OTTAWA — Veterans ombudsman Craig Dalton is calling it quits, leaving former service members without a key advocate at a time when many are worried about the effect the COVID-19 pandemic is having on their requests for assistance from the federal government.
Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay announced Dalton's departure Monday, saying the former army colonel was beginning "a new chapter in his distinguished career."
The announcement caught many within the veterans' community and even some within the ombudsman's office by surprise, as Dalton had spent only 18 months on the job.
It also raised questions about why Dalton, who previously served in Afghanistan and commanded Canadian Forces Base Gagetown, decided to leave.
The ombudsman's office said Dalton, the third person to serve as veterans ombudsman since the office was created in 2007 and whose last day is Friday, was not available for an interview.
Dalton's predecessors, retired colonel Pat Stogran and retired chief warrant officer Guy Parent, served as ombudsman for three and nine years, respectively. Dalton began his time in the role in November 2018.
While the office has helped some veterans access services and benefits, it has also been criticized for years for its lack of independence from government. The ombudsman reports to the minister of veterans affairs rather than Parliament.
There have also been concerns about the office's narrow mandate, which largely focuses on reviewing individual cases in which veterans are denied benefits rather than studying and addressing systemic problems in the system.
Dalton echoed some of those sentiments in a February interview with The Canadian Press, in which he specifically took issue with the lack of independence within the office — and worried about the effect that has on its trust and credibility within the veterans' community.
"Those that are recognized as being the most effective and being true ombuds offices are all independent in their structure," he said. "They have true independence. And that really matters when it comes to trust and even the perception of independence matters when it comes to trust."
He also urged the federal government to conduct a review of the office's mandate. He noted it had not been updated since the position was created, even though the intention at the time was to take a close look at it every five years.
Dalton's decision to leave comes at an unusual time, given the federal government is currently consumed by the COVID-19 pandemic and Veterans Affairs Canada has been struggling to address a backlog of 44,000 applications for assistance from disabled veterans.
Many veterans and their advocates worry that backlog has only grown because of the pandemic.
Brian Forbes, chair of the National Council of Veterans' Associations, which represents dozens of veterans' organizaton across Canada, nevertheless urged the government to use Dalton's departure as an opportunity to finally review the ombudsman's mandate.
Dalton "was doing a pretty decent job," Forbes said. "He was consulting well with the veterans' community and stakeholders and put out some pretty decent reports. But the reality is the veterans ombudsman's office doesn't have sufficient independence."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 11, 2020.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press