OTTAWA—In the political controversy engulfing Justin Trudeau’s government, advocates fear that the revolving door atop the veterans affairs department means that veterans and their priorities are getting short shrift.
Jody Wilson-Raybould on Tuesday announced her resignation from cabinet after serving barely a month as veterans affairs minister.
She quit cabinet amidst allegations that Trudeau’s office had pressured her in her former role as attorney general to mediate a settlement with SNC-Lavalin rather than pursue criminal charges.
In the wake of her announcement, Trudeau said that Harjit Sajjan, who is the defence minister, would take on the role of veterans affairs minister too. He becomes the eighth minister to hold the position since 2010 and the fourth since the Liberals took office in 2015.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” said Scott Maxwell, executive director of Wounded Warriors Canada.
“Who can possible effect the real substantive reforms needed in any ministry under these time frames. The answer, of course, is nobody,” he said.
“Our message is that veterans and their families deserve better,” said Maxwell.
In the wake of Tuesday’s resignation, the Royal Canadian Legion called on the government to create one department to merge Veterans Affairs Canada and the Department of National Defence to ensure streamless oversight of military personnel “from recruitment into retirement.
“We have witnessed several puzzling changes to VAC’s leadership in recent years, and we now question just how committed government is to Canada’s veterans,” the legion said in a statement.
“On their behalf, we ask that the veteran portfolio overall be treated as a vital one, and that government take swift action so that critical issues related to our veterans’ well-being are dealt with immediately,” the statement said.
Successive governments have faced criticism that the benefits provided to veterans fall short at the very time that government is faced with a wave of veterans suffering the mental and physical wounds from Canada’s extended mission in Afghanistan.
Kent Hehr was the first politician to hold the post in Trudeau’s government, followed by Seamus O’Regan, then Wilson-Raybould and now Sajjan.
Each change means a steep learning curve for the minister and their staff as they get up to speed on the issues facing the department, the complex array of veterans benefits and get acquainted with stakeholders. That inevitably means delays.
Sajjan at least comes into the portfolio with some familiarity with the issues, thanks to his time as defence minister and a veteran of the Armed Forces himself. But it still means that the job of veteran affairs minister is now a part-time role, held by a minister juggling two departments.
Maxwell noted that a few ministers have stayed in their portfolios for a prolonged period, including Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Sajjan and questioned why veteran affairs doesn’t merit the same stability. “It’s time that it did and it needs to,” he said.
NDP MP Gord Johns, the party’s critic for veterans affairs, said that veterans have grown frustrated with “revolving door” of ministers for the department.
He praised Wilson-Raybould as a “capable” minister and said expectations were running high that she could make headway on the issues facing the department. “I think a lot of veterans were very excited of her stature and her CV,” said Johns (Courtenay—Alberni).
He met with Wilson-Raybould just last week and agreed to meet again to work together on veterans issues. “She was open and willing to work on issues with me,” Johns said.
“Veterans are tired of rhetoric. They want a minister that is committed to working on their issues,” he said in an interview. “Veterans are really being lost in all of this.”
Even when she took on the post in a January cabinet shuffle, Wilson-Raybould had to push back on suggestions that the veterans affairs role was a demotion in the hierarchy of cabinet positions.
“I can think of no world in which I would consider working for our veterans in Canada as a demotion,” Wilson-Raybould told reporters on the day of the shuffle.
Trudeau himself declared that day that serving as veterans affairs minister is a “deep and awesome responsibility.”
Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier