Veterans’ groups fear their priorities will be lost in the constant shuffle of ministers

OTTAWA—It’s a déjà vu posting for Canada’s latest veterans affairs minister — the 10th in a decade.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau turned to a political veteran to take on the portfolio Friday, hoping the appointment of Lawrence MacAulay will assuage advocates frustrated by the turnover in ministers.

MacAulay, who was secretary of state for veterans under prime minister Jean Chrétien, was effusive Friday, telling reporters he was delighted to return to an issue he was first involved with two decades ago.

“It’s an honour to be a minister at the table in any portfolio but the chance to be at veterans affairs really for the second time is indeed a great honour,” MacAulay said outside Rideau Hall following the swearing-in ceremony.

The veterans affairs department is close to home in another way too — MacAulay is MP for the riding of Cardigan in Prince Edward Island, and the headquarters for veterans affairs is in Charlottetown.

He pledged to do “everything I can” to make sure the personnel who “preserve democracy for us worldwide” are well looked after.

That enthusiasm might help ease the discomfort of veterans groups worried that their priorities are getting lost in the political upheaval.

MacAulay fills the vacancy caused by the sudden departure of Jody Wilson-Raybould, who resigned from the position in February just a month into the job. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan had taken on responsibilities for the file in the interim.

Friday’s shuffle means there have been 10 ministers to hold the veterans affairs position since 2009 and five since the Liberals took office in 2015.

Scott Maxwell, executive director of Wounded Warriors Canada, said the changes in ministers with just months to go before the fall election make it difficult to make progress on issues such as the transition to civilian life and improving benefits and payments for wounded veterans.

“It just doesn’t seem realistic for anybody to step into this role at this time and hope to accomplish very much,” Maxwell said.

Brad White, national executive director of the Royal Canadian Legion, said that during MacAulay’s first ministerial stint with the department in the 1990s, he enacted some “transformational” change to address pension issues.

“I’m hoping he takes that attitude to this new portfolio,” White said in an interview.

He said there are numerous issues that need attention, notably smoothing the transition for personnel between the Canadian Armed Forces and the veterans affairs department.

“We have some very complex issues out there right now. We have injuries we have never seen before, both physical and psychological that we have to deal with … and they are younger people than they were before,” he said.

“I’m just concerned that we don’t lose the focus… we need to look after our veterans,” he said.

Conservative MP Phil McColeman, the critic for veterans issues, said he’s happy to see veterans affairs restored to a full-time minister.

He said urgent action is needed to address issues highlighted by the parliamentary budget officer in its recent examination of the various benefits programs provided by the department since 2006.

In a February report, the budget officer concluded that most, but not all, veterans receiving disability benefits will be financially better off under the new regime that takes effect April 1. But its analysis found that about 3 per cent of new claimants would be “greatly disadvantaged” under the new program, by about $300,000.

“That’s is a glaring thing that I think he should address,” McColeman (Brant) told the Star Friday.

McColeman also wants the new minister to address the health concerns of veterans who took the anti-malaria drug mefloquine, which carries the risk of psychological side effects. The federal government may face a lawsuit from veterans who say their health has suffered as a result of the drug.

McColeman is hoping the Liberal government can resolve the issue without a courtroom showdown. “I would ask the new minister to look at every possible avenue to make sure that we don’t end up in the courtroom again with our veterans,” he said.

Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier

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