By Caelin Coleman, Special to the Cape Breton Post
MEMBERTOU — An attempt to create a Nova Scotia veterans advocate was put on hold during an emergency meeting of the provincial legislative standing committee on veterans affairs in Membertou Monday.
The committee decided to hold off on voting on the issue until the next meeting. The decision came after the committee heard from veterans affected by the recent closure of the Veterans Affairs Canada office in Sydney.
The veterans advocate would report directly to the minister of military relations for the province, and advise what steps need to be taken to replace the services lost by the closure of the office.
The committee heard testimony from local veteran Ron Clarke, before opening the floor to comments from the veterans in the audience, including Second World War veteran Charles Palmer.
"The veterans from the Second World War, which I am one of them, would have great difficulty going to Halifax. I'm 93 years old," said Palmer.
"Most of my colleagues from that particular war couldn't make it here today. Now someone tell me — how are they going to make it all the way to Halifax?"
During Monday's meeting, the committee heard that the Veterans Affairs Office in Sydney serviced 4,200 veterans and their families living within the community and employed 17 people.
The office provided veterans with different services, depending on what each veteran required. They made appointments with medical doctors and psychiatrists, assigned a caseworker to each veteran’s file, and walked veterans through extensive paperwork. They would also travel to the veteran, if necessary.
Clarke, a Georges River veteran of the Vietnam War, testified the people who work in the Service Canada office in Sydney, which veterans can now turn to for assistance, aren't trained to give the veterans the help they need.
“We could just walk in, announce ourselves, sit in the chair and within five minutes someone would be out there calling you into the office, sit down with you and they would go to work on those problems immediately,” said Clarke, recalling how veterans had been treated at the Veterans Affairs Canada office in Sydney.
To receive help now, those veterans have to visit a Service Canada office, travel to Halifax or communicate with someone by phone or over the internet via smartphone app.
Vince Rigby, a veteran who served in Yugoslavia, said no one thinks about the amount of paperwork a veteran faces, or the added stress it can cause trying to fill it out without help.
"I don't know if anybody knows, but our disabilty applications are 18 pages long. Our quality-of-life application is four pages long. Our doctor's part of it is six pages long. That's 28 pages we have to do in 60 days," said Rigby.
"With most veterans we don't have just one condition. We have multiple conditions. So with each condition comes a potential block. With each condition there's 28 pages."
Rigby, who's been trying to receive compensation for his injuries for nine years, said he's still not finished dealing with the paperwork.
The committee is chaired by Cape Breton Liberal MLA Pam Eyking, who represents Victoria-The Lakes. Eyking came under criticism last Thursday for not convening an earlier meeting of the committee amid cries of protest over the closure of the offices.
This is the second time in less than a week the committee has voted on the motion, put forward by NDP Sydney-Whitney Pier MLA Gordie Gosse.
Gosse said he was disappointed by the lack of support the committee showed for the veterans.
"All I wanted to do was make sure we had this motion on the floor so that the least we could do was help the veterans with the issues they're facing with the closure of the Sydney office. They need our help now, and they deserve better," said Gosse.
"You have to realize, we're losing time on this issue. The veterans need our help now, not down the road."
The committee met last Thursday in Halifax, during which Liberal members first voted against the motion proposed by Gosse.
Caelin Coleman of North Sydney is a second-year journalism student at Holland College in Charlottetown, P.E.I., working on an internship at the Post.