Cardigan MP Lawrence MacAulay says he is “extremely proud” to assume his new position as Minister of Veterans Affairs and called his appointment “an honour,” days after veterans advocates criticized the federal government for treating the post as a “revolving door.”
MacAulay was one of three Ministers in the Trudeau government who saw their portfolio change in a cabinet shuffle on Friday. He was previously the Minister of Agriculture, a post he has held since 2015. The shuffle followed the surprise resignation of former Veterans Affairs Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould on February 12.
Prime Minister Trudeau also named Quebec MP Marie-Claude Bibeau as the new Minister of Agriculture and added the international development portfolio to Women and Gender Equality Minister Maryam Monsef.
Responding to questions from journalists in Ottawa on Friday, MacAulay said he did not see the appointment as a “demotion.” The term was widely used by reporters to describe the move of Jody Wilson-Raybould to the post from her former role as Justice Minister in January.
“To represent the people who preserve peace and democracy for us worldwide - that's a long piece from a demotion. It's truly an honour for me,” MacAulay said on Friday morning.
The Veterans Affairs portfolio was briefly filled after Wilson-Raybould’s resignation by Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan, a move criticized by veterans advocates.
In a meeting before a Senate sub-committee in Ottawa on Wednesday, Thomas Irvine, dominion president of the Royal Canadian Legion, expressed concern about the possibility of a merger between Veterans Affairs and the Department of National Defense. Most veterans viewed this possibility as a negative one, he said.
Irvine also said veterans were frustrated the Veterans Affairs post was “being treated as a revolving door” by politicians. He noted there have been nine ministers in the post since 2010. MacAulay is now the tenth such minister.
But in an interview with The Guardian on Friday afternoon, MacAulay said the department has been a priority for the Trudeau government. He also denied a merger between Veterans Affairs and the Department of National Defense was imminent.
"It's not even the slightest possibility, and I got it right from the horse's mouth - the Prime Minister of Canada himself," MacAulay told The Guardian.
Owen Parkhouse, vice-president of the P.E.I. command of the Royal Canadian Legion, expressed optimism at MacAulay’s appointment.
“I think it’s a good choice,” Parkhouse said of MacAulay’s appointment.
“I think he’s someone who’s a real people person. I think that’s what we need right now.”
Nevertheless, Parkhouse said many veterans have concerns about the implementation of a new Pension for Life program. Disabled veterans will be able to apply for the new income replacement program as of April 1st. But Parkhouse said veterans are concerned with reports that the new program could result in lower pay-outs to severely disabled veterans than under previous programs.
“No veteran should go without the proper compensation they deserve,” Parkhouse said.
Virginia Vaillancourt, president of the Union of Veterans Affairs Employees also expressed cautious optimism about MacAulay’s appointment.
"It's not going to be an easy task for Lawrence MacAulay but I think that, from what I know of him I think he will put his feet to the ground and really delve into what's going on," Vaillancourt said.
Vaillancourt said the department is facing severe staff shortages across the country, including at the Charlottetown headquarters. She estimated the department would need to hire between 300 to 500 additional staff nationally in order to clear the current backlog in veterans cases awaiting adjudication.
"Having not enough front-line staff in the way of veteran service agents and case managers to be able to case manage and provide that guided support to the veterans, that has an impact on the service level to the veterans," she said.
MacAulay said he planned to meet soon with staff Veterans Affairs headquarters in Charlottetown.