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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