Gord Johns speaks to a retired veteran after a public discussion held in Port Alberni on Tuesday, July 3. ELENA RARDON PHOTO

Gord Johns hears veterans issues in Courtenay-Alberni riding

MP holding a series of public discussions with veterans in his riding

Vancouver Island is the “worst place” in Canada for dealing with Veterans Affairs, says one retired military member who relocated to Port Alberni from Ontario.

He was one of several veterans who brought up issues related to Veterans Affairs with in a public meeting with Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns on Tuesday, July 3. This meeting in Port Alberni was the first of five with members of Johns’ riding.

In January, Johns was appointed NDP Critic for Veterans Affairs and Vice-Chair to the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs. At the time, Johns said he wanted to focus on the need to close what he called the “transitional gap” for military and RCMP personnel retiring from active duty. On Tuesday, he emphasized that access to resources is key for veterans.

Although a few veterans in attendance had kind words to say about the Veterans Affairs department, many were frustrated by their experiences.

“There’s only one office on the Island, and it’s in Victoria,” explained the man from Ontario.

Others expressed the difficulty they had finding case managers that they were comfortable with. Johns suggested that the Veterans Affairs department needs more case managers that have served. In the United States, he explained, 30 percent of case managers assigned to Veterans Affairs are veterans themselves. In Canada, the number is less than four percent.

“We’re so off the mark,” Johns said. “The question is, how do we set a target and get there?”

When it came to the provision of benefits, veterans shared stories about going through the Legion Poppy Fund for medical benefits—including medical marijuana and dentures—because Veterans Affairs would not cover them or took too long to cover them.

“We’ve got to try a different approach, because we can’t keep losing people,” said Johns. “If WorkSafeBC covers this when you get injured on the job, why can’t the government do it for our veterans?”

Some thought that the current system, which requires a “textbook of paperwork,” puts too much onus on the veterans, some of whom suffer from severe trauma and even substance abuse.

“The way the system works, it re-traumatizes people,” said one woman. “It’s next to impossible for people to [get benefits]. There has to be a healthy way.”

Johns also listened to spouses of veterans describe the workloads that they are faced with,

Johns visited Bowser and Courtenay on Wednesday, and he will also be visiting the Legions at Qualicum Beach (11 a.m.) and Parksville (2:30 p.m.) on Thursday, July 5.

“It’s hard for many people to get out,” said Johns. “So we decided to do five meetings.”

He emphasized that the discussions are “non-partisan.”

“I’m here to listen to both sides,” he said. “What is working, what isn’t working and how do we fill in the gaps. There are some good things happening, but there’s more we can do.”

Beyond this, Johns will also be holding a number of one-on-one conversations with veterans who are not comfortable in a group setting. The messages that Johns receives from all these discussions will go into a letter addressed to Minister of Veterans Affairs Seamus O’Regan.

“Your stories make a difference, they really do,” said Johns on Tuesday. “This isn’t the end of this conversation. This is just the beginning.”

elena.rardon@albernivalleynews.com

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