Liberals chart a new path with military candidates
Party hopes to make gains in traditional bastion of Conservative support
OTTAWA — Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are hoping to capitalize on the cracks that have appeared in the Conservatives’ pro-military image, especially when it comes to veterans.
To accomplish that goal, the Liberals will have a number of former and currently serving military members running under their banner, including retired lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie and Lt.-Col. Harjit Sajjan, the first Sikh to command a Canadian Army regiment.
“I would suspect we represent a bit of a threat to Mr. Harper’s ground, which he’s tried to claim as being supportive of the Canadian Forces and veterans,” Leslie said. “Of course, we don’t actually have to say or do anything. The Conservatives are digging themselves into all sorts of trouble.”
The question is whether the Liberals can escape the party’s own checkered past and redefine its relationship with the military to take advantage of what appears to be growing discontent with the Conservatives among many of those who have served in uniform.
The Conservatives’ troubles started in January when they triggered a mini-uprising by some former military personnel by closing several Veterans Affairs offices. There was also anger over layoffs and the department returning more than $1 billion to the federal treasury since 2006.
In addition, auditor general Michael Ferguson released a stinging report on waiting times for mental-health services for veterans in November, while the government was accused of trickery after it was revealed $200 million in new funding for mental-health services was to be spread out over 50 years.
Critics argue Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino’s abrasive nature has only made matters worse, as he was captured on camera arguing with veterans in January and then being chased down a hallway by the wife of a veteran suffering from PTSD in June.
In a recent roundtable interview with Postmedia News, several Liberal candidates with previous military experience were scathing in their assessment of how the Conservative government has treated veterans.
David MacLeod served 27 years in the Canadian Army until he was released in 2010 due to chronic pain in his left leg, which was shot in a training accident in 1991. A former card-carrying Conservative, MacLeod faces the tall task of beating Justice Minister Peter MacKay.
“When I was released, what I found was that there was a great deal of bureaucracy and a great deal of pushback with my application,” said MacLeod, who has also worked with several veterans groups since leaving the military.
He is also on his third case manager. One was burnt out from having too many cases, he said, while another was essentially fired when she refused to transfer to Halifax because the government shuttered the Veterans Affairs office in Sydney, N.S.
Only two sitting Liberal MPs have military experience. Marc Garneau served in the navy for 15 years, rising to the rank of captain before his career as an astronaut forced him to leave in 1989. Kevin Lamoureux spent three years in uniform in the 1980s as an air traffic controller until he was elected to Manitoba’s Legislative Assembly.
Seven former Canadian Forces members currently serve as Conservative MPs, including retired brigadier-general Gordon O’Connor and retired lieutenant-colonels Laurie Hawn, Pierre Lemieux and Ted Opitz.
The NDP boast four veterans in their caucus, with Alex Atamanenko and Christine Moore having spent several years in uniform.