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'I'm not leaving,' Fantino says as vets office closures set to proceed

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OTTAWA - The Harper government delivered a full-throttle defence of its planned closure of eight veterans affairs offices and the siege-laden military mental health system, blaming anti-Tory government unions and a reluctance of soldiers to step forward to seek treatment.

Julian Fantino, the embattled veterans affairs minister who came under pressure to resign this week following a testy meeting with former soldiers, said he had no plans to step down and that the closures would proceed.

"I'm not leaving," Fantino said during a special House of Commons debate focused on the escalating chorus of complaints from Canadian veterans across the country.

The minister also implored those suffering with mental illness to reach out for help.

"We have to overcome the stigma that is still too often associated with mental illness. We have to do everything to encourage men and women in crisis to seek the care they need," he said.

"We have to reach out in every way to those are suffering in silence and we have to demonstrate to veterans and still serving members in the Canadian Armed Forces that true courage is admitting you need help."

Long-time Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant, whose Ontario riding includes Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, put an even finer point on the government's message.

The widely held belief among soldiers that admitting to post-traumatic stress can jeopardize their careers is little more than a figment of their imaginations, she told the House.

Any treatment they received at the military's new operation stress injury clinics is considered "completely confidential," Gallant said.

"The chain of command does not have access to their medical records. And the stigma that has to be overcome is a stigma within themselves."

Gallant's remarks stand in contrast to a 2012 report by the military ombudsman, which showed that while senior officers had grown more tolerant, a negative attitude towards mental illness remains ingrained in military culture.

"The investigation was made aware of instances in recent years of members being denigrated or openly ostracized as a result of mental health injuries," Pierre Daigle wrote.

"Incidents like this are probably still occurring. Additionally, well-worn notions like the walk of shame appear to persist in some quarters, though these seem increasingly isolated."

Thursday's debate, prompted by an NDP motion, bundled together increasing concern about a series of military suicides and National Defence's chronic inability to fill out its ranks of psychiatrists and social workers with the impending closure Friday of regional Veterans Affairs offices. A vote on the motion is scheduled to take place Monday.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said it's not a good idea to be shutting down services to veterans when at least eight soldiers have taken their own lives in last few months — a remark that drew a rebuke from Fantino during question period.

"We are deeply saddened by the suicides, but I think it's patently unfair to connect those unfortunate circumstances to the office closures," he said.

The centres are located in Kelowna, B.C., Saskatoon, Brandon, Man., Thunder Bay, Ont., Windsor, Ont., Sydney, N.S., Charlottetown and Corner Brook, N.L. A ninth office has already closed in Prince George, B.C.

Fantino restated the government's position that services are simply being shifted to the more generalized Service Canada centres and online, a move he claims will enhance access.

He dismissed the public outcry as being manufactured by the union that represents Veteran Affairs staff, which has run a high-profile campaign to halt the closures and even facilitated meetings involving veterans and the minister.

"One group in particular has questioned our loyalty to veterans. I'm speaking of the Public Service Alliance of Canada," he said. "They've tried to paint themselves as the champions of veterans. Let me be absolutely clear, they are anything but."

Veterans in Nova Scotia were staging a sit-in at the Sydney office in hopes of staving off its demise. P.E.I. Premier Robert Ghiz chimed in on Twitter late Thursday, calling on the federal government to halt the closures.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper defended the government's action this week by saying these "duplicate" veterans offices had a "very small caseload."

But, figures put before Parliament in 2012 showed each of the affected centres handled anywhere between 2,065 and 4,113 client cases.

Late Thursday, a spokesman for Fantino was unable to say precisely how many cases each individual office carried, but Joshua Zanin said that the national standard is 40 cases per case manager.

That standard will continue to be sustained following the service adjustments in the eight regions in question, he said.

Also during Thursday's debate, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson revealed the military has assembled a special team to clear a backlog of technical investigations into suicides within the ranks.

At last word, there were as many as 50 open files in various stages of completion, some dating back five years.

Nicholson says he has expressed serious concerns to the country's top military commander, Gen. Tom Lawson, and asked him to make the completion of the investigations a priority.

The backlogged suicide investigations are technical reviews that examine whether military policy or practices contributed to the death in any way.

New Democrat veterans critic Peter Stoffer said the news is welcome, but wondered why it's taken so long for the Conservative government to act, given that the backlog has been building for years.

Follow @Murray_Brewster on Twitter

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