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).

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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).

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Adieu to a friend, ally in accountability wars

Allan Cutler, Sean Bruyea and Ian Bron

A stalwart champion for whistleblowers and the laws to protect them is stepping down. Wrongdoers, especially those in government and their apathetic allies in oversight may think they can take a breather. They may not have long to rest.

There are only two organizations that focus on whistleblowing in Canada – the Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform (FAIR), and Canadians for Accountability (C4A). FAIR became a powerhouse of advocacy under David Hutton’s direction. David has recently announced he is stepping down.

Prior to FAIR, David was already an expert in management systems and organizational change. A senior executive inindustry, he later led a successful consulting practice for 20 years, publishing two authoritative books on quality management. David took over as Executive Director of FAIR in 2008.

David Hutton worked arduously to build FAIR. He created the website from scratch compiling more than 3,000 pages of valuable whistleblower resource material. David produced original reference works such as “The Whistleblower Ordeal” and “How Wrongdoers Operate”. Most frustrating for government was David’s thorough analyses of Canada’s disturbingly weak whistleblower laws and the frequent lame duck operations of the office entrusted to enforce them, the Integrity Commissioner. Kady O’Malley, prolific political journalist, aptly billed FAIR’s website as the “most dangerous website in Ottawa.” Sadly, since David’s departure, FAIR’s website remains down.

David took hundreds of calls from whistleblowers in distress, dispensing advice when he could, seeking collaboration with C4A to help others. He spoke at Parliamentary committees and granted hundreds of interviews. He participated in international forums on whistleblowing and transparency. A notable achievement was ‘International Principles for Whistleblowing Legislation’ by Transparency International. Both C4A and FAIR were active in the development of this International standard.

David was, and we hope continues, working on a documentary about Canadian whistleblowers while compiling video profiles of whistleblowers from all walks of life. He raised the money and did all of this not because he had to and certainly not because he was paid. Like everyone in our organizations, he was a volunteer and did it because he believed that whistleblowers are our best hope at exposing corruption, wrongdoing, and unethical behavior. (And there’s plenty of evidence that they are: research has shown that 47% of fraud is uncovered by whistleblowers.)

David’s work was not always appreciated and often fell on the deaf ears of the insular sandbox of Canada’s federal senior bureaucracy. When Mario Dion became the Integrity Commissioner in 2010, he assembled a stakeholder advisory committee. He could not ignore whistleblower and accountability groups such as FAIR, C4A, and Democracy Watch. We were invited.

This committee was sold as an opportunity for whistleblowers and their advocates to be heard. We were led to believe the commissioner wanted us to participate in the process of creating a safe environment for federal government whistleblowers and to improve the laws and systems in place. FAIR and C4A’s expansive contacts with and input from hundreds of whistleblowers provided us with an expertise and insight not available to Dion. We were encouraged by Dion’s initiative. We knew we could help if listened to.

These hopes were dashed in 2012 when David was unceremoniously dumped from the committee. His crime: he had dared to remain publicly critical of Integrity Commissioner and the performance of his office. This reaction was to us very telling: we believe that Mr. Dion expected us to avoid or ‘sugarcoat’ criticism in return for the quid quo pro of the seat at the table. But we were there to defend whistleblowers and their right to report corruption, mismanagement and/or abusive behavior so that government can be all it claims to be. Sadly, Integrity Commissioners have been terrified of integrity.

To get the job done, we must be critics of government’s otherwise blind eye to wrongdoing. We are constructive critics but sugar coating is not required and should not be expected. And, truthfully, this is part of what makes a democracy vibrant. We think that the average grown-up Canadian understands this. So we are disappointed every time we get this knee-jerk reaction from government officials to blacklist, expel and/or exile voices who merely present inconvenient facts.

Why was David expelled into the wilderness when we had been equally critical of Dion? Whatever small reasons government may have, both C4A and Democracy Watch were appalled. There were no gag orders or leashes placed on any of us by Dion. David violated nothing except a dysfunctional expectation of servitude. We therefore resigned, partly in protest and partly to ensure that Mr. Dion could no longer claim that he was consulting with us.

We stress that C4A’s decision to resign from the Advisory Committee was in support of Mr. Hutton, the individual, and not necessarily FAIR. He has always been a strong supporter of openness, transparency and gave honest criticism.

Our admiration of what Mr. Hutton accomplished continues. Although both C4A and FAIR under David’s direction welcomed whistleblowers from all walks of life, C4A specialized in working closely with whistleblowers while shining a light on accountability failings in the private and public sector. David became Canada’s leading expert in analysis of Canada’s whistleblower laws and the operations of the Integrity Commissioner’s office. We have been fortunate in David’s willingness to collaborate for the common goal of making Canada a better place by advocating for safe, fair, dignified and just avenues for whistleblowers to report those people, events and activities that weaken Canada and hold us back from greater prosperity.

Mr. Hutton’s voice and his skills are much needed on what is a bleak landscape for Canadian whistleblowers. The federal government’s whistleblower protection laws are largely ineffective. The cases being brought forward are trivial compared to some of those coming to us. Many of these individuals reporting grievous wrongdoing have already tried the Integrity Commissioner, and found no remedy or protection from the ruthless reprisals of senior bureaucrats. Most provincial laws are similarly weak, with some being little more than a trap for the unwary. And as for the private sector, there remains almost no protection at all.

Government should cut short their celebration at David’s departure. He has indicated that without the many responsibilities of running a charity like FAIR, David “may be more effective as an advocate for change.” So while we wish him well in leaving FAIR, we hope that we will hear from David Hutton again… soon.

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