A person touches the helmet on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier after laying a poppy, at the National War Memorial after the National Remembrance Day Ceremony in Ottawa on Friday, Nov. 11, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Veterans warned of longer wait times due to federal public service strike

Ill and injured veterans were being warned to anticipate longer-than-normal wait times and delays as federal public servants — including hundreds of Veterans Affairs Canada employees — remained on the picket lines heading into the weekend.

The Union of Veterans Affairs Employees is part of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, whose more than 100,000 members walked off the job on Wednesday after failed labour negotiations with the federal government.

To ensure former service members struggling with mental and physical injuries weren’t unduly affected by a labour disruption, the union and government agreed in December to classify about 400 positions at Veterans Affairs as essential.

Those essential staff are continuing to provide critical support and services to veterans, which includes the provision of financial and medical benefits as well as assistance in accessing various treatments.

They work alongside Veterans Affairs employees who are not members of UVAE or PSAC but belong to other unions that are not currently on strike.

“We’re always concerned about our veterans,” said UVAE national president Virginia Vaillancourt. “The department’s got 392 positions that are deemed essential and are ensuring the veterans’ needs are being met.”

Yet a senior Veterans Affairs official whom the department made available on the condition they not be identified said those applying for new benefits or trying to contact the department with questions and concerns can expect delays.

Those on strike include hundreds of adjudicators who are responsible for approving disability claims from veterans, as well as case managers who work with ill and injured veterans to help them find medical and retraining services.

There are also fewer staff to respond to questions through the department’s national call centre and online portal, though the official said the veterans’ crisis line at 1-800-268-7708 remains fully staffed.

Veterans Affairs says it is prioritizing claims and requests for assistance based on need, and that it has emergency funding available for those who are struggling or in crisis.

Royal Canadian Legion spokeswoman Nujma Bond said the organization is also ready to help veterans through its Poppy Trust Fund, as it watches for the possibility of collateral damage from the labour dispute.

“We are watching this situation closely and are ready to help veterans if they face any related struggles,” Bond said. “Service officers are standing by across the country and can help veterans access emergency assistance via our poppy funds to get them through if needed.”

The strike has nonetheless stoked fears about the exacerbation of already-long wait times many veterans are having to endure before finding out whether they qualify for financial or medical assistance.

Those wait times have emerged as the largest source of frustration and anger within Canada’s veterans’ community, with many former service members having to wait months and even years before their claims are processed.

There are also concerns that at-risk veterans may fall through the cracks, particularly as many case managers were already overworked and struggling to respond to their clients in a timely way.

“The ones I’m really worried about are those with mental or psychological conditions,” said Brian Forbes, executive director of the War Amps Canada and chairman of the National Council of Veteran Associations, which represents about 68 veterans’ organizations.

“Time will tell whether this strike will go on. But it’s hard to imagine that those services will be at the same level as before.”

Vaillancourt, who complained the number of staff identified by Veterans Affairs as essential was excessive, said former service members have been supportive of the union since the strike action began on Wednesday.

“We’ve had support from veterans. I haven’t heard anything negative come out in regards to us, our members, being on the picket line,” she said, adding: “This isn’t just our fight, this is a fight for Canadian workers right across the country.”

Pop-up banner image