By TIM NAUMETZ |
Published: Monday, 12/01/2014 12:00 am EST
Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino has spent a total of $53,588 travelling abroad to attend commemorations at cemeteries or war monuments, from Korea through Europe, since Prime Minister Stephen Harper named him to his post last year, departmental records and Mr. Fantino's ministerial public expense postings show.
The amount Mr. Fantino (Vaughan, Ont.) spent on the nine trips he has taken abroad from July 2013 to September 2014 dwarfs the $7,772 he spent travelling within Canada to attend meetings with Veterans Affairs Canada officials or to take part in events such as a one-day summit on homeless veterans the Canadian Legion held in Toronto.
Mr. Fantino's foreign travel expenses since his appointment have also exceeded the $13,479 he has spent travelling within Canada to attend veteran and war commemoration ceremonies and deliver speeches, with a few business lunches and one $766 dinner for eight thrown in.
Veterans roundly criticized Mr. Fantino last week for his absence as other government ministers responded to Auditor General Michael Ferguson's annual fall report to Parliament. The report included a scathing chapter on lengthy delays many Afghanistan war veterans face as they attempt to obtain treatment and support for post-combat trauma and operational stress injuries.
When Defence Minister Rob Nicholson (Niagara Falls, Ont.) fielded media questions about the Veterans Affairs Canada chapter of Mr. Ferguson's report, and several other ministers responded to other chapters, Mr. Fantino was either at the Cassino War Cemetery near Rome, Italy, or on his way there.
Mr. Fantino flew to Italy to join a Canadian delegation that left Canada earlier as part of several commemorations taking place to mark the 70th anniversary of the allied campaign in Italy during the Second World War, but Mr. Fantino's office would not tell The Hill Times when he left Canada.
Veterans were angry that Mr. Fantino also snubbed one of the largest and most important summits for military veteran issues that was taking place in Toronto the day Mr. Ferguson released his report.
A three-day forum organized annually by the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research, associated with Queen's University, began Nov. 24. The forum website listed Mr. Fantino as an invited speaker but Veterans Affairs Canada emailed a copy of a department news release dated Aug. 1 that quoted Mr. Fantino announcing he would be attending the Italian war cemetery ceremonies in November.
Mr. Fantino had delayed his departure for the ceremonies in Italy in order to take part in a weekend government announcement of more than $200-million in expanded health services for veterans as the Conservatives sought to deflect the fallout from Mr. Ferguson's report in advance.
Veterans advocate Mike Blais, who appeared with another veterans advocate at a Parliament Hill news conference only a week earlier to protest the government's prior closure of six Veterans Affairs Canada regional offices, was surprised when informed of the extent of Mr. Fantino's foreign travels over the past 16 months—especially when compared to his limited Veterans Affairs Canada-related travel within Canada.
Although the deputy minister of Veterans Affairs Canada is located in Ottawa, senior associate deputy ministers and many of the key veterans service branches are located in Charlottetown, P.E.I., with other branches across the country.
"I think his priorities are definitely adrift," Mr. Blais, a founder and director of Canadian Veterans Advocacy, told The Hill Times.
"This is one of the issues that we brought up, that he was not in the country enough in order to conduct appropriate oversight into his ministry," Mr. Blais said.
Despite recent speculation that Mr. Harper (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) may shuffle Mr. Fantino out of the veterans portfolio because of his poor relations with veteran groups and several controversies over alleged snubs of activist veterans, Mr. Blais agreed that Mr. Fantino's travels to attend war commemorations and related ceremonies appears to conform with the Harper government's policy of emphasizing Canadian military accomplishments and war losses of the past.
"I think that every minister in Mr. Harper's administration has their orders and that Minister Fantino is fulfilling those orders very well," Mr. Blais said.
"I've always told veterans that the problem is not Minister Fantino, he is just the messenger of Prime Minister Harper. And until Prime Minister Harper fulfills his sacred obligation, Minister Fantino will just be a talking puppet that does only what the PMO requests and nothing more," Mr. Blais said.
Mr. Fantino's press secretary did not respond to questions about Mr. Fantino's travel abroad, or whether he left for the ceremonies the night before Mr. Ferguson tabled his report or that same morning.
"Our government has been working hard to provide our veterans and their families with the care and support they need, through the unprecedented investment of $200-million for a comprehensive mental health strategy, thousands of dollars each month in benefits, up to $75,800 for retraining at a university or college, services such as housecleaning, grass cutting/snow removal, medicine, and travel to and from medical appointments," press secretary Ashlee Smith wrote in an emailed statement to The Hill Times.
"Minister Fantino recommended that the auditor general review the mental health supports in order to help improve our programs and services; we thank the auditor general for making constructive recommendations," it said.
Opposition MPs on Nov. 27 pressed the government about Mr. Fantino's absence when Parliament received Mr. Ferguson's report, as well as other issues veterans say are not being addressed.
Conservative MP Parm Gill (Brampton-Springdale, Ont.), Mr. Fantino's Parliamentary Secretary who answers on Mr. Fantino's behalf when he is away from the House of Commons, defended the trip to Italy as well as government management of veterans' issues.
"I can assure the honorable colleague on the other side that the minister works hard and consults with veterans across the country all the time," Mr. Gill said.
"As a matter of fact, he is currently travelling overseas with veterans," Mr. Gill said. "It is a top priority for our government. We are working to address some of the recommendations that were brought forward by the Auditor General to address the concerns when it comes to the unnecessary delays. On this side of the House, we will continue to work in the best interests of Canada's veterans."
Mr. Fantino spent a total of $41,039 travelling abroad on his own airfare, accommodation meals and hospitality, and a further $7,659 on travel and expenses for his chief of staff and a press secretary who accompanied him on three of the trips.
The biggest bill for Mr. Fantino's personal travel abroad was $9,306 for a trip to Korea, to mark the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice in July 2013.
Mr. Fantino's second most expensive bill, with a total of $8,902 for his own expenses, was a six-day trip last April to Newark, N.J., to attend "ministerial events" and then on to France to attend the 97th anniversary of the Canadian First World War battle at Vimy Ridge.
Mr. Fantino's chief of staff, Jacques Fauteux, accompanied him on that trip, with his expenses boosting the total for flights, accommodation, meals and "incidentals" to $12,984.
Expenses for Mr. Fantino's trip to Italy last week have not yet been reported.
Mr. Fantino, who was born in Italy, also visited Italy in July of last year, also to mark the 70th anniversary of the allied campaign in German-allied Italy.
The campaign began with an invasion of Sicily in July 1943.
The Hill Times
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