OTTAWA – POLITICS – This past week Auditor General Michael Ferguson released his fall report and found that the Harper Conservatives are failing a number of Canadians including veterans and people who are living in remote and northern Canada. Even worse was the Conservative government’s response.
In his study of certain programs delivered to Canada’s veterans the Auditor General found that; “Veterans Affairs is not providing veterans with timely access to mental health services; the disability benefits program has a complex and time-consuming application process and some vets are forced to wait as long as eight months to find out if they can receive benefits.” Ferguson also found that; “Many veterans must endure long delays in obtaining medical and service records from National Defence and long wait times for mental health assessments.” Troubling findings to be sure, but the response of the Harper government ended up being the big story of the week.
Just prior to the release of the Auditor General’s report the Harper government sent out three Ministers – Defence, Veterans’ Affairs, and Justice – to announce $200 million in new spending over 6 years to help veterans suffering from operational stress injuries such Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The announcement was made a few days before the release Auditor General’s report because the government is presented those findings a week or so before the public, and they clearly wanted to get out in front what would be a bad news story. Unfortunately, the details of the new program as they were explained by the three Ministers were grossly inaccurate and misleading.
Following a series of very good headlines about the funding announcement, the Minister’s office was forced to admit a few days later that this money would be not be delivered over 6 years as they had claimed, but instead it will be delivered over 50 years and possibly even longer. The Minister’s office confirmed that this money will be available for all veterans who have served through the end of the Afghanistan War and that it will be available for their entire life, but some veterans of that war are as young as 25 years old. If they live to 75 years of age, then the program – and the money – will have to last for 50 years. That’s an enormous difference, but this government wouldn’t deliberately mislead Canadians.
Another disappointing finding of this Auditor General report came from his investigation of the ‘Nutrition North’ program which is supposed to help make healthy food more affordable for Canadians living in rural, remote, and northern communities. With the price of spaghetti noodles exceeding $13 a bag, for example, in some remote communities it is clear that the Nutrition North program is badly needed. However, the Auditor General flagged many problems with how this program is being run, and which could be wasting of millions of our tax dollars. In his report, Mr. Ferguson concluded that “The Nutrition North program, which subsidizes the high cost of healthy food in northern communities, does not properly distribute subsidies or ensure savings are properly passed on to consumers.”
Coincidentally, and early in the same week that the Auditor General’s report was made public, Rankin Inlet Deputy Mayor Sam Tutanuak claimed in a series of quotes to a national media outlet that up to 100 residents in his community were unable to afford to purchase healthy food and are regularly forced to search for food at the local landfill. Mr. Tutanuak’s comments were shocking, but perhaps more shocking was the repsonse of Environment Minister Leona Agglukkaq who represents the riding of Nunavut and the people of Rankin Inlet. Following media reports of his comments Mr. Tutanuak claimed a staff person from Agglukkaq’s office had called him directly and demanded that he not only publicly retract them, but also issue a written apology to Minister Agglukkaq and for some reason a seperate apology to the Conservative Party of Canada. They even allegedly threatened to sue him if he did not do so.
The Auditor General bears a heavy responsibility and often provides unwelcome news for governments of all political stripes. With that being said I think those governments should focus on fixing the issues that are brought to light in those reports instead of trying to mislead and threaten the very people they are failing to serve.
John Rafferty MP