Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has left more than $372 million meant to help veterans and their families unspent since taking office in November 2015, Global News has learned.
The news comes seven months after an Edmonton town hall at which Trudeau publicly admonished some veterans groups fighting the government for improved benefits, saying they were “asking for more than we are able to give right now.”
WATCH: Before becoming prime minister, Justin Trudeau slammed Stephen Harper and the Conservatives for leaving funding for veterans unspent
Yet according to documents obtained by Global News, the Department of Veteran Affairs (VAC) – under Trudeau’s leadership – has failed to spend all the money given to it in each of the past three years – something Trudeau and many other Liberals slammed former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservatives for when they were still in office.
“ fired hundreds of front line veteran support staff, they closed nine local service offices, making it harder and harder for veterans to get the support they so badly need,” said then Liberal leader Justin Trudeau at a veteran-themed campaign stop in August 2015.
“They left unspent more than $1 billion that Parliament allocated for veteran support. Canadians know that this is wrong. A government led by me would make it right.”
But since toppling Harper and the Conservatives, Trudeau’s government has continued this trend.
In the fiscal year ending March 31, 2016, Trudeau’s first year in office, the Liberals left $80.9 million on the books at VAC. They then left another $143 million unspent in 2017 and $148.6 in 2018.
Broken down annually, the unspent funds for vets under Trudeau’s leadership represented 2.2 per cent of VAC’s overall budget in 2016, 3.7 per cent in 2017 and 3.0 per cent in 2018.
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The department explains these discrepancies by saying funding at VAC is “demand driven,” meaning any veteran entitled to services will receive them, but if money is left over at the end of the year its because they “overestimated” demand.
“Lapsed funding does not result in anyone receiving less than they should. It is simply an administrative process,” said Martin Magnan, a spokesperson for Veteran Affairs.
Liberals defend record
Seamus O’Regan, the current Minister of Veteran Affairs, is defending the Liberals’ record, saying there’s been “no stealing” from veterans under Trudeau’s leadership.
“Much of what we do, in fact, about $4 billion of what we do, is statutory funding,” O’Regan said. “If something happens it means the government must find the money. And that obviously isn’t necessarily something you would find in the accounting books.”
Since taking power, O’Regan says the Liberals have re-opened veteran affairs offices closed by the Conservatives, re-hired hundreds of front-line staff, improved benefits and increased overall spending for veterans by about $10 billion. The government has also committed an additional $42 million to help reduce the backlog of those waiting for disability benefits, he said.
“There’s no stealing from veterans here,” O’Regan said. “All I can tell you, very simply, is we run the department on an extremely tight budget,” he said.
Pot calling the kettle black, say critics
Gord Johns, the NDP’s veteran affairs critic, provided Global News with the lapsed-funding figures for 2016 and 2017. He says it doesn’t matter whether it’s a Conservative or Liberal government in power, failing to spend money intended for veterans and their families is “immoral” and contrary to the will of Parliament.
“When we allocate money for veterans we expect that that money is going to get spent,” Johns said. “These are people that put their lives on the line, made the ultimate sacrifice.”
WATCH: NDP Critic says is ‘immoral’ to leave funding for veterans unspent
While recognizing some money could always go unspent in any budget, the amount of funding meant for veterans that Conservatives and Liberals have left on the table is “unacceptable,” he says.
“Just last year, where they didn’t spend $143 million, they seemed to find $37 million to fight veterans for the benefits they’re asking for… This is a big problem,” Johns said.
Meanwhile, Phil McColeman, Conservative veteran affairs critic, says this sort of “staggering hypocrisy” cannot go unchecked.
And while O’Regan’s explanation may hold true in certain circumstances, he says, it’s “beyond belief” that Trudeau would publicly criticize the Conservatives for something and then do the same thing after being elected.
“Where it becomes unacceptable is when we have the prime minister tell a veteran to his face that Canada does not have enough to give,” he said. “That’s the context.”
-With files from David Akin.
© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.