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Tory rhetoric doesn't meet reality: vets

OTTAWA - A veterans group says there's a major disconnect between what the Harper government is saying in court about its obligation to ex-soldiers and reassurances from Veterans Minister Julian Fantino.

Canadian Veterans Advocacy says a decades-old commitment to care for those who served, particularly the wounded, has been abandoned by the Conservatives even as they prepare to commemorate the sacrifices of war in Afghanistan.

Federal lawyers fighting a class-action lawsuit by Afghan veterans argue the government has no special, legal obligation to soldiers and that decisions about their entitlements are matter of policy and subject to revision.

Fantino has said publicly that the government believes it does have a responsibility to service members, who are legally bound to risk their lives for the country.

Mike Blais, president of the advocacy group, says that while the Conservatives say they have an obligation, their actions go in the opposition direction.

"This government is adrift, they have lost their way," Blais told a Parliament Hill news conference on Thursday. "They will pretend and portray they have a sacred obligation, but they are not walking the walk."

Until Fantino or other ministers instruct federal lawyers to change their defence, or settle the lawsuit, the government's stand is a sham, Blais said.

A spokesman for the minister pointed out that the government created new monthly financial benefits for the injured, increased funding for job retraining and is in the process of enacting legislation to give veterans priority hiring in the federal public service.

"More must be done and minister Fantino remains committed to improving the New Veterans Charter," Nicholas Bergamini said in an email.

But Bergamini did not respond to the central question of whether the government will substantially alter its position in court.

The class-action case was filed in British Columbia Supreme Court in October 2012 and involves six veterans of the Afghan war. They are suing over the New Veterans Charter, which provides lump-sum payments to wounded vets for non-economic losses, such as lost limbs, as opposed to the lifetime pensions provided to veterans of previous wars.

Ex-soldiers have complained that the new system is less generous and is designed to save money at the expense of the wounded.

The allegations in the lawsuit have not been proven in court.

The veterans ombudsman did a painstaking analysis of both systems last year and found that the new regime can be as generous as the old one, depending on individual circumstances.

But Guy Parent's report said the fairness ends when the most-severely injured veterans turn 65. The new system, he said, leaves those without a Canadian Forces pension vulnerable to live out their final years in poverty.

Blais' organization claims to have done its own analysis which shows veterans are severely disadvantaged, but it did not release a copy of the report on Thursday.

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