Two veterans’ advocates in Penticton say their clients are lucky to still have an office nearby after a string of high-profile closures elsewhere.
Veterans Affairs Canada on Friday closed eight regional offices, including one in Kelowna, prompting protests and memorials in those communities.
Clients in the Penticton area, however, will continue to receive service at the downtown VAC office.
“I don’t see a problem in Penticton,” said Dean Potter, a director of the city’s branch of the Army, Navy, Air Force Veterans association. Potter assists members who need help accessing benefits, and expects service levels here to remain the same, despite the Kelowna VAC outlet’s demise
“It always affects somebody when an office closes down, but the government’s always closing something down for one reason or another,” Potter said.
Okanagan-Coquihalla MP Dan Albas understands why some people are upset.
“My personal view is our government has communicated the closure of these eight offices very poorly, and for that I believe we owe an apology to veterans and Canadians,” he said.
“There are always going to be legitimate questions people have when the government seeks to merge offices that there might be a commensurate loss of services.
“In this case, we are closing eight offices that have very low volume of traffic and we are merging them with Service Canada offices, in some cases in the very same building.”
Albas said constituents to whom he has spoken about the issue have been reassured when they found out there will now be hundreds more locations for veterans seeking help.
“Using existing infrastructure like Service Canada locations to do this means instead of having just 68 (VAC) offices, there are going to be an additional 550 offices bringing that total number of offices in excess of 600 where veterans can really access services in person,” he said.
The Conservative MP also noted that some staff from the shuttered Kelowna office will be transferred to Penticton, while some Service Canada workers will receive specialized training to help veterans.
That training will be crucial if the government’s plan is to succeed, said Bill Bowen, service officer for the Penticton branch of the Royal Canadian Legion.
“Veterans are a special group. There’s a lot of benefits and criteria you have to satisfy and you have to be really aware if they’re eligible or not,” he explained.
Bowen worked at the VAC office in Penticton for 20 years before retiring in 2002, and now uses his experience to help clients deal with his former employer.
“This office covers quite a big area and it probably will get busier” as a result of the Kelowna closure, he added.
While the federal government has noted that veterans can also access services online or by telephone, Bowen said many older clients struggle with technology, and nothing beats face-to-face assistance.
“This office should remain open because it’s really important here,” he said. “We have a real good office in Penticton, good people running it.”