A few weeks ago, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff shuffled his shadow cabinet and gay MP Rob Oliphant was tasked with the Veterans Affairs file. Now that he's had a couple of weeks to get briefed up on this file, I spoke to him in the foyer after Question Period today about the challenges of this new role.
Q: You’re now the critic for Veteran’s Affairs. How excited are you about this?
A: It’s great. It’s a social portfolio, so I like that, but it’s got the edge of the defence side, and that world that I don’t know much about. So half of it is really easy for me which is the care of people, and the other half is a whole milieu that I have never been a part of. I don’t know military, I don’t know defence, I don’t know a soldier’s life, so I’ve got lots to learn. It’s good for me.
Q: What the process for briefing up for a portfolio like this?
A: There’s several. You do your own work, just Googling and reading reports, and your staff does the same. I’ve met with Albina Guarnieri, who is the former minister, I met with Judy Sgro, who’s the former critic, and I had a conversation with Lawrence MacAulay, who was also the former minister. Then I had a meeting with the Clerk and the researcher on the committee – I had that yesterday. I’m trying to schedule a briefing with the departmental officials who will come to my office and brief me on the updates. There’s a number of things. I’m also starting meetings with stakeholders. You start calling the various veterans groups, legions, interest groups, and spouses groups, to set up meetings so that they can tell you what the issues are. I’ve got a trip coming up to Vancouver, Montreal, and then Windsor for meetings with veterans. I also have the largest veterans facility in the country in my riding – Sunnybrook Hospital, so I’ve already been there many times, but I had a briefing from them in the fall when I was critic for five minutes.
Q: Does this mean you’re no longer on the Public Safety committee?
A: No, I’m still on that too. I asked to stay on it.
Q: Are there any particular veterans cases that you’re interested in championing? I know over the last year, there’s been an issue playing out in The Hill Times with a certain type of compensation – have you followed any of that?
A: Yes – there’s a particular veteran who’s written articles in The Hill Times whom I’ve met with and I know a little bit. The whole issue of operational stress injury or post-traumatic stress disorder is a big one, and how much the military and VA is doing to help soldiers when they come back – some of which is diagnosed immediately, and some of it is not diagnosed until years later. And this is the hardest one – anything that is not a physical, visible injury, it’s a harder one to assess. Right now the committee is doing a review of the New Veteran’s Charter, which is meant to be a commitment that helps the new vets, which are some different issues from World War II vets. There are still issues obviously with the World War II vets, but those issues are shrinking as the population shrinks. It’s also a recruitment issue – how well the military and veterans affairs does with outplacement for armed forces service people helps them recruit. If they can guarantee them some assistance in helping them transfer their skills to civilian work, they’re going to be able to do a better job at recruiting better people into the military.
There may also be the issue of dishonourably discharged armed services members, who were discharged because they were gay or lesbian.
Q: That was my next question – have you been following that, and do you plan on taking that up?
A: You know, it is very hard for me to get any Canadian information on this. There’s lots of American evidence and their standings, but very little Canadian. I have not got one single case – there’s no one who has come to me, no other MP has come to me to say I have this person who has come to me looking for redress, looking for benefits, so I don’t know of a single case. But in principle, obviously I do believe that if society’s values, morals and morays have changed such that what was at one point was cause for dishonourable discharge is no longer, then we should look at what responsibility society has for those soldiers.