Canada’s treatment of war veterans described as national shame

Originally published in the Toronto Star on July 30th, 2010. To go to the Toronto Star please click here

OTTAWA—The way John Sheardown and other veterans in need of long-term care are being treated in their twilight years amounts to a national embarrassment, critics of the Conservative government say.

Sheardown, 85, is a former bomber pilot and a Canadian hero who, along with former ambassador Ken Taylor, played a key role in the rescue of six Americans during the Iranian hostage crisis 30 years ago.

Suffering from Alzheimer’s and recovering from a broken hip, the long-time Canadian diplomat is languishing in hospital and faces a wait of up to 18 months for a bed in a veterans’ long-term home in Ottawa, the Star revealed Friday.

“I simply cannot understand how Veterans Affairs is dragging its feet here,” Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said Friday while touring the Niagara Region.

“This is a man who did something heroic for Canada. . . . We shouldn’t even be having this conversation. And I appeal to the minister to act immediately on this. It is just causing anguish to a good woman and it’s treating a man who served our country well in a poor way.”

The Sheardowns applied for a bed for John at the Perley and Rideau Veterans’ Health Centre in Ottawa in mid-June. Nearly two months later, he and his wife were still waiting to hear whether he was eligible for care in the centre.

After the Star story appeared Friday, the centre contacted Zena Sheardown to tell her that her husband has been placed on a waiting list at Perley. However, he is not on the list for the veterans’ side of the nursing home but rather for an adjacent community wing.

Even for the community wing, the waiting time is one year. The health centre has 172 war veterans on its waiting list.

“This is a no-win situation,” she said Friday. She noted that “nobody from Veterans Affairs got in touch with me from the time they got the application to offer any kind of advice or any information whatsoever.”

Veterans Affairs spokesperson Flora Fahr explained veterans waiting for admission to the centre receive support to meet their care needs, either in another long-term care facility while they await transfer to Perley, or in their home. As of Friday night, Sheardown was still staying at the Ottawa Civic Hospital.

Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn and his parliamentary secretary Conservative MP Greg Kerr could not be reached for comment.

Politicians and advocates for the elderly said Friday Sheardown’s situation illustrates all that is wrong with the system to care for veterans in the final years of their lives, as well as measures in place for other elderly Canadians.

NDP Leader Jack Layton called Sheardown’s situation “heartbreaking.”

“Here’s somebody (who) through his whole life, going right back to the Second World War, has served his country and now when he’s in need, the country is not there for him,” he said.