OTTAWA — A simmering battle between Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay and a union representing thousands of Veterans Affairs Canada employees has led to the union asking for MacAulay to be fired.
The request is contained in a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau from the Union of Veterans Affairs’ Employees, whose national president says her members have lost faith in MacAulay for repeatedly refusing to meet them to discuss their concerns.
Those include a $570-million contract the department recently awarded to an outside company to provide rehabilitation services for veterans, as well as the department’s continued reliance on hundreds of temporary staff to address backlogs.
“We have lost confidence in this minister and urge you to appoint a new minister who will work with the employees and their union for the betterment of veterans and their families,” UVAE national president Virginia Vaillancourt wrote to Trudeau.
In a statement, MacAulay’s spokeswoman Erika Lashbrook Knutson disputed Vaillancourt’s version of events, saying the minister has met with Veterans Affairs employees, the union and its senior leadership on numerous occasions.
That includes a meeting last week with case managers to discuss the contract.
“The union should be meeting with senior officials on contracting issues such as this one, as that is most appropriate in dealings between the department and its employee union,” Lashbrook Knutson added.
The call for MacAulay’s resignation represents a significant escalation in a dispute between the minister and union that has been building for months, as Veterans Affairs has struggled to make good on repeated promises to better assist former service members.
Much of the union’s current frustration can be traced to the department’s contract with Partners in Canadian Veterans Rehabilitation Services, which was awarded in June 2021 and will start to come into effect next month.
Veterans Affairs says the contract will help overworked case managers while ensuring veterans have access to a national network of psychologists, physiotherapists, social workers and other help across the country.
“The new contract will cut the administrative burden on case managers, allowing them to spend more time with their veteran clients and less time on the paperwork,” Veterans Affairs spokesman Marc Lescoutre added in an email.
“This will mean fewer steps for veterans and the case managers that serve them, allowing for more time to focus on the rehabilitation itself.”
Veterans and their advocates have long complained that case managers across the country are overwhelmed. The Liberals promised to reduce the caseloads to an average of 25 veterans for every case manager, but that promise remains unfulfilled.
The union alleges the contract will have the opposite effect by adding another layer of bureaucracy with which veterans will have to contend, while dramatically changing the role of case managers without proper consultation.
“The big fear at this point for us is the fact that we don't know what the case managers’ role is going to look like after this contract,” Vaillancourt said in an interview. “And this adds another layer another level of burden, if you will, to the clients.”
Vaillancourt said the union wrote to MacAulay three times since June to request a meeting to discuss the various issues, but that those requests were largely ignored.
“Veterans deserve better, and if we want better for veterans, then they need a minister that's actually going to work for them,” Vaillancourt said. “We are just done.”
Vaillancourt also took issue with the department’s continued reliance on temporary staff as it struggles with a massive backlog of disability claims. Most case managers also have an overwhelming number of veterans in their caseloads.
MacAulay last week announced $43 million in new funding over three years to extend the contracts of 50 temporary case managers along with a number of other non-permanent staff.
The announcement came despite auditor general Karen Hogan’s call earlier this year for a long-term, permanent staffing plan for the department, where about half of those processing disability claims are also temporary employees.
Lashbrook Knutson suggested the union’s main concern is that case managers will lose work, adding that won’t be the case.
“Case workers have told us that they feel overworked, so we are reducing their administrative burden and increasing the quality time they have with their veteran clients,” she said.
“No work that is within case management will be usurped by this contract. Case managers are not clinical experts in physiotherapy, psychiatry, or vocational training, and they have never directly provided these services to veterans.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 27, 2022.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press