Loose Cannon: Politics and poppies don't mix

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

  • The timing of the National Day of Protest, a mere five days before Remembrance Day, is unfortunate.

    The timing of the National Day of Protest, a mere five days before Remembrance Day, is unfortunate.

Written by Greg Beneteau

As a holiday, Remembrance Day is not supposed to have political undertones. When politicians of all stripes lay wreaths at war memorials across the country, there is an expectation that they leave their electioneering at home and focus on the sacrifices made by our men and women in uniform.

In that regard, I can't help but feel sorry for the Conservatives, who this Armistice Day find themselves in a political battle with veterans and supporters who want the government to put its money where its mouth is.

On Saturday, thousands of former soldiers rallied on Parliament Hill and outside MP's offices during the Canadian Veterans National Day of Protest.

The veterans came out to protest what they say is inadequate compensation and support for Canadian soldiers returning from combat abroad.

In particular, soldiers returning from places like Afghanistan say that changes to the Veterans Charter are shortchanging them compared to older veterans.

The new Charter, introduced in 2006, ended the tax free disability pension that was paid monthly to soldiers that were injured while serving Canada. Instead, soldiers receive a lump-sum payment of up to $276,000, based on the extent of the disability.

Protesters also demanded that Veterans Affairs scrap the time limit for submitting medical paperwork, and end the clawbacks on disability and pension payments, among other things.

Some applauded rally goers for using Remembrance Day to draw attention to such an important issue. I was struck by an editorial in the Barrie Examiner, which warned that “Prime Minister Stephen Harper would be well-advised not to ignore today's protest.”

“Strategically, holding a national rally this close to Remembrance Day is a good tactic,” the article reasoned. “Canadians are already thinking about the sacrifices our veterans have made, and continue to make.”

But that notion feels wrong to me somehow. As a writer, I spend much of my time thinking, talking and writing about political strategy. Yet even I look forward to having at least one day a year where political machinations are not the order of the day.

The timing of the National Day of Protest, a mere five days before Remembrance Day (and on the second day of Veterans' Week, which runs November 5 to 11), is unfortunate. Regardless whether the protesters' grievances are valid, it seems inappropriate bring up a dispute over money and politics, even a military-themed one, so close to a day that is supposed to be about solemnity and mourning.

(Editor's note: Some people have asked me whether the Conservatives' announcement on the extension of Canada's military mission in Afghanistan, made curiously close to Remembrance Day, also exploits the memory of fallen soldiers, to which I reply: absolutely).

The Royal Canadian Legion, which has long advocated on behalf of veterans, also expressed concerns about the tone of the rally.

Pierre Allard, a director with the Legion in Ottawa, said criticisms that the Legion wasn't doing enough to support the protest were unfair.

“We made it clear that our members were free to join the day of protest,” Allard told CBC news. "But, as an organization, we simply do not believe that's the best way to promote goals.”

That is not to say I am unsympathetic with veterans. I think the Conservative government deserves criticism for it's clumsy handling of the veterans file.

Retired colonel Paul Stogran has been pointing out shortcomings in the system for much of his time as the Conservative-appointed Veteran's Ombudsman. Many of his pleas fell on deaf ears, and the Conservatives have opted not to renew his three-year term, which expires today.

Veterans Affairs has also been rocked by revelations that the medical records of veterans, including those of vocal critics, were illegally shared among senior bureaucrats. Stogran recently learned that his medical files were accessed more than 400 times.

However, we must resist the urge to use Remembrance Day as a platform for political protest, no matter how well-intentioned. Otherwise, we risk encroaching on the holiday with needless distractions and vote-grabbing opportunities, of which politicians will be all to happy to take advantage.

In the spirit of practising what a preach, I'll say no more on the matter. Today is a day to honour soldiers, both living and dead, and to mourn the needless suffering that war brings. If you see a man or woman in uniform today, thank them for their service. They've earned that much.

Greg Beneteau is Editor-in-Chief of thecannon. Loose Cannon publishes every Thursday in The Ontarion Student Newspaper at the University of Guelph.

The opinions posted on thecannon.ca reflect those of their author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Central Student Association and the Guelph Campus Co-op. We encourage all students to submit opinion pieces, including ones that run contrary to the opinion piece in question.

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