Veterans have become less amused as Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino's tenure unfolded. The contrasts with his predecessor, Steven Blaney, are stark.
By MIKE BLAIS |
Published: Monday, 10/06/2014 12:00 am EDT
NIAGARA FALLS, ONT.— Without doubt, 2013-2014 was a terrible first year for Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino. The fledgling minister immediately endeared himself with the veterans' community, penning a widely-distributed editorial saying that he too was a veteran. Fantino declared, erroneously, that he had smelt gunpowder, been in the trenches, invoking images of Canada's stellar military history without ever swearing allegiance to the Queen or donning the uniform graced with traditions that pre-date Confederation.
Veterans were not amused.
Veterans became less amused as Fantino's tenure unfolded. The contrasts with his predecessor, Steven Blaney, were stark. Blaney understood the obligation, was eager to engage veterans' stakeholders in dialogue and encouraged collective discussions through the enforcement of mandated bi-annual departmental stakeholder meetings. Blaney promoted inclusiveness, accessibility. Fantino, conversely, is seldom accessible and prefers exclusion over inclusion. The departmental stakeholder meetings his predecessor encouraged and often attended have been abandoned. Not one single departmental stakeholders meeting has been convened since Fantino was appointed.
The singular ministerial meeting held in early October 2013, was nearly derailed when Fantino's exclusionary policies forbade the stakeholders to have observers present. Gordon Moore, then president of the Royal Canadian Legion, arrived with Brad White, Dominion secretary. An ultimatum was delivered. Either White attends or the Royal Canadian Legion would not attend the meeting.
Fantino blinked. The Dominion secretary was allowed access, but other than the Canadian Veterans Advocacy, none of the other organizations present had an observer. Not that it would matter, the meeting was designed to introduce the new minister to the stakeholders, provide a recycled brief of the New Veterans Charter and engage in general discussion that was very interesting, but really served no purpose because a year later, no changes of significance have been implemented.
Fantino did, however, take the opportunity to announce that the Harper government would appeal a favourable ruling for wounded veterans before the B.C. Supreme Court (Equitas Lawsuit) regarding their quest for equality to the Pension Act. Equality was denied when the Harper government enacted the New Veterans Charter in 2006, creating a second class of veteran just as Canadian participation in the Afghanistan war entered the combat phase of a mission that would ravage the nation of 150 valiant lives and account for thousands of injuries and wounds. The government will argue it has no sacred obligation and no social contact with those who have sacrificed dearly under Harper's stewardship of the war.
It is virtually impossible for a minister to effectively manage such an important portfolio when he is absent from Ottawa/Charlottetown so often and for prolonged periods of time. The complexity of the Veterans Affairs Canada portfolio and the increasing obligation to the wounded being medically released from the Forces after 12 years of war must take priority over ceremonial events. Despite raising public awareness of the severe problems veterans are confronting and the oft-catastrophic consequences, Fantino appears more focused on attending ceremonies celebrating, at tens of millions of dollars, the war of 1812 and anniversaries of battles from World War I and World War II.
No novice minister of Veterans Affairs has embraced the role of Canada's ceremonial figurehead with such zeal. Within the course of a single year, Fantino traversed the globe. He went to Hong Kong, Korea, Italy, France, the United States, Cyprus, and Belgium and there was even time for a trip to the Vatican. A recent domestic cross-country tour presenting minister's commendations and awards to Canada's surviving World War II veterans in tightly-controlled photo opportunities have added significantly to the minister's ever-growing air miles card.
When the minister is in Ottawa, veterans have not fared well. Fantino has done very little on the portfolio other than perform his duties to slash his department's budget with characteristic unwavering loyalty to the Conservative fiscal line. Last fall, a "comprehensive" review was initiated on the New Veterans Charter with promises that the sacred obligation inadequacies would be addressed.
Fantino will be tabling the departmental response in early October. Considering the Conservative-dominated committee's recommendations, it is unlikely that the wounded seeking equality for their sacrifice to the Pension Act provisions will be satisfied or that Memorial Cross Widows currently living in poverty due to exclusion from the NVC's anti-poverty/earnings loss benefits will be provided respite.
Who will forget how ineptly Fantino handled the closures of several Veterans Affairs district offices located across the nation. Remarkably, the restrictions of services provided the catalyst for hundreds of veterans in the affected regions to protest the closures through local public assemblies. A representative delegation of veterans travelled to Ottawa in January 2015 to encourage Fantino to repeal this policy with the understanding that many Afghan war veterans will soon be medically released into these communities and will require direct assistance, and not a 1-800 number to a contracted entity
The delegation included veterans from World War II to Afghanistan, expanding the level of community discord and derision beyond those affected by the substandard policies of the New Veterans Charter. It will be some time before Canadians dismiss the images of an arrogant minister snapping at a World War II veteran Roy Fields who, chest adorned with campaign medals denoting this nation's proud history, had the audacity to declare the minister's excuses hogwash while raising his index finger to make the point.
Perhaps an apt description of the minister's performance considering the profound level of disrespect demonstrated and the direct consequences, a decorated United Nations veteran bolting from the room in frustrated tears. Let us not forget, the minister for Veterans Affairs duty is to serve veterans, not to bully and berate them.
Michael L. Blais is president and founder of the Canadian Veterans Advocacy.
The Hill Times
The Canadian Veterans Advocacy Team.