HALIFAX — A legislative committee in Nova Scotia has invited Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino to attend an emergency meeting Monday in Cape Breton to talk about the closure of Veterans Affairs offices.
© The Canadian Press
The veterans affairs committee issued the invitation Thursday, even though the eight offices — including one in Sydney, N.S. — have been closed for two weeks.
After the committee meeting, Premier Stephen McNeil defended the committee’s Liberal chairwoman, Pam Eyking, who was criticized by the Progressive Conservatives for reacting too slowly to the closings.
McNeil said it made sense to wait until after the federal budget was tabled Tuesday to confirm that Ottawa was going ahead with a plan that has been widely criticized by veterans, especially after a testy exchange Fantino had with veterans in Ottawa on Jan. 28.
“That’s when this issue became an issue for the provincial government,” he said. “It was our hope that we would have seen some change from the federal government in the budget.”
McNeil said the timing of the emergency meeting had nothing to do with the fact Eyking had taken a four-week vacation in Australia that ended late last month.
“One had nothing to do with the other,” he said. “Every member of the legislature takes vacations.”
Conservative member Alfie MacLeod said the meeting Monday will give people in Sydney a chance to voice their concerns, but he said it’s unlikely Fantino will respond on such short notice.
Fantino’s director of communications sent an email on Thursday night saying the minister had met with two members of the Nova Scotia legislature last November to discuss the issue of the closure of Veterans Affairs offices.
“As a result of discussions with veterans, stakeholders, and the members of the legislature, our government made the decision to place a full-time Veterans Affairs client service agent in the Service Canada office nearest to the former area office,” said Joshua Zanin in an email.
The federal Conservatives have said that moving more services online and to Service Canada outlets will make them more widely available. Each of the eight communities that lost a Veterans Affairs office will get a dedicated client-service agent at their nearest Service Canada outlet.
But veterans and their supporters argue Service Canada staff lack the training to deal with veterans’ cases, which can be complicated.
MacLeod said the province’s Liberal government has done little to help veterans since the party was elected last October.
“The chair of this committee has been the chair for 70-plus days, and if it’s so important to have a meeting in Sydney on Monday, why didn’t we have an emergency meeting prior to this?” he asked.
“The premier is the minister responsible for military relations in the province. What has he done?”
By contrast, MacLeod said he and NDP colleague Eddie Orrell travelled in November to Ottawa, where they raised their concerns in a meeting with Fantino.
MacLeod, Orrell and Eyking all represent Cape Breton ridings.