prime minister stepped into this latest quagmire on March 18 as he was welcoming home the last 93 Canadian soldiers to return from Afghanistan. May 9, he declared, would be a National Day of Honour to pay tribute to Canada`s 12 years of war in that country. "On that day, Canada will recognize those who fought, remember those who fell and salute all who contributed," Harper said.
Amongst other possible sombre notions, Harper asked for a moment of silence on May 9 to be held across the country "to reflect upon the sacrifices made during the mission." No doubt Tory image massagers will be crossing their fingers Canadians refrain from also reflecting on the unsavoury ongoing conflict the government is waging with veterans on their health care.
One would think drum and flag politics would be bread and butter to any right-thinking Conservative. But it`s like Seinfeld`s monologue about eating at a restaurant - at the beginning of the meal, diners are like the rulers of an empire, "More drinks! Appetizers!," when the cheque comes it's "We`re not hungry now - why are we buying all this food?" The Tories have dined out on the rhetoric of the Afghan war - supporting our troops, ultimate sacrifices, higher obligations, tolls of blood and treasure - for years; now the bill of caring for soliders who've been exposed to the hyperkinetic horror of modern combat has come due.
To be sure, the Tories aren't solely to blame for balking at the cost of veterans - according to the Globe and Mail, in 2005 the Liberals struck a grand bargain with the Bloc, the NDP and Harper's Conservatives in which the government sought to address the growing liability of disabled vets, a cost that went from $5.6 billion in 2001 to $7.9 billion in 2004. The result was the much maligned Veterans Charter, passed by all four parties in 2006, which shifted the system from caring for injured soldiers over their lifetime to a one-time lump sum payment. Last September, the veterans ombudsman concluded, among other shortcomings, the new system could leave severely disabled veterans in near-poverty in their final years, while also hurting veterans` families.
The inception of the Charter has marked a darkening of relations between veterans and successive governments. In 2010, according to the Globe, retired soldier Sean Buryea revealed Veterans Affairs bureaucrats as far back as 2005 had used his confidential medical records in briefing Liberal and Tory ministers on ways to handle his criticism of veterans' care. But this year in particular has seen open hostility between Conservatives and veterans.
According to the Canadian Press, in January, Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino faced calls for his resignation after his rude and brusque treatment of a group of ex-soldiers during a meeting into the closure of nine regional Veterans Affairs offices (including one in Prince George); the government responded by initimating the veterans were the dupes of public sector unions. As the closures debate raged, the suicides of at least eight soldiers over the last months also came to the fore, as did the defence department's seeming inability to adequately staff itself with enough psychiatrists and social workers. Tory MP Cheryl Gallant cheerfully told the Commons the soldiers' fears of repercussions of admitting to mental heath issues like post-traumatic stress disorders was a figment of their imaginations; this flew in the face of Buryea's treatment and a 2012 report by the military ombudsman detailing how soldiers were still ostracized or denigrated for mental health injuries.
Amidst this pell-mell disaster, the Tories are trying to tweak the Veterans Charter for the second time since 2010. Some Afghan veterans have taken a different route - according to CP, they've filed a class action lawsuit that's currently before the B.C. Superior Court arguing the new system is less generous and discriminates against the modern-day soldier.
On March 18, federal court filings were made public detailing the Conservative argument against the lawsuit: the government has no special obligation to ex-soldiers and a promise made by Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden during the First World War to take care of veterans was nothing more than a speech by a politician. This of course was the same day Harper announced his day of honour and declared: "On behalf of all Canadians, I extend my deepest thanks to all those who served in Afghanistan with such distinction and honour..."
Welcome home indeed.
You don`t need to be a Chinese military genius to figure out how to finish a war and stop fighting with soldiers: you make a peace. But it seems the Tories won`t be surrendering and it's turned the National Day of Honour into an awkward mess.
Perhaps in keeping with tradition, despite apparently preparing three years for this event, planning for the day has had a need-to-know, eleventh-hour feel. The government finally broke radio silence Monday and revealed some of the more formal details: a parade in Ottawa; a ceremony emceed by Man in Motion Rick Hansen; a relay race called Soldier On.
But, according to CP, Veterans Affairs only got in touch with the national arm of the Royal Canadian Legion in mid-April about the day - the ministry was apparently skittish about asking the Legion for help amid its criticism of the government over veterans. National Defence, according to the National Post, invited the families of fallen soldiers to a special memorial in Ottawa on May 9 but stressed "your attendance would be at your own expense"; now it appears a charity, the True Patriot Love Foundation, is going to try to foot the cost of travel and a special breakfast.
Thomas Gray wrote "the paths of glory lead but to the gray." Stephen Harper`s Tories are strugging to provide even that cold comfort. Unless they experience a sudden change of heart, next week`s National Day of Honour will go down as a disgrace that will be as uncalled for as it is enduring.