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Updated: Fri, 31 Jan 2014 17:29:40 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Veterans fight office closures across Canada



The crowd sings O Canada in Sydney in front of the veterans affairs office. CBC

The crowd sings O Canada in Sydney in front of the veterans affairs office. CBC

Veterans are holding "memorial services" over the loss of eight more Veterans Affairs offices across Canada today, just as the Conservative government prepares to shut them down. 

It's a last-ditch attempt to voice their opposition to the closures, after failed efforts to convince the government to reverse its decision. 

Hundreds of people are gathering at solidarity events taking place in Windsor, Ont., Charlottetown, Corner Brook, Nfld., Sydney, N.S., Thunder Bay, Ont., Brandon, Man., and Saskatoon.

In Nova Scotia, demonstrators are tying black ribbons to the Sydney Veterans Affairs office to mourn its closure. Meanwhile in Windsor, protesters wearing black affixed a large poppy to a street sign. 

The Charlottetown protest brought out about 60 people, including Liberal MP Wayne Easter and provincial NDP Leader Mike Redmond. 

In Saskatoon, veterans and union officials held a press conference to voice their concerns for the 4,500 clients served at the office by a staff of 14. 

The cross-country demonstrations were organized, in part, by the Public Service Alliance of Canada, which represents Veterans Affairs workers as well as Service Canada employees.

Earlier this week, a group of veterans travelled to Ottawa and joined up with PSAC members to lobby the government. Their meeting with Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino made national headlines when the minister showed up 70 minutes late and then engaged in testy exchanges with the veterans.

That caused a wave of anger on Parliament Hill, with veterans and opposition members alike calling for Fantino's resignation.

The minister ultimately apologized, but refused to step down.

Government rapped by ombudsman

Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent is taking a more nuanced approach to the office closures.

"Certainly, I'm disappointed with the way that things actually developed," he told the CBC's Susan Bonner. 

Parent said the government should have been up front in communicating its reasons for closing offices, as well as indicate how the lost services would be replaced.

"I think they would have saved a lot of anger and angst on the part of the people," Parent said. 

Veterans Affairs officials reached out to CBC News to point out they did make efforts to inform veterans who would be affected by closures. Each individual received a personalized letter, and "case-managed veterans" were called directly. As well, the department placed advertisements in newspapers in all eight regions, in both English and French.

The ombudsman said the closing of offices does not necessarily mean the "deterioration of services."

Parent is urging people to contact the office of the Veterans Ombudsman, which he says can help in two ways.

One, with their personal circumstances and two, to allow him to "gather evidence" if there is "indeed a real need to have an office" in certain areas.

The ombudsman said he understand the veterans' frustrations because it's "a matter of habit."

"You go across the street to get information," he said. "Now you have to dial a 1-800 number to get that same information and maybe it'll take a bit of time." 

Debate continues in the House

The debate over office closures continued to play out in the House of Commons during Friday's question period, with the New Democrats accusing the Conservatives of steamrolling ahead with "cuts to the brave men and women of this country."

Fantino was noticeably absent, with his parliamentary secretary assuming the position of government point man to defend against the opposition.

Parm Gill repeated many of the same points made over the previous few days in response to NDP and Liberal questions, including increasing the presence of Veterans Affairs in every region in Canada.

"Only the NDP and Liberals can call 650 points of service a cut," Gill said. 

On Thursday, MPs debated a NDP motion calling on the government to reverse the closing of Veterans Affairs offices. The vote was delayed until Monday.

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