Probably the Worst Vets Minister Ever
By Ralph Goodale
Member of Parliament for Wascana
Every Remembrance Day at memorial services across the country, the most emotional moment is when the "Veterans Company" marches past the cenotaph.
Whether they are younger people who saw action just recently in places like Afghanistan or 90-year-olds who survived the WW2 or veterans of all the other campaigns in between, they provoke spontaneous respect and admiration. They are, after all, genuine heroes. The crowds break into loud and sustained applause.
Within our free society, we can and do have vigorous disputes about the foreign and defence policy issues that resulted in all these valiant Canadians being sent into harm's way in various theatres of war down through the years. Such debate is what a democracy is all about - that's what our Canadian Forces go to fight for.
But all such arguments aside, once our troops are in the heat of battle, all Canadians pray for their safety, marvel at their skill and courage, mourn their losses and anxiously await their return. We all know we have a sacred covenant to honour in the aftermath of war.
On this latter point, among the public, there is no disagreement whatsoever. Our returning military personnel and veterans have stood ready to give their all, and when they come home, their country must "stand ready" for them - to meet their social, economic, physical and psychological needs. All Canadians expect their government to respond with gratitude and generosity.
That's why it's so difficult to fathom the bizarre on-going misbehaviour of Stephen Harper's Veterans Affairs Minister, Julian Fantino. His antics, including several personally insulting encounters with veterans and their families, are a major drag on the government's credibility.
Most recently, Mr. Fantino couldn't justify his department's failure to utilize more than $1.1-billion which Parliament had expressly approved for programs and services for veterans. For all the government's loud budget promises, the money never got out the door.
In Finance department language, that $1.1-billion "lapsed". The hapless Mr. Fantino seems to think he still has access to it, but he doesn't. Lapsed funds from all departments go back into the central treasury and are largely applied at year-end against the government's deficit. In other words - by accident, design or incompetence - the money was used to help balance the books.
Think what might have been accomplished for returning soldiers and veterans if these funds had been utilized as Parliament intended. The nine offices providing specialized services to veterans across the country might not have closed. Financial assistance for dignified funerals might have been provided to the families of thousands of deceased Vets who were denied such help.
Veterans' health insurance premiums perhaps didn't need to double. Pensions could have been improved. The Veterans Independence Program might have been enhanced. Some returning soldiers might not have been discharged just before they could qualify for benefits. A vigorous effort to detect and deal pro-actively with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder could have been launched years ago.
Instead, yesterday, just before the Auditor General is due to publish a critique of his performance, Mr. Fantino announced a small mental health initiative representing only a fraction of his lapsed funding. It's obviously a last-minute manoeuvre to deflect the flak he is getting.
One leading advocate for veterans, Michael Blais, called the initiative "damage control" in the "toxic" relationship Mr. Fantino has created. Former Veterans Ombudsman Pat Stogran dismissed it as more "rhetoric" and "empty promises", not really worth listening to.
Mr. Harper and his Minister have a big credibility problem.