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Commons motion to save vets' offices defeated

Commons motion to save vets' offices defeatedRet. Sergeant Major Rene Bell gathers with other veterans at a Veterans Affairs Office in Brandon, Manitoba, on Friday, January 31, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tim Smith

OTTAWA - An opposition motion calling on the Conservative government to keep Veterans Affairs district offices open went down to defeat Monday in the House of Commons, but the fight over the treatment of ex-soldiers appeared far from over.

The Conservatives used their majority in the House to defeat the New Democrat motion by a margin of 146-117.

The motion was introduced in response to the closure last week of eight regional offices, a move that triggered a controversial and often emotional debate fuelled by public concern about a recent series of military suicides.

Both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino voted against the motion, which also called for additional mental health staff at National Defence and urged the government to complete some 75 outstanding suicide investigations.

The vote is unlikely to quell what has been for the Conservatives a bruising public debate about how veterans — particularly those diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder — are treated in Canada.

Veterans advocate Barry Westholm was so outraged by long-time MP Cheryl Gallant's comments during last week's debate on the issue that he gave up his membership in the Conservative party.

Westholm, a former sergeant major, said he was dismayed when he heard Gallant say that ex-soldiers with post traumatic stress have to overcome the "stigma within themselves" and seek treatment.

A spokesman for Gallant told Westholm the longtime Ontario MP's remarks were taken out of context by the media, but Westholm said he attended the debate in person and heard the remarks himself.

He described Gallant as shirking responsibility for the crisis, saying her words carried "a certain callousness I find alarming."

New Democrat veterans critic Peter Stoffer said he was also appalled by what he heard and asked in the Commons on Monday if "the stigma" was within the Conservatives themselves.

Fantino, who faced calls for his resignation last week, said a public-sector union has been mounting a campaign to try to prevent the shutdowns, which went ahead as scheduled on Friday.

"They (union officials) have spread so much misinformation and out-and-out false information that clearly has agitated the veterans community," Fantino told Toronto radio station Newstalk 1010 over the weekend.

"I would be agitated, too, if I heard some of these lies that they’ve been putting out."

The closed offices are in Kelowna, B.C., Saskatoon, Sask., Brandon, Man., Thunder Bay, Ont., Windsor, Ont., Sydney, N.S., Charlottetown and Corner Brook, N.L. A ninth office in Prince George, B.C., was closed earlier.

Fantino has been at the centre of public outrage since a disastrous meeting with seven veterans, all brought to Ottawa by the Public Service Alliance of Canada to help plead the case for keeping the centres open.

The minister showed up for the meeting 70 minutes late and left in a huff when one of the veterans described his explanations as "hogwash." An angry, sometimes tearful, denunciation of the Conservatives by the veterans followed the meeting.

Fantino was not in the Commons earlier in the day for question period and it was left to his parliamentary secretary, Ontario MP Parm Gill, to respond to a barrage of opposition accusations.

The Conservative government is also under fire for not ensuring that National Defence filled out its ranks of psychiatrists and social workers, as promised.

Defence Minister Rob Nicholson told the Commons that further mental-health improvements are being reviewed.

The government also promised action on the 75 unfinished technical investigations into suicide cases.

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