During Esquimalt visit, Liberals’ Sajjan pledges $1.1B for veterans’ families

As Liberals and Conservatives sparred over military health costs Wednesday, Harjit Sajjan arrived in Esquimalt to pledge more than $1.1 billion to support veterans and their families over four years.

The Vancouver South candidate, who has been serving as the minister of national defence, said a re-elected Liberal government will create a quick-response team of social workers, counsellors and peer-support workers to assist veterans.

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“Veterans and their families have given years of their lives in service to others,” he said.

“They’ve earned our deep gratitude and respect; however, many of them do not have access to the support, care and opportunities they need.”

Sajjan promised that a Liberal government will make it easier for veterans to get disability benefits and will provide them with up to $3,000 in free counselling services before they have to make a disability claim.

“The most common disability applications will be automatically approved,” he said, referring to depression, PTSD and arthritis claims.

As well, he promised $15 million a year to build affordable and accessible housing for veterans who need it.

Sajjan, who served in Afghanistan, made the announcement at Saxe Point Park alongside fellow veteran Jamie Hammond, the Liberal candidate in Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke.

NDP incumbent Randall Garrison said the Liberals had an entire term to improve supports for veterans and failed to do so.

“I guess the main thing I would say is: ‘Well, where have you been for four years?’ ” he said. “You promised to reverse the negative impacts of the Conservative cuts on veterans. You didn’t really do that. Now, the things you’ve put out here are all quite minor and could have easily been done in the past four years.”

Garrison said he was particularly struck by the promise of peer-support workers to assist veterans. “The main problem that veterans have is the caseload of their caseworkers is so high that they don’t have enough time to assist veterans in getting benefits to which they’re entitled,” he said.

By contrast, Garrison said, the NDP platform promises to reduce the caseload to 25 veterans per support worker. “What you really need to do is put money back into the staff that are willing and able to provide help to veterans to get benefits,” he said.

Green candidate David Merner, who ran for the Liberals in the same riding in 2015, called Sajjan’s announcement a step in the right direction.

“The Liberals deserve credit for that,” he said. “But one of the questions that I would wonder is whether the Liberals can be counted on to deliver this.”

Merner noted that as Liberal candidate four years ago, he was promising that his party would resolve the ongoing litigation between the federal government and veterans over veterans’ benefits.

“Yet the Trudeau government is still in court with the veterans,” he said. “Millions and millions have been spent litigating against the veterans by the Liberals. So you look at this kid of an announcement during a political campaign and you say: ‘Hmm, how credible is this?’ ”

Sajjan said the Liberals have invested $10 billion in veterans and families over the past four years, re-opened the Veterans Affairs offices closed by the previous Conservative government and created an education and training benefit to help veterans transition to a new career.

lkines@timescolonist.com

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