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Veterans latest battleground in Prince George campaign

NDP candidates Nathan Cullen (Skeena-Bulkley Valley) and Trent Derrick rally the party faithful at the NDP campaign office Tuesday.
NDP candidates Nathan Cullen (Skeena-Bulkley Valley) and Trent Derrick rally the party faithful at the NDP campaign office Tuesday.

It’s a local issue that clearly separates the Conservatives from the other parties.

The closure of the Prince George Veterans’ Affairs office in 2012 has been smouldering for some time now … city council has even waded into the issue, calling on the Conservatives to re-open the office.

Tuesday it was the federal NDP’s turn, promising to re-open the office if they form government October 19. The pledge is part of a $454 million commitment from the NDP to veterans, said Bulkley Valley-Skeena MP Nathan Cullen, who, along with Cariboo-Prince George NDP candidate, made the announcement on the steps of the Prince George Legion.

“(The NDP commitment will) finally bring up a level of respect for our vets who gave so much for our country,” Cullen said to supporters. “They fought for us, we’ve to fight for them. We’ve lost more vets from Afghanistan to suicide than we lost in Afghanistan.”

The $454 million pledge, over four years, will provide treatment for veterans with post-traumatic stress and mental health issues; enhance long-term care and expand the Veterans Independence Program; as well as increase survivors’ pensions and ensure funding is in place to support dignified funerals for veterans through the Last Post Program.

“This is huge for our riding, because we’re a riding that believes in supporting those who have sacrificed so much for us,” said Derrick. “We have each other’s backs, that’s the kind of government we’re going to be as the NDP.”

Three years ago Veterans Affairs announced the closure the Prince George office, ostensibly as a cost-cutting measure. Veterans Affairs matters are now dealt with through the Service Canada office.

“They then began sending files from Prince George to Penticton and Vancouver, that way they could claim there was no need for an office here, because there were so few files,” local Legion president John Scott told council in January.

He said Veterans Affairs seems to think the numbers of veterans are declining, however added with Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, that likely isn’t so, adding that Veterans Affairs also has responsibilities to the families of veterans.

There are about 40 veterans in Prince George, he said.

Prince George-Peace River MP Bob Zimmer, however, has been very vocal in defending the closures, saying veterans are better served through Service Canada offices.

“The truth of the matter is that more veterans will be able to access services by speaking to a real person,” he said in a January letter to the editor. “Services will be available at every one of Service Canada’s 600 locations across the country, a dramatic increase from the 33 Veterans Affairs Canada offices located only in urban centres. Each Service Canada location will have staff trained by Veterans Affairs Canada to help people with their benefit applications, answer questions, and assist them in accessing other services … To say that Canada’s veterans will receive diminished service because of the VAC closure is simply not true, as the same services are available at the Service Canada desk. In Prince George the Service Canada desk is located in the same building as the old Veterans Affairs office.”

That is, obviously, dismissed by the NDP.

“We have seen the Harper government claw back veterans’ pensions, cut front-line services, fail veterans with PTSD, and spend nearly a million dollars fighting veterans in court,” said Cullen. “It’s time for a government that honours the sacrifices of our veterans and provides the services and benefits they’ve earned.”

The Liberals and the Green Party have also pledged to re-open the offices.

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