B.C. veterans running for MP under different banners have no interest in dissing each other
By Peter O’Neil, Vancouver Sun – April 18, 2015
OTTAWA — The fall federal election campaign is expected to be one of the nastiest in modern history, but don’t expect two Lower Mainland candidates to cross partisan swords in anger.
Both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau have veterans from Canada’s 2001-2014 Afghanistan military intervention, Tim Laidler and Harjit S. Sajjan, running under their respective banners in the scheduled October contest.
And that may prove handy for both leaders since, while Canadians typically don’t consider foreign affairs and defence issues when voting, this election could be different.
A confluence of events — domestic terrorism, the Conservative government’s military interventions in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine, the federal government’s treatment of Afghanistan veterans, and Harper’s aggressive use of Canadian foreign policy to woo key diaspora communities — could put those matters front-and-centre.
And while politicians are often mistrusted by many Canadians, the standing ovations that always greet soldiers introduced at hockey games suggests these two candidates may get a more positive reception from the public.
Both are ex-reservists facing formidable challenges to get to the House of Commons. Sajjan is running for the Liberals against Conservative incumbent Wai Young in Vancouver South, while Laidler is seeking to oust New Democrat MP Fin Donnelly in Port Moody-Coquitlam.
While they couldn’t be more different — in age, military rank, ethnic background and political orientation — they are similar in rejecting the notion that political differences should make bitter enemies out of two ex-soldiers who, in their previous lives, considered each other a brother-in-arms.
“I know Tim well,” said Sajjan, 44, a lieutenant-colonel (on leave of abesence) and a former Vancouver police gang squad detective who has numerous decorations after serving in senior roles as a Canadian reserve officer during three tours of Afghanistan and one in Bosnia. “We never trained together because of our rank difference, but he had a reputation as a very good soldier.”
Laidler, who served in 2008 as a corporal during an eight-month tour escorting convoys to forward operating bases in Kandahar, seemed surprised at the suggestion that he might some day find himself hurl a nasty barb across the aisle if both enter the House of Commons next autumn.
“It is like a family,” the 29-year-old said of the respect, camaraderie and fraternal spirit that is instilled in the military to ensure solidarity on the battlefield.
Asked if he’d continue to view his political adversary as a brother, he replied: “Yes, absolutely,” and quickly added that he felt badly that another Afghanistan vet, Bruce Moncur, failed to win the NDP nomination in a southwestern Ontario riding.
“I think it’s great that people with military service want to run for politics, and having people who served in the military in all three parties would be a real asset for Canada.”
The positive spirit doesn’t mean they don’t share their parties’ conflicting views on key issues.
Laidler naturally backs Harper’s decision to bomb Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria, while Sajjan questions the government’s lack of a broader strategy to deal with the threat.
They also differ on veterans’ issues.
Sajjan, who obtained disability benefits to deal with back problems caused by an injury during a 2006 battle, is critical of the government’s treatment of returning soldiers.
“It’s shocking. Having gone through process myself after 2006, I was really surprised over the treatment of veterans, the scrutiny you have to go through just to show you were injured, and the lack of service that was provided.”
A former Vancouver police detective, Sajjan instinctively took notes to document his injury and therefore had an advantage over many claimants. Still, he said the coverage he now receives only covers a portion of his physiotherapy costs to deal with back pain.
“It really hurts to discover that people can serve their country and then all of a sudden you’re not taken care of afterwards. It’s one of the reasons I entered politics.”
Laidler, a University of B.C. political science student when he did a tour to Afghanistan in 2008, returned to UBC to complete his education. While at UBC, he participated in the Veterans Transition Program, a research and clinician training program set up in 1997 by two members of the education faculty, Marv Westwood and David Kuhl.
The program offers a 100-hour, 10-day group-based program that involves counselling sessions aimed at helping veterans deal with issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder and operational stress injury, as they transition back to family life and new careers.
Laidler ended up getting his master’s degree in that area, and then led an effort to turn the Westwood-Kuhl creation into a national service.
He created the non-profit Veterans Transition Network, convinced federal MPs and several non-government organizations to fund it, and is now its executive director.
Westwood, in an interview Friday, used the term “amazing” to describe Laidler’s efforts in making the service available to all veterans across Canada.
“It opened my eyes how you can advocate and actually make real change and get buy-in from politicians,” Laidler said.
Laidler said the perception that Ottawa doesn’t care about vets has a lot to do with lack of awareness about government benefits and options like his program.
Sajjan, who too a leave from his post as commander of the reserve B.C. Regiment (Duke of Connaught’s Own) when he entered politics in 2014, had nothing but praise for the transition network.
But he said the very fact it had to be created underscores the government’s shortcomings.
“The organization has done great work, some of my soldiers have directly benefited from that,” he said.
“But here was an organization that was created because there was a gap that needed to be filled. Here’s a private organization that’s done better than Veterans Affairs.”
One of Canada’s top veterans’ advocates, former air force intelligence officer Sean Bruyea didn’t express much brotherly affection when asked about the veterans-turned-politicians.
Bruyea said it “burns my ass” that Laidler is continuing his work with the transition network, including speaking to MPs last month studying veterans issues, while seeking political office.
It’s wrong to “pass himself off as an outside voice when he’s an inside voice who’s been co-opted,” he said.
As for Sajjan, the aspiring MP should urge fellow Liberals to join the NDP in taking a clearer stand on reforming the 2005 veterans charter, passed by Paul Martin’s Liberal government in 2005 with all-party support.
The charter’s provisions included replacing a lifetime disability pension with a lump-sum payment, which critics like Bruyea say is inadequate.
Sajjan should try to convince the Liberals accept that the 2005 charter is flawed and “stand up to and not be afraid of Harper,” Bruyea said.
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