OTTAWA – The Harper government quietly extended the term of the country’s veterans ombudsman on the eve of the federal election and handed out a series of appointments for an important, if often criticized, review agency.
Guy Parent, whose served as an advocate for ex-soldiers and an adviser to the veterans minister, was given a three-year extension to his mandate in a cabinet order dated July 28.
He was chosen to replace outspoken retired army colonel Pat Stogran in 2010 — a five-year term, which was supposed to expire in November without renewal.
The Veterans Review and Appeal Board saw three appointments on the Friday before the election, including a one-year term extension for a P.E.I. woman whose husband had once lobbied embattled Sen. Mike Duffy on her behalf.
Joan Walsh, a mental health nurse and respected health-care administrator, has been a member of the review agency, which mediates claims by veterans, since 2006, but her name — along with that of her husband — surfaced earlier this year in Duffy’s widely publicized diaries.
In a note dated Oct. 26, 2011, filed as part of the ongoing trial, Duffy references a lunch in the parliamentary restaurant with Island Conservative Leo Walsh “who wants wife reappointed to VRAB (Veteran’s Review and Appeal Board).”
Joan Walsh was reappointed in 2012 and again on July 31, according to cabinet records posted online.
Alongside Walsh, former New Brunswick lawyer Bernard LeBlanc and Ottawa resident Terry Prowse were also given slots on the panel, which has faced criticism from some veterans groups and the Federal Court in the past.
A spokesman for Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O’Toole said it was in the best interest of veterans to reappoint Parent and fill the three review positions without delay.
“Both the ombudsman and the VRAB serve veterans,” said Martin Magnan.
“To delay reappointment of the ombudsman until less than a month prior to expiry of his term would be a disservice both to the ombudsman and the veterans he serves.”
Magnan also said delays would have meant the review board would have fallen below its required number of members, resulting in delays and postponement of appeals — and “the minister was not willing to allow that to happen.”
Last spring, the Federal Court of Appeal handed down a ruling that said both the review board and the veterans department itself needed to take more care in deciding on the mental-health claims of soldiers.
The court set out a four-part guideline for both to follow, and a spokesman for O’Toole said last month that the federal government would abide by the courts.
Sean Bruyea, a high-profile veterans advocate, said Parent’s extension is curious and somewhat troubling, because the ombudsman was originally appointed to a five-year, non-renewable term. Cabinet records posted online show that provision was quietly changed on June 5 to allow the term to be renewed.
Bruyea said a committee of MPs should be vetting reappointments and should be able to pass judgment on the record of incumbent watchdogs.
“The ombudsman should be selected independently, or through an all-party committee,” said Bruyea, who questioned Parent’s track record.
Disgruntled veterans unhappy with how they have been treated by the Conservatives, including the closure of nine regional offices focused on helping veterans, have promised to campaign against the Harper government during the election.
Bruyea said the surreptitious way the appointments and changes have been handled gives fodder to the opposition parties.
“It will reinforce the perception this government is trying to serve its own selfish ends.”