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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Prime Minister Harper: Thank you for Julian Fantino

Dear Prime Minister Harper:

Gosh, the Veterans Affairs portfolio has been difficult hasn’t it? I don’t think you have received enough credit however for appointing Julian Fantino as the Department’s Minster. He has been a blessing in disguise to Canada’s disabled veterans and their families.

Canadians, particularly veterans, may be widely repulsed by the constant shenanigans of Minister Fantino. I suspect that being the veteran and military champion you claim to be, you had a hidden plan to bring substantive change to that poorly managed department. Our senior public servants and their policies are largely integrity, compassion, transparency and innovation challenged.  Those at Veterans Affairs (VAC) are arguably the worst of the lot.

Back to Minister Fantino. Many believe you appointed the highly controversial ex-police chief because he could somehow command order amongst those ungratefully vocal veterans who dared exercise the very rights for which they sacrificed in uniform. You know, I am referring to those pesky fundamental freedoms of expression, association, peaceful assembly and the press.

Just as Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn noted following the widespread breaches in my privacy in 2010, VAC all alone in Charlottetown needed a change in culture. Rightly bringing the department back to Ottawa would be a rather large budget line. Firing all those questionably performing senior bureaucrats could face resistance in the public service.

I suspect you knew that such big change would require widespread public support. But most Canadians didn’t know or care about veterans. Disabled veterans were supposed to wither away quietly with meagre handouts. Meanwhile society benefits from veterans’ sacrifice without society sacrificing much in return to care for them.  Fantino’s arrival helped change that.

Although the Prime Minister’s Office so adroitly worked on the Senate scandal to bring much needed attention to Senate reform, appointing Julian Fantino was your magnum opus.

He acutely offended aging veterans who travelled a thousand miles to meet with him in Ottawa during one of Canada’s coldest winters on record. Rather than apologize for standing them up, Fantino accused the veterans of being “duped” by the public service union doing the job the Minister should have been doing, i.e., protecting services for veterans.

During the altercation which left one veteran in tears, Fantino declared he was late because he was at a Cabinet meeting to “champion some issues on behalf of veterans”.  Surely, those veterans suffering psychological injuries have been the hardest hit and the least cared-for in the tangle of VAC bureaucracy. The budget released two weeks later had nothing for living veterans such as those he offended. The much-respected late Jim Flaherty told Lisa LaFlamme on budget night that “I haven’t been asked for money for post-traumatic stress disorder specifically”.

Instead, Minister Fantino has been busy signing his name to all manner of letters to the editor and opinion pieces in which he (read VAC senior bureaucrat script writers) makes fascinatingly spurious claims. In the Huffington Post, Fantino wrote, “The Disability Award forms only a small percentage of the total financial benefits available to injured Veteran” under the New Veterans Charter (NVC). In 2013, more than three times more or $419 million was given to veterans as a lump sum disability award than the $124.7 million paid out by all the other “financial benefits” of the NVC combined.

During Parliamentary testimony, Fantino alleged veterans could receive the impossible amount of $10,000 per month in financial benefits from VAC under the NVC.  The Minister and his department have repeatedly failed to back up this assertion. It was a master stroke to have Minister Fantino accuse veterans of misinformation when Fantino and his senior bureaucrats are the greatest purveyors of misleading half-truths. And we can’t forget how brilliant was the plan to have Minister Fantino along with three political staffers, Deputy Minister Chaput and General Semianiw all run away on national news from the lone spouse of a veteran, Jenny Migneault. She was clearly not a threat or a union ‘dupe’. But Canadians needed to see that if Fantino has little respect for veterans, he and senior bureaucrats have little more than disdain for veteran spouses.

What veterans don’t understand about your Machiavellian plan is why the senior VAC bureaucracy which needs deep cultural change is allowed to run rampant. In spite of multiple Executive positions designated for cutbacks, VAC has reportedly yet to make those individuals ‘redundant’. Furthermore, Deputy Minister Chaput continues to rake in her annual bonus while she has increased her staff by 500% to ostensibly generate much of the Department’s “misinformation”.

Whereas Fantino can’t quite match the buffoonery of Rob Ford, it was a nice touch that the Minister felt “sorry” for Toronto’s mayor. Fantino then hit a home run when he insensitively compared Ford’s drug and alcohol addiction to sufferers of PTSD, like veterans from the war in Afghanistan.

I know there is much pressure to shuffle Minister Fantino out of Cabinet this summer. I urge you to resist this. Julian Fantino is the gift that keeps on giving to all Canadians.

Never in modern memory has a Minister by his own poor example brought so much attention to the profound cultural problems infecting Veterans Affairs. His antics will continue to highlight the indignity and humiliation to which far too many veterans and their families are subjected by Canada’s federal government. Then you will be able to bring about the deep transformation needed at VAC.

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