Staff from Sydney's Veterans Affairs office were among those taking part in the Jan. 31 protest.
©Nancy King - TC Media
SYDNEY — Almost 1,500 people showed their solidarity with veterans protesting the shuttering of Sydney’s Veterans Affairs office by taking part in a noon-hour ceremony.
The demonstration, which attracted veterans and their supporters, municipal councillors and members of the public, took place in front of the office, only hours before the doors closed for good.
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Participants wore black ribbons and larger ribbons festooned to metal railings flapped in the wind.
Members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada who are losing their jobs with the closure of the office laid black wreaths at the doors of the George Street building.
Sylvester MacInnis made the trip from Port Hawkesbury for the protest. He is a service officer with Royal Canadian Legion branch 43 and said he often had to deal with staff in Sydney’s Veterans Affairs, who he said have always been helpful.
“I can’t see them closing this office, I just can’t see it,” he said. “There’s so many veterans out there that need the help, they should keep it open for them because they’re just not able to go to automated services that they’re proposing for them.”
Sydney’s office is one of eight regional offices across the country being closed by the Stephen Harper Conservative government.
The issue made national news this week when a delegation went to Ottawa to lobby the federal government to reverse the decision, and the veterans sparred verbally with Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino after he showed up late for a scheduled meeting. Fantino later apologized.
The federal government has argued that veterans won’t see any deterioration in the level of services available to them, and will actually have additional points of access, as they will be directed to the more numerous Service Canada locations across Canada to access services.
MacInnis said he knows of one veteran who went to Service Canada in an effort to obtain a form that he needed but they didn’t have the specialized knowledge required.
“They gave him 43 forms, they didn’t know which one to give him,” he said. “You call that good service?”
Veteran Bill Timbury of North Sydney handed out black ribbons for protesters to pin over their hearts.
“If you go to Service Canada, they’re not trained to do it, and we’ll have to travel,” he said.
Timbury called Fantino’s actions appalling and said he believes the minister of Veterans Affairs should have some military experience.
Ron Clarke of Georges River, who was part of the Ottawa delegation, reiterated his call to work to defeat the Harper government in next year’s federal election over the issue if it doesn’t reopen the offices.
Veteran Russell Davis of Sydney brought with him to the protest a sign calling on Fantino and Harper to fight Canada’s next war themselves.
“Former (U.S.) president (John F.) Kennedy said that the measure of a country is determined by how they treat their soldiers. Canada should hang its head in shame,” he said.
Clarke thanked the office’s employees for their help over the years, generating applause from other veterans present. He countered criticism that the veterans were being manipulated by the union representing the workers by saying the veterans are leading the campaign not the Public Service Alliance of Canada, and the union was merely showing its continued support for the veterans it serves.
“PSAC is there behind us, and thank God for that,” Clarke said.
“I’m very emotional today,” said Brenda LeBlanc, who worked as a client service agent at the Sydney office for 27 years, and is retiring early due to the closure.
“It’s devastating what is happening here to our clients. We are overwhelmed with the response we have gotten, but we are so devastated with what is happening here. We can’t believe the government is so short-sighted. I am appalled by the fact that Harper got up and stood in the House (Thursday) and said that these offices are underutilized.”
LeBlanc said the Sydney office serves 4,200 clients in Cape Breton.
“Just because you live in Halifax or the larger centres, are they the only people that deserve services? I don’t think so.”
Robyn Benson, the national president of PSAC, was at the demonstration.
“I am very proud that we served with the veterans because veterans deserve dignity and respect in the last days of their lives when they ensured that we had a free Canada, for us and for generations to come,” she said.
With the closure of the office, Clarke said attention will now turn to tracking and documenting the experiences of veterans as they attempt to navigate their way through Service Canada. He noted the Liberals and NDP have pledged to reopen the offices if elected.
“Either open it now, or we’ll reopen it next year in 2015 with the federal election,” Clarke said.