Compensation offer just a way to gain votes, atomic vets say
The Ottawa Citizen
Friday, September 12, 2008
By David Pugliese
Canada’s atomic veterans say they are being kept in the dark about the details of a financial package to compensate them for their exposure to nuclear blasts during the Cold War.
The government announced the package last week, but the retired military personnel are still trying to get answers about the compensation, which one veteran labelled as a political move by the Conservatives to deal with an embarrassing issue so it doesn’t become a problem in the election.
Those who took part in the atomic tests or were involved in the clean-up after a reactor accident at Chalk River, Ont., in the 1950s, are eligible to apply for a $24,000 payment.
Jim Huntley, a spokesman for the Canadian Atomic Veterans Association, said a week after the announcement, the group is still trying to get details.
The veterans have been told to phone a 1-800 number for more information about the compensation. But Mr. Huntley phoned and requested the documents veterans need so they can apply for the money, only to be told that wasn’t being released for another three weeks.
It is also unclear whether the widows of veterans who died of cancer and other ailments related to their exposure to radiation are eligible for the money.
“Nothing is clear,” Mr. Huntley said. “We are definitely in the dark on this.”
Defence Minister Peter MacKay announced the compensation package last week to a crowd of military analysts and journalists at an event hosted by the University of Calgary. The veterans themselves, however, weren’t invited.
“All those who serve their country, past or present, deserve the respect, admiration and care of a grateful nation,” Mr. MacKay said in the announcement.
Mr. Huntley said the fact Mr. MacKay did not invite the veterans, nor inform them about the compensation package in the first place, speaks to the true nature of the decision to award the money.
“This is all about making this issue go way for the election,” Mr. Huntley said. “Most Canadians looking at this would say, ‘Well the government is taking care of our vets.’ “
Mr. Huntley said that isn’t the case.
Some of the veterans are upset the money could go to any Canadian military member who was at the atomic tests, regardless of their level of participation.
In some cases, senior officers arrived for one day to observe an atomic detonation at the test site in Nevada. They would receive the same amount of money as Mr. Huntley and his fellow soldiers, who witnessed as many as six detonations at close range and lived for several months at the atomic test site.
Mr. Huntley and other veterans argue that the surviving soldiers or the widows should instead receive a pension instead of a lump-sum payment. Most of those individuals are now in their 70s or 80s.
In an e-mail, Mr. MacKay’s office noted that the University of Calgary was responsible for sending out invitations to the defence minister’s speech.
According to the e-mail from Marian Fernet, deputy chief of staff in Mr. MacKay’s office, the speech dealt with issues such as Afghanistan, the government’s defence strategy, as well as the compensation for atomic vets. But she did not answer the question why veterans who witnessed only one atomic detonation from many kilometres away would receive the same amount of money as soldiers who endured multiple blasts, being exposed to higher levels of radiation in the process.
Ms. Fernet also noted that Mr. MacKay had spoken to Mr. Huntley.
But Mr. Huntley said that is not the case.
“The minister has not talked to me,” he said. “That’s a bunch of bulls–t. The last time the minister spoke to me was Nov. 15, 2007.”
Ms. Fernet later backtracked on the claim, stating in an e-mail that Mr. MacKay tried unsuccessfully to contact Mr. Huntley.
The veterans have been battling for compensation and recognition for the last five decades through both Conservative and Liberal governments. Their case was bolstered in 2007 when a Defence Department report determined that an estimated 900 Canadian military personnel were exposed to radiation during atomic tests and during a reactor mishap at Chalk River during the 1950s.
In the 1980s, the U.S. government started providing financial compensation to its atomic veterans, offering those who took part a lump-sum payment of $75,000 each.
In early 2007, then-Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor and Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Rick Hillier met with some veterans and promised their cases would be swiftly dealt with. In August of that year, shortly before he was removed from the defence portfolio, Mr. O’Connor said a compensation package was almost complete, but nothing ever came of that.
A few months later, Mr. MacKay assured Parliament he was working on the issue and that something would be soon done for the veterans.
After waiting several more months, some veterans, including Mr. Huntley, decided to sue the government.
For more Canadian Forces and Defence Department news go to David Pugliese’s Defence Watch at: