In June 2020, the federal government hired hundreds of temporary staff. Their job? To clear the massive backlog of veterans’ applications for assistance.
But those 300 contracts were set to expire on March 31.
What would happen to the remaining backlog then? Well, the government decided to keep them on at the last minute. Okay, maybe it wasn’t the actual last minute, but it was the eleventh hour in government-decision-world.
On February 23, the Minister for Veterans Affairs, Lawrence MacAulay, announced the government would fund these extra staff to the tune of $139.6 million over two years.
At its worst, the backlog was nearly 50,000 applications. That was March 2020, at the very beginning of COVID. In early February 2022, the number was down to 34,000.
The number of applications started to increase after Canadian troops left Afghanistan in 2014. Applications came in from soldiers like Micheal McNeil from Saint John, New Brunswick. He was a combat engineer in Afghanistan when an IED hit him.
McNeil has been applying for assistance since he started having seizures in 2018. He says fighting the Taliban was easier than fighting the government.
“They want you to walk away. They’re literally: delay, deny, watch you die,” he told the Canadian Press.
According to Veterans Affairs, 21,540 vets from Afghanistan were getting benefits in March 2021. But that’s only 3 percent of all Canadian vets, and 16 percent of all vets getting assistance.
Veterans who come home from tours overseas can have physical, mental, and emotional injuries. It can be hard to adjust to life outside the military. It’s even harder when you’re hurt.
North Island-Powell River MP Rachel Blaney pushed the Liberals to keep the funding. She’s the NDP Critic for Veterans Affairs.
“As the cost of living goes up, our veterans are struggling to support their families and more than ever,” Blaney said in a statement. “They need their benefits processed quickly.”
Retired Sgt. Bill Webb is a service officer at the Courtenay Legion. He sees firsthand what can happen if veterans don’t get the support they need.
He helps homeless veterans through the Legion. He’s even been a homeless veteran himself.
“I have lived experience on the streets in the Comox Valley as a homeless veteran with two kids,” Webb told the Comox Valley Record. “I was fortunate enough to find housing in our community.”
Around March 2021, there were 16 homeless veterans in the Comox Valley.
Webb says most folks think veterans are older men from the Second World War or the Korean War. But the average age of Canadian veterans is 46.
Here’s hoping the extra staff will clear the backlog and get veterans the help they need.
“I have more PTSD from fighting the government…than I do from Afghanistan,” Michael McNeill said. “Because it’s so goddamn traumatic.”