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Hundreds gather at Veterans Affairs office in Sydney to protest closure
Hundreds of veterans and their supporters gathered outside eight Veterans Affairs offices across the country on Friday to protest a move they say will compromise their ability to access services.
The protesters wore black arm bands as they demonstrated outside the offices in Kelowna, Saskatoon, Brandon, Thunder Bay, Windsor, Sydney, Charlottetown and Corner Brook.
A ninth office has already closed in Prince George, B.C.
The government has said it will be moving many of the services offered online. As well, it will provide a Veterans Affairs specialist at nearby Service Canada locations.
In Sydney, hundreds of veterans and their supporters expressed one final show of support at a black ribbon ceremony, which many said felt more like a wake.
“Our heart bleeds for the veterans here today on Cape Breton Island, and all we can say is today is like a wake in this office,” said Brenda LeBlanc, a Veterans Affairs case worker.
Many veterans pinned back ribbons to their clothing and some laid black wreaths at the doors of the Sydney office to symbolize its closure.
“I think, right up until that moment, I thought it wasn’t going to close,” said veteran Michele Gardiner. “Then, when I put the wreath on the door, it was like ‘oh my God. This is really happening.’”
The office closures come despite veterans’ pleas to Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino to reverse the decision.
Promises to reopen the offices have been made by both federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
“When they’ve been asked to march into every hellhole on this earth, they said ‘yes’ and they did, and now when they can march no more, now, when they ask for service, the response has been ‘we’re closing these service centres on veterans,’” said Nova Scotia Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner.
Fantino has dismissed the veterans’ protest as being manufactured by the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the union that represents the Veteran Affairs staff who are being affected by the closures.
Earlier this week, veterans and supporters who wanted to discuss the closures with Fantino had a testy exchange with the minister. The vets said they “waited and waited” for Fantino, who showed up several hours late, only to answer a few questions and leave.
Several vets called for Fantino to resign over his indifference to their concerns.
“I think, one way or another, he has to go,” said supporter Gord Sampson of the minister. “To see a veteran crying on national news is incredible, terrible, disgusting.”
The NDP has tabled a motion to try to stop the closure of the eight Veterans Affairs offices, but the government has rescheduled the vote for Monday -- after the offices have already shut down.
The door to the Sydney office was closed and locked at 4:30 p.m. Friday.
With files from CTV Atlantic's Ryan MacDonald and CTVNews.ca