Canadian Veterans Advocacy

Monday, February 17, 2014

New announcement: Fantino should ‘walk the talk’

Fantino should 'walk the talk'

The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino, pictured in this file photo.

Published: Monday, 02/17/2014 12:00 am EST

OTTAWA—Needless to say, the past few weeks have not been good for Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino and the Harper government regarding the treatment of veterans. Many of the government's wounds were self-inflicted. It's true, as others have stated, that Fantino is not a good communicator. One might even say he is a non-communicator. He proved as much during his seven-minute, now-publicized scrum with veterans. Although other Conservative MPs, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Parliamentary secretary, have attempted to present the flimsy case for veterans support at Service Canada centres, the entire issue was bungled and mismanaged from the beginning when Fantino told veterans on Jan. 28 that "the decision has been made." This is what Fantino considers consulting with veterans on important issues of concern to them.

One cannot help but wonder where Fantino is getting his advice on veterans' issues and message delivery strategy. The Harper government says it supports veterans, but does the complete opposite when it closed eight Veterans Affairs Canada service offices on Jan. 31.

Fantino takes no responsibility for his actions or for the decisions of the Harper government. First, it was the veterans causing problems. Then it was opposition MPs raising the issue in the House of Commons. After that, the Public Service Alliance of Canada was agitating the veterans. On Feb. 4, during a Radio 1010 Talk Show, Fantino blamed others for spreading misinformation. Really?

The Prime Minister first said there were 584 Service Canada centres serving veterans. Then Fantino said there were 600 offices, or was it 620? Then, on Feb. 3, it was his Parliamentary secretary, Conservative MP Parm Gill, saying there are 650 Service Canada centres helping veterans. They wondered why veterans were complaining about the closure of eight offices when more than 650 Service Canada centres with no trained staff or Veterans Affairs Canada employees are here to help them.

On Jan. 31, I invited Gill to visit a Service Canada centre in Ottawa to ask a simple veterans question. He refused my request. On Feb. 3, I asked his office a second time and my request was ignored. On Feb. 3, I asked Fantino to visit a Service Canada centre to see firsthand how the process works. Personally, I know how it works. I've been to two Service Canada offices four times during the past 18 months. I asked a routine veterans related question. In each and every visit the response was the same: "We can't help you."

I guess the minister of Veterans Affairs and Parliamentary secretary are afraid to see just how terrible, or non-existent, the service is. So, in the end, if the answer is "we can't help you," it doesn't matter if there are 650 offices, 6,500 offices, or 6,500,000 offices. The result is the same. It's about service, not numbers.

Let's look at other issues.

Parliamentary Offices. Is the minister of Veterans Affairs a veteran? No. Is the Parliamentary secretary a veteran? No. Is the Conservative chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee a veteran? No. One would think, given the number of Conservative MPs who are veterans, that at least one of these three important positions would be filled by veterans, but they are not.

Veterans Affairs Ministerial Staff. The minister of Veterans Affairs has 10 full-time staff. Does he hire veterans to work for him? No. Only one person out of 10 working in his office is a veteran. It's not surprising, therefore, that the minister is ill-advised on veterans issues. The minister of Veterans Affairs does not want veterans working in his office. Veterans on staff might tell him what is of concern to veterans. We can't have that, can we?

Bill-C11. Priority Hiring for Injured Veterans. Although this bill has received second reading, it's without substance that has yet to be discussed at the House Veterans Affairs Committee. It's obviously not a priority, because staff in the minister's office cannot and will not provide information on private sector companies with which it has entered into veterans' priority hiring agreements.

Veterans Affairs Stakeholders Committee. The last time this committee met was in December 2012, 15 months ago. Veterans do not have collective input to the ministry on veterans' issues, a ministry which supposedly advises the minister.

Given the lack of veterans working in the minister's office and the lack of input and consultation from veterans' organizations, it's not surprising that Fantino is poorly advised. The minister's website constantly brags about partnerships with the private sector to hire veterans, although won't say how many have been hired, and chooses not to hire veterans to work for him.

The message from veterans to Fantino is this: If you want other people to hire veterans, you should also do it. Show some leadership and good political judgment by hiring veterans to work for you. Would you take your car to a garage where there are no mechanics? Would you go to a hospital where there are no doctors? If Fantino were to hire more veterans to work for him, and he's had offers, perhaps his days would be less stressful and more productive.

Alternatively, if Fantino claims he is being adequately advised, then it's evident that he does not care about veterans. He's just following orders. I know one thing. It's not positive dialogue when the minister of Veterans Affairs walks into a room full of veterans who want to talk about an important issue and says, before they have a chance to speak: "The decision has been made," and then issues a misleading press release saying the minister had a "round table" discussion with veterans. As Stephen Harper said in 2012: "veterans deserve better."

Jerry Kovacs is with the Canadian Veterans Advocacy in Ottawa.
The Hill Times

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