Prime Minister Harper: Thank you for Julian Fantino

Never in modern memory has a Cabinet minister by his own poor example brought  so much attention to the profound cultural problems at Veterans Affairs Canada.



Published: Monday, 07/14/2014 12:00 am EDT Last Updated: Monday, 07/14/2014 12:35 am EDT

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 minister. 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 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.

Many believe you appointed the ex-cop because he would whip the department into shape while subduing those ungratefully vocal veterans who dared exercise the very rights for which they sacrificed in uniform. 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 department’s widespread breaches in my privacy in 2010, VAC, all alone in Charlottetown, needs cultural change. 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 adroitly worked on the Senate scandal to bring much-needed attention to Senate reform, appointing Fantino was your magnum opus.

He offended aging veterans who travelled a thousand miles to meet with him in Ottawa during one of Canada’s coldest winters on record. And 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 late Jim Flaherty told Lisa LaFlamme on budget night, “I haven’t been asked for money for post-traumatic stress disorder, specifically.”

Instead, Fantino has been busy signing all manner of letters to the editor in which he  makes fascinatingly, spurious claims. In the Huffington Post Canada, 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 corroborate this assertion. It was a masterful stroke to have Fantino accuse veterans of misinformation when Fantino and his senior bureaucrats are the greatest purveyors of misleading half-truths.

It was a brilliant plan to have Fantino, his three political staffers, deputy minister Mary Chaput and assistant deputy minister Walter Semianiw all run away on national news from the 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 reportedly has yet to make those individuals ‘redundant’. Meanwhile, overworked frontline positions were quickly cut. Furthermore, Chaput continues to rake in her annual bonus while she has increased her staff by 500 per cent ostensibly to generate much of the department’s “misinformation.”

Whereas Fantino can’t quite match the buffoonery of Rob Ford, he hit a home run when he 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 Fantino out of Cabinet this summer. I urge you to resist this. 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 at Veterans Affairs Canada. His antics will continue to highlight the indignity and humiliation to which far too many veterans and their families are subject to by Canada’s federal government. Then you will be able to bring about the extensive transformation needed at VAC.

Sean Bruyea, vice-president of Canadians for Accountability, is a retired Air Force intelligence officer and a frequent commentator on government, military, and veterans’ issues.

The Hill Times