Unidentified Remains: An Update

Bruce Ricketts

On this blog in April 2014 I discussed a case of a set of Unidentified Remains recovered by the Niagara Regional Police in 1998. In the entry I told of the unusual lengths that the Ontario Coroner and the Niagara Police were going to not release any information on the case. I specifically mentioned a pending DNA analysis which was to be done on the remains so we could compare this to a missing persons (MP) case. Well the fun continues on this case. Here is a bit of an update.

The family of the MP were told by police that the DNA profile had been done by the Coroner but when I met with the Coroner face to face (it took a complaint to the Ontario Ombudsman to get that meeting) I was told that the analysis had NOT been done. Why not? I asked. Apparently the Niagara Police could not find the evidence; including the bones. It was stated that the box in which the evidence was contained had been moved during a renovation sometime in the past 18 years and was only recently found and turned over to the Coroner. While the DNA profile had not be done at the time of the meeting, the Coroner was able to give tell me their description of the evidence and lo and behold, their description did not match that of the Niagara Police from back in 1998. Why would that be? I asked. No answer. So I am left with the question of whether or not the right evidence was turned over to the Coroner by Niagara Police.

I am currently being stonewalled (again) by the Niagara Police to get the original description from 1998 with the Police claiming this is an active case even while admitting that it is not actively being investigated by he Niagara Police. (see accompanying letter from Niagara Police) I have taken the case to the Information and Privacy Commissioner.

Time will tell how long this lack of accountability will continue.


Fantino: Not tough enough for Veterans Affairs

Sean Bruyea

Minister Julian Fantino is the flypaper to which incompetent management and controversy persistently buzz around and stick. It is not clear why Harper keeps appointing this individual to various cabinet positions. What is abundantly clear: Julian Fantino is not capable of effectively managing the quagmire at Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC).

When he was appointed Minister, there were ambivalent reactions from the veterans’ community. Some mistakenly believed that an MP who wore a uniform in four different police departments would somehow understand living with lifelong injuries due to military service. Others knew of his career record in failing upwards. His tenure at VAC has highlighted a professional repertoire of disturbing tactics.

In 2004, media noted his “chilling legacy” as Toronto’s police chief during which “Julian Fantino’s arrogance and aggression unravelled [the] city’s social weave.” His “thin-skinned” and “vindictive” nature back then erupted ten years later to national attention. While cameras rolled, Fantino contemptuously brushed off frail, ageing and desperate veterans who waited almost two hours for the Minister on a cold January day. By means of an insincere apology, Fantino accused the veterans of being “union dupes.” Fleeing on camera from the wife of a disabled veteran four months later only confirmed his disdain for dialogue with those in need.

As head of the OPP, Fantino oversaw an operation which not only abandoned business and homeowners in Caledonia when their houses were illegally occupied, but some who dared peacefully protest were arrested. Although Fantino met with the illegal occupiers, he refused to meet with homeless residents.

This is all too familiar in 2014. In the week following Remembrance Day, Fantino held a secretive meeting far from veteran and media prying eyes on the military base in Quebec City. The agenda of the meeting: programs affecting younger disabled veterans and their families. Excluded from that meeting: younger stakeholders who represented disabled veterans and their families. Those included: veterans with an average age close to Fantino’s, i.e., in their 70’s, some representing organizations that have been publicly sycophantic to government during the ongoing veteran scandals.

Fantino’s long running autocratic streak has made veterans’ issues a national spectacle. But, even during his election campaigns, Fantino rarely if ever entered into any public debates. His only comment was to ironically label Liberal tactics , “…the Hitler theory. You tell a lie often enough you hope that some people will believe it.”

Since his appointment as Minister in 2013, Fantino has led VAC on the misinformation march. The most persistent distortion: his government’s claim of $5 billion more for veterans since 2006, omitting that $1.1 billion was handed back to Treasury Board. When confronted, Fantino prevaricated that the money didn’t go away, it is “recycled” back into programs. Tell that to the more than 20,000 veterans and family members who lost eight regional Veterans Affairs offices to save as little as $3.8 million annually.

Fantino has been the most recent ministerial champion for the cutbacks underway at VAC for the past three years, the largest proportional cutbacks of any federal department. He professes that 600 hundred generic Service Canada centres which offer nothing more than blank forms for veterans to fill out will somehow replace hundreds of highly specialized VAC front-line workers slashed throughout Canada. He and his party inundate local, regional and national newspapers with template rhetorical letters justifying the cutbacks. Media outlets, veterans and the opposition have been viciously assailed for questioning the wisdom of the cuts while public cries from veterans grow. Meanwhile, his department has surreptitiously begun advertising to replace some of those cutback positions.

Fantino suffocation of debate on veterans’ issues with fierce partisan attacks, are a continuation of his antics on CIDA’s website to bash opposition parties when he was Minister of International Development. What puzzles many is that Bev Oda, his immediate predecessor, resigned after revelations of a $16 glass of orange juice and a swanky stay at the Savoy on the taxpayer’s dime. Surely someone in the PMO must notice Fantino is sucking back “Harper government” political capital faster than an intergalactic kegger of black holes.

It’s not that Julian Fantino will likely never comprehend the financial struggles of injured veterans with his more than $118,000 in current annual pensions plus $242,000 as a Cabinet Minister. It is not that he compared Rob Ford’s intoxicated antics to veterans suffering PTSD. It is not that he confiscated cellphones from veterans at the War Museum while he made a surprise announcement to appeal a court ruling of disabled veterans suing government.

It is also not that he made VAC foot the bill for him to fly to meet the pope in Italy with his wife. Or that six months later he hastily returned to his birthplace, escaping both the scathing Auditor General’s report and the controversy over his announcement of $200 million for mental health spread over 50 years, not the five or six with which he mislead Canadians. It is not that his response to these controversies was the fanciful claim that the department focuses upon “better outcomes” when the AG report specifically chastised the department for failing to measure meaningful outcomes.

It is that Julian Fantino is not tough enough for the job of Minister of Veterans Affairs. He is not strong enough to listen to those in need. He lacks the resilience to speak respectfully one-on-one. And he clearly doesn’t understand the emergency facing our veterans.

Fantino is a bully and bullies are cowards. They fear seeing others eye-to-eye. They prefer to condescend, intimidate and squash the defenseless who dare question.

Veterans spend careers in uniform being bullied into not exercising their freedom of expression. When they do speak up, it is because something is desperately wrong. They need to believe that whatever is broken is due to an oversight. To respond to their public appeals with misinformation, disdain, humiliation and hiding ravages their trust in government, their sacrifice for government and ultimately trust in themselves.

Fantino has broken trust with veterans and Canadians in a most heinous manner. For that his career-long incompetence must finally come to an end before it harms anymore of Canada’s most humble and most vulnerable: our disabled veterans and their families.

This oped was first published in the Hill Times on December December 17, 2014 (paywall).


Minister Fantino: Less Back Patting and More Action Please

Sean Bruyea

When Canadian communities experience the tragedy of a multiple homicide, it would be unthinkable to ignore the victims or refuse to hunt for the murderer. Nor do we inundate the front page of newspapers with stories about how the remaining 35 million Canadians remain alive.

When Winnipeg or Calgary suffers destructive floods, we don’t hold celebrations in the rest of Canada for unaffected communities.  As Canadians, we care what tragedy befalls fellow Canadians… unless you are the Minister or a senior bureaucrat at Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC).

With unprecedented suffering of our serving and retired military and their families regularly emerging over the past four years, Minister Fantino put his name to yet another newspaper letter monotonously claiming VAC is a finely tuned machine (Fantino: I want to improve veterans’ access to gainful employment once they leave Canadian Forces, The Hill Times, Sept. 8, p. 16).

What a surprise to learn that industrious, skilled, healthy and relatively young individuals (average age of releasing military: 40) are succeeding.  Fantino then declares that he will put more effort into helping these veterans who least require help to get a job.

What Fantino has literally run away from over his painful tenure are those who most need our assistance: families of the disabled, frightened ageing veterans losing their trusted frontline VAC workers or disabled veterans wanting extensive improvements to some very broken or non-existent VAC programs.

Fantino and his senior mandarins have ducked, duped and dawdled along a self-serving unilateral path. They consistently fail to implement recommendations from the Veterans Ombudsman. They slough off an unprecedented consensus of up to a dozen organizations which has called for wide-ranging and substantive changes to the lump sum program known as the ‘new veterans charter’ (NVC).

For 15 years, Government sponsored advisory groups, veterans’ organisations and even Parliament have made little headway in having VAC fix the system to help the most disabled veterans: 1,647 as of April 1, 2014. During the worst fighting of World War II in just 24 months, Canada created truly universal and comprehensive programs for all one million returning military.

Sadly, the inability of VAC to listen to anyone except sycophantic back patting has resulted in marginalizing many of these most disabled and their families while providing limited programs to only 13% of the 600,000 CF veterans. As the Ombudsman noted, “little is known about the potential needs” of the remaining 87% let alone their families.

In June 2014, the House committee on VAC concluded a limited study of the NVC.  Of all witnesses and organizations, I submitted the greatest number of recommendations to assist the most disabled veterans and their families, thirty in all. Conservative MP and former Air Force Colonel, Laurie Hawn, testified in Committee, “I basically agree with most of your recommendations.” Nevertheless, only one of my proposals made it to the Committee’s 14 often vague recommendations.

Whereas a fully functioning healthy veteran receives daycare subsidies during retraining, totally and permanently incapacitated veterans and their struggling families are given zero daycare assistance. Whereas, spouses of disabled serving military members are granted a helpful allowance, spouses of disabled veterans who must either quit or curtail their careers are granted zero assistance.

The NVC is heavily marketed as superior to the previous lifelong pension program. Government claims that lifelong pensions made veterans focus on disability while the lump sum program allows veterans to focus on opportunity. Puzzling since disabled veterans receiving the lifelong pensions could test the waters of employment without suffering any deductions.

Healthy veterans under the NVC have 50% of employment earnings deducted during retraining while education is fully funded (MP’s under their plan keep 100% of employment earnings). However the NVC deducts 100% of seriously disabled veterans’ earnings. Even CPP disability allows recipients to receive up to $5100 annually in 2013 without reporting or being penalized.

Countless studies in measures of well-being and longevity conclude that individuals benefit from pursuing lifelong learning and employment even if part-time, especially the disabled. Under the NVC, the most disabled veterans are denied education support while frozen at a fraction of their military salaries, modestly adjusted for inflation.

For example, military salaries increased approximately 80% since 1996, the last year of wage freezes. While inflation has increased 34% during this time, VAC’s income program has increased a mere 30%. Ottawa, or in VAC’s case, Charlottetown, has effectively incarcerated our most disabled veterans in a policy prison of stagnant lost potential where education, employment and future earnings increases are denied. For our most disabled, NVC veterans and their families must focus upon disability rather than ability, upon insecurity rather than opportunity.

When there is a car accident, only the foolish would send an ambulance to last week’s crash scene or chase those unaffected drivers passing by the collision.

We need to hear much less about those veterans who don’t need our help and focus upon fixing the system comprehensively for those disabled veterans and their families who desperately need our help. A barrage of propaganda will fail to make the disabled veterans’ lives better. Tragically, it will add to the sense of helplessness and shame which feeds into highly destructive self-harm behaviours. Less talk Minister Fantino and senior bureaucrats. Let’s please have more listening and action.

This piece was first published in the Hill Times on September 22, 2014 (subscription required).