National Newswatch

OTTAWA - The new veterans charter, a marquee deal defended and championed by Stephen Harper's Conservatives since 2006, suddenly became a "Liberal policy" Tuesday as the government weathered more demands for Julian Fantino's resignation.

The veterans affairs minister, who was on his feet constantly during the previous day's question period, rose infrequently on Tuesday in the face of an unrelenting barrage of NDP and Liberal attacks.

Instead, he was defended by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who tried to put some political distance between his government and a class-action lawsuit in B.C. that argues the charter is unconstitutional and discriminatory against modern veterans.

"It's actually a court case against the previous Liberal policy," Harper told the House, prompting catcalls of "shame" from the opposition benches.

"In any case, we have repeatedly enhanced the benefits under that policy to the tune of some $5 billion, opposed every step of the way by the Liberal party, who has voted against all those benefits.

"They can keep voting against those benefits for veterans. We will keep bringing them forward."

The charter was conceived and passed by Paul Martin's Liberals with the support of all parties. It was put into force by Harper's Conservatives as one of their first acts after forming a minority government in 2006.

"I want our troops to know that we support them. This veterans charter is one example of our government's commitment," Harper said on April 6, 2006, the day the legislation was enacted.

"Our troops' commitment and service to Canada entitles them to the very best treatment possible. This charter is but a first step towards according Canadian veterans the respect and support they deserve."

When concerns and complaints that the charter was not as generous as the old Pension Act system began to surface a few years later, the government doubled down in its support and introduced changes to the legislation, including hundreds of millions of dollars in program improvements for the most seriously wounded.

"Our government promised that the new veterans charter would evolve with the needs of the men and women it serves. With our latest enhancements, we're delivering on that promise," said Steven Blaney, the veterans minister at the time.

The notion that Harper would even partially disown the policy was jaw-dropping to opposition critics.

"I find that incredible," said NDP veterans critic Peter Stoffer. "They're not taking ownership; they mislead you — or they outright lie about it."

A group of veterans from Canada's war in Afghanistan launched a class-action lawsuit in 2012.

In defending against it, justice department lawyers argued the government does not have an extraordinary obligation under the law to those who have served. While conceding in a hearing last week that the new system is "less generous" than the old one, government lawyer Travis Henderson argued that current and future governments cannot be bound by the political promises of previous administrations.

Harper's government, which rarely misses an opportunity to express their devotion to the troops, has repeated ducked questions aimed at clearing up the contradiction by saying it cannot comment on an ongoing court case.

The Conservatives have been under fire for describing the nearly 900 job cuts at Veterans Affairs as impacting only the backroom bureaucracy, involving jobs that were either wasteful or redundant.

"The NDP wanted to keep bureaucrats to do nothing but cross us and delay payments to veterans under a program it actually voted against," Harper said.

"On this side, we cut down the bureaucracy. We deliver service to the veterans."

The government's own budget documents show the majority of the job cuts were in the disability awards branch, the area singled out for criticism in the fall 2014 auditor general's report for being too slow to approve mental health treatment.

The Canadian Press
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