OTTAWA — The trauma of past cost-cutting exercises is looming large as national veterans' organizations anxiously await word on how the federal budget will affect ill and injured ex-soldiers.
The budget plan released Tuesday contains only one substantive mention of veterans, with a vague commitment of $156 million over five years to address long-standing delays and backlogs for those who have served in uniform.
The funding promise came at the same time as the government was directing federal departments and agencies to start looking for billions of dollars in savings, sparking questions and concerns about the budget's real impact on veterans.
"It's an ominous message when they start talking about reducing departmental budgets," said Brian Forbes, national director of the National Council of Veteran Associations, which represents 60 organizations.
Veterans Affairs was hit hard about a decade ago, when Stephen Harper's Conservative government slashed spending in an attempt to balance the budget ahead of the 2015 federal election.
Hundreds of staff were laid off, including many responsible for processing disability claims from current and retired Armed Forces members who suffered illnesses and injuries while serving in uniform.
The current backlog is a direct result of that period, with tens of thousands of veterans forced to wait months and sometimes years to find out whether their claims have been approved so they can start accessing federal support.
The budget plan references that period, saying: "After significant staff reductions were made at Veterans Affairs Canada between 2009 and 2014, these cuts and the rise in applications after 2015 led to unacceptable wait times for too many veterans."
Yet despite recognizing the problem, which has become the main source of anger and frustration within Canada's veterans' community, the Liberal government has been repeatedly criticized for not doing more to address it.
That includes ignoring calls from the council, the Royal Canadian Legion and others to automatically approve claims. The Liberals have also hired hundreds of temporary staff rather than permanent employees.
Those temporary additions appeared to be helping as the number of unprocessed claims fell from 49,000 in March 2020 to 29,000 in June 2022. However, the number has started to climb again, partly as a result of temporary staff leaving for other jobs.
"They've increased the workers. They're all temporary," NDP veterans affairs critic Rachel Blaney said last week. "We've asked many times why won't they make these permanent. Because this is not just a short-term issue. It's a long-term issue that we've seen for extensive amount of time. And if we had permanent people in the position, that would allow for stability."
The legion's national spokeswoman, Nujma Bond, said the organization is looking for more details about how the government plans to use the additional funds promised in the budget.
She also expressed concern about the government's plan to cut federal spending.
"We are puzzled and worried to hear of plans for a three per cent cut to federal departments after the 2023 budgetary commitments to allocate new funding," Bond said in an email.
"Does this mean departments like (Veterans Affairs Canada) will need to hold back on three per cent of (their) spending to compensate, and possibly grow the backlog even further? This would be untenable."
Bond called for greater transparency both in terms of the planned new funds and the spending review.
The Liberal government did not provide clarity on Wednesday. Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay and his department referred questions to Finance Canada, which did not respond to requests for more information.
The government has said the spending cuts will not affect the delivery of services to Canadians, but Forbes questioned that claim.
"You can't say you need extra staff to meet the backlog problem and in the same breath say: 'We're going to cut.'"
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 29, 2023.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press