Fantino: cloudy priorities in sunny Cyprus

Sean Bruyea

On March 12, the flag lowered in Kabul, Canada’s most costly mission since WWII. Not a single Conservative MP attended. The next day, while eastern Canada recovered from a snowstorm, Minister of Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) Julian Fantino flew to a sunny Mediterranean destination.

It has been 50 years since the UN mission in Cyprus began. In an email, VAC indicated Minister Fantino will be accompanied by “a staff member, 5 Veterans from the Canadian Peacekeeping Veterans Association (CPVA), 5 Veterans from the Canadian Association of Veterans in United Nations Peacekeeping (CAVUNP) and two program officials.”

Retired Captain Perry Gray was contingent commander in Cyprus from 1996-1998. He is Chief Editor of VeteranVoice.info, an internet community of 100,000 subscribers. “Why are they going to Cyprus? It is unresolved, a black mark. Nicosia is the only remaining divided capital of Europe,” explains Mr. Gray adding, “we were never consulted on this trip.”

It appears that only CPVA and CAVUNP were asked to nominate individuals. CAVUNP had approximately 375 members in Jan 2013 and CPVA is considerably smaller. However, both would not respond to repeated email questions about the trip or their membership numbers which include more than just peacekeeping veterans.

VeteransofCanada.ca (VOC) is a community of more than 7500 members with at least 640 peacekeeping veterans. Don Leonardo, president and founder of VOC laments his organisation was not consulted, “We are in budget constraints. It’s a matter of priorities. Couldn’t that money have been allocated to help prevent suicide, provide greater benefits, makes changes to the New Veterans Charter?”

Veterans Affairs declined to provide me any cost estimate for the trip but confirmed “VAC is paying the full cost of airfare, travel, accommodation and daily incidentals for the ten [veterans].” In 2013, Minister Fantino billed $5,173.54 for a two-day trip to London and $9,306.37 for three days in Korea. At potentially $7,500 per person Cyprus could cost just over $100,000 for 14 individuals.

Jerry Kovacs of Canadian Veterans Advocacy (CVA) confirms his organisation was not consulted, “The optics look bad…budget cutbacks, office closures, staff reductions and then you have a junket to Cyprus during March break while it’s snowing and cold. Who’s advising this guy? The money is better spent elsewhere like on veterans, especially the homeless, their families, research on helping veterans, service dogs, you know on services that directly benefit veterans and their families.”

For the 2014 commemoration of 70 years since D-day, Canada has allocated funding for 180 veterans at $2000 each. The Conservative government has come under attack for its commemoration of the dead while the injured and their families remain neglected. Commemoration for the War of 1812 ran to more than $28 million.

In a presentation during a meeting with veteran organisations in October 2013, Minister Fantino failed to mention the planned trip to Cyprus. A PowerPoint slide indicated “The large majority of Canadians (89%) believe that the service of post-war or modern-day Veterans should be recognized.” How are Canadians to recognize let alone participate 8,600km from Ottawa where a captivatingly haunting Peacekeeping monument rests silently? Could not a fraction of that money host a brief outdoor ceremony at the monument followed by hundreds of Cyprus veterans and the public including children on March break expressing appreciation in many of the nearby conference venues?

The Royal Canadian Legion is Canada’s largest veteran organization, with over 90,000 post-WWII veterans. At least 3500 of its members served in Cyprus. Dominion Secretary Brad White wrote in an email to me, “[t]he Legion was not consulted on the commemoration trip to Cyprus, nor does it know of the intended plans,” adding, “[t]here does need to be a balance on how much is spent as compared to the amount of monies set aside to look after those who have been injured in the service of their country.”

Why were only these two organizations asked to provide candidates? On their website, CPVA, one of the organisations sending 5 individuals including retired general Larry Gollner, indicates CPVA organized two previous commemoration trips in 2011 and 2012 wherein they intended to seek funding from VAC. During VAC stakeholder meetings in February and December 2012, President of CAVUNP, Ron Griffis advocated for a trip to Cyprus.

Mike Blais, president and founder of CVA, was seriously injured in Cyprus; “Our time in the meetings would have been better served focussing solely on the real issues such as seriously injured veterans and their families rather than commemoration. I do not think [VAC] should have approached this on an organizational level. VAC has an obligation to the wounded. They should have offered the injured the opportunity to go back. Instead [the wounded] were largely abandoned.”

Ron Cundell, Webmaster of VeteranVoice.info remembers Mr. Griffis advocating for the Cyprus trip, told me “Are you the president of your veteran organization to improve veterans’ quality of life or for free trips?” Don Leonardo asks, “Isn’t this just like the $16 glass of orange juice?”

It is sad that government forces veterans to scavenge for fiscal scraps. It is equally sad that some veterans willingly participate in this scavenger hunt.

This piece was first published in the Hill Times on March 17, 2014.

Share
Comments are closed.