Full article…. Hill times edited some out due to space issue on the printed version, Be advised that every MP and Senator will be getting a copy of the paper this morning.
Julian Fantino: 2014 Annus Horribilis
Mike Blais CD
Founder and President
Canadian Veterans Advocacy
Without doubt, 2013-2014 was a terrible first year for Julian Fantino, Minister of Veterans Affairs. The fledgling minister immediately endeared himself with the veterans community, penning a widely distributed editorial claiming that he too was a veteran. Fantino declared, erroneously, that he had smelt gunpowder, been in the trenches, invoking images of Canada’s stellar military history without ever swearing allegiance to the Queen or donning the uniform graced with traditions that pre-existed confederation.
Veterans were not amused.
Veterans became less amused as Minister Fantino’s tenure unfolded. The contrasts with his predecessor, Steven Blaney, were stark. Blaney understood the obligation, was eager to engage veteran’s stakeholders in dialogue and encouraged collective discussions through the enforcement of mandated bi-annual departmental stakeholder meetings. Blaney promoted inclusiveness, accessibility. Minister Fantino, conversely, is seldom accessible and prefers exclusion over inclusion. The departmental stakeholder meetings his predecessor encouraged and often attended have been abandoned. Not one single departmental stakeholders meeting has been convened since Fantino was appointed.
The singular ministerial meeting held in early October, 2013, was nearly derailed when Fantino’s exclusionary policies forbade the stakeholders to have observers present. Gorden Moore, then president of the Royal Canadian Legion, arrived with Brad White, Dominion Secretary. An ultimatum was \delivered. Either White attends or the Royal Canadian Legion would not attend (boycott?) the meeting.
Minister Fantino blinked. The dominion secretary was allowed access but other than the Canadian Veterans Advocacy, none of the other organizations present had an observer. Not that it would matter, the meeting was designed to introduce the new minister to the stakeholders, provide a recycled brief of the New Veterans Charter and engage in general discussion that was very interesting but really served no purpose as a year later, no changes of significance have been implemented.
Julian Fantino did, however, take the opportunity to announce that the Harper Government would appeal a favourable ruling for wounded veterans before the BC Supreme Court (Equitas Lawsuit) regarding their quest for equality to the Pension Act. Equality denied when the Harper Government enacted the New Veterans Charter in 2006, creating a second class of veteran just as Canadian participation in the Afghanistan War entered the combat phase of a mission that would ravage the nation of 150 valiant lives and account for thousands of injuries and wounds. The government will argue it has no Sacred Obligation, no Social Contact with those who have sacrificed dearly under Mr Harper’s stewardship of the war.
It is virtually impossible for a minister to effectively manage such an important portfolio when he is absent from Ottawa/Charlottetown so often and for prolonged periods of time. The complexity of the Veterans Affairs Canada portfolio and the increasing obligation to the wounded being medically released from the Forces after twelve years of war must take priority over ceremonial events. Despite raising public awareness of the severe problems veterans are confronting and the oft catastrophic consequences, Fantino appears more focused on attending ceremonies celebrating, at tens of millions of dollars, the war of 1812 and anniversaries of battles from World War 1 and World War 2.
No novice minister of veteran‘s affairs has embraced the role of Canada’s ceremonial figurehead with such zeal. Within the course of a single year, Fantino traversed the globe. Hong Kong, Korea, Italy, France, the United States, Cyprus, Belgium… there was even time for a trip to Vatican. A recent domestic cross country tour presenting Minister’s commendations and awarding Canada’s surviving WW2 veterans certificates in tightly controlled photo opportunities have added significantly to the minister’s ever-growing air miles card.
When the minister is in Ottawa, veterans have not fared well. Fantino has done very little on the portfolio other than perform his duties to slash his department’s budget with characteristic unwavering loyalty to the Conservative fiscal line. Last fall, a “comprehensive” review was initiated on the New Veterans Charter with promises that the Sacred Obligation inadequacies would be addressed. Fantino will be tabling the Departmental response in early October. Considering the Conservative dominated committee’s recommendations, it is very unlikely that the wounded seeking equality for their sacrifice to the Pension Act provisions will be satisfied or that Memorial Cross Widows currently living in poverty due to exclusion from the NVC’s anti-poverty/earnings loss benefits will be provided respite.
Who will forget the unseemly inept, much televised manner Minister Fantino handled the closures of several Veterans Affairs district offices located across the nation. Remarkably, the restrictions of services provided the catalyst for hundreds of veterans in the affected regions to protest the closures through local public assemblies. A representative delegation of veterans traveled to Ottawa in January 2015 to encourage Fantino to repeal of this harmful, budget-orientated policy with the understanding that many Afghan War veterans will soon be medically released into these communities and will require direct assistance, and not a 1-800 number to a contracted entity
The delegation included veterans from World War Two to Afghanistan, expanding the level of community discord and derision beyond those affected by the substandard policies of the New Veterans Charter. It will be some time before Canadians dismiss the images of an arrogant minister snapping at a WW2 Veteran Roy Fields who, chest adorned with campaign medals denoting this nation’s proud history, had the audacity to declare the minister’s excuses hogwash while raising his index finger to make the point.
Perhaps an apt description of the minister’s performance considering the profound level of disrespect demonstrated and the direct consequences, a decorated United Nations veteran bolting from the room in frustrated tears. Let us not forget, the Minister for Veterans Affairs duty is to serve veterans, not bully and berate them.
Many Canadians will never forget Fantino’s tactless response when Jennifer Mignault attempted to speak with him after a committee meeting. Jennifer is the spouse of a seriously wounded veteran in dire need of support, including tools to save her husband‘s life. Fantino first bolted to the sanctuary of a cloak room, reappearing a moment later with narrow minded focus and apparent selective hearing, He blithely ignoring the distressed spouse, the cameras documenting his behavior and blithely marched down the hallway dutifully followed by Parliamentary Secretary Gill and staff. They too, apparently, suffer from hearing impairments.
”Do we mean nothing to you?”
There have been other consequences to Fantino‘s exclusionary policies. The Legion filled the void of abrogated departmental stakeholder meetings, assembled the traditional veterans organizations and others, sent letters requesting reform on a a variety of issues. To no avail. Modern organizations have also formed, Bruce Moncur, Afghanistan Veterans Association and Jennifer Mignault’s Red Flaggers, a family caregiver not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing the support to families Fantino has yet to provide.
Perhaps the most interesting consequence to Fantino’s Annus Horribilus as minister of Veterans Affairs has been political. Ronald Clark, the elderly disabled veteran who so valiantly attempted to save the VAC district office in Cape Breton and traveled to Ottawa to lead and represent his region, started an Anybody But Conservative campaign. He has promised will focus on the military and veteran vote during the next election.
This is remarkable. Mr. Clark is a veteran. By nature, veterans are not inclined to engage politically for or against. Nor is Mr Clark a young man. His era of service is far removed from the bloodied sands of the Panjawaii Valley in Afghanistan where recent veterans served.
But like many veterans, young and old, Mr Clark feels betrayed by Julian Fantino and abandoned by Stephen Harper, who refuses to accept his Scared Obligation to the families of 150 valiant Canadians who died in Afghanistan on his watch or the multitude of wounded that seek only Pension Act equality, the Chump Sum Award currently provided, for their sacrifice, pain and suffering.
A federal general election will be held in 2015, at this time, there is good reason to believe veterans will not forget who has deserted them in their time of need. Many veterans and their families will be mindful of Mr. Clark’s ABC campaign, there is already rising support and the word is spreading rapidly through veterans social networks. Others will surely be thinking of Julian Fantino…. when they cast their ballot.
Lest we Forget.
Michael L. Blais is president and founder of the Canadian Veterans Advocacy.
The Hill Times