Lee Berthiaume More from Lee Berthiaume
Published on: November 30, 2014Last Updated: November 30, 2014 4:57 PM EST
When Julian Fantino was elected to Parliament in November 2010, he was seen as a star. A former Toronto police chief and Ontario Provincial Police commissioner, the hard-nosed cop had the credentials to shine in a Conservative government that billed itself as tough on crime.
Four years later, the view is very different.
When Auditor General Michael Ferguson released an explosive report detailing the hurdles many veterans still face trying to access mental health services, Fantino was an ocean away in Italy. His office defended the trip, which marked the 70th anniversary of the Second World War's Italian campaign. But some questioned whether Fantino was running from the auditor's findings. Or worse, whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper had decided to keep him out of sight.
Some see Fantino's performance at Veterans Affairs as spectacularly disastrous. Footage of a nasty exchange with veterans in January, where the minister took issue with a finger-jabbing soldier before storming out, went viral. So did video of Fantino being chased down a hallway by the wife of a vet suffering from PTSD in May. Both incidents shadow him to this day.
Those who have worked with Fantino say those examples don't do him justice. Even opposition critics and veterans groups who have been critical of the government concede the minister's genuine desire to help veterans. And they say he has helped in some ways.
But four years after arriving in Parliament, Fantino's political weaknesses have been exposed and the government is on the defensive when it comes to its treatment of veterans. It could be only a matter of time until he is replaced.
On the surface, Fantino had the hallmarks of an outstanding veterans affairs minister. He ran two large police forces before being elected to Parliament. He performed well as secretary of state for seniors shortly after arriving in Ottawa.
Former staff, veterans groups and even opposition critics say he also harbours a genuine affection for veterans.
Perhaps that is not surprising. Fantino was born in Italy in 1942, when the country was under the heel of Benito Mussolini's fascists. It wouldn't be until two years later that allied forces, including thousands of Canadians, would free the country.
NDP veterans affairs critic Peter Stoffer, born in the Netherlands, believes the experience was informative because "our parents were both liberated by the Canadians."
Except the majority of veterans seeking the government's assistance today are peacekeepers or former military members who served in Afghanistan. Some are still in their 20s. And they haven't been shy about voicing their anger over the barriers they face gaining support and services.
In addition, those who complain the loudest often don't represent the majority of veterans. Rather, they are the ones who have or are in danger of falling through the cracks.
"The majority of veterans are not disabled and disadvantaged," said former veterans ombudsman Pat Stogran. "The ones who are killing themselves are the ones who are very desperate and being abandoned."
Fantino, as a police chief, displayed little empathy for those — such as aboriginal groups, gay activists and other subsections of society — who sought to air their grievances through public protests. While some described him as tough and no-nonsense, others saw him as polarizing, insensitive and aloof.
That didn't matter for the portfolios he held before veterans affairs: untangling the federal government's troubled military procurement strategy as the associate defence minister; and overseeing its Canada's foreign aid as international development minister.
Former staff say those traits have even been recognized as a strength at the cabinet table, where the former police chief's background and experience are valued. But they also acknowledge this style has caused problems on a file that deals exclusively with people.
"He has no time for political games, or what he thinks are political games," said one former staff member, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"If there is a family of a victim, and he thinks you are not representative of the group and you're doing this to embarrass me, then he's going to walk away. And he doesn't give a sh — what anybody thinks about it."
Fantino has been able to push some initiatives to help veterans. He launched a review of the New Veterans Charter, the system through which modern veterans receive benefits. He secured more money for funerals and burials. He championed adding the Boer War and Afghanistan to the National War Memorial.
But he has failed to address the most pressing complaints voiced by veterans, including changing the department's culture to make it more receptive to veterans' needs, which in turn has contributed to the recent public relations disasters. And when he is challenged in public, the results have not gone well.
"What will live with him through the rest of his career is that finger-pointing," said an official with one Canadian veterans' organization. "That was a really bad day that has literally overshadowed his tenure."
The official says the incident and others have contributed to an atmosphere of distrust toward the government among large parts of the veterans' community.
Veterans Affairs was supposed to be a strength for the Conservative government, which had long touted itself as the most pro-military. It has become a weakness under Fantino's watch. Sensing blood, opposition parties plan to make veterans an election issue next year.
"He's been absent since he became minister," said Liberal veterans affairs critic Frank Valeriote. "He has not heard the pleas of our veterans. He's paid lip service to their pleas."
Recognizing the danger, the government brought in reinforcements: retired general Walter Natynczyk, the former chief of defence staff, became the department's top bureaucrat last month.
Widely respected, Natynczyk will be charged with doing what Fantino couldn't: instilling a new, pro-veteran culture into the department; and offering a caring, compassionate face to Veterans Affairs. The appointment has been met with rave reviews.
"The Legion is really hoping that Minister Fantino listens carefully and takes the advice of his new deputy minister (Natynczyk)," said Royal Canadian Legion spokesman Scott Ferris.
Yet even with Natynczyk's appointment, Fantino's time as veterans affairs minister may be running down. Critics say the prime minister can't shuffle Fantino out of the position so close to an election, as that would be seen as an admission of failure.
"If they do that, then the government will admit they have bigger problems," said Stoffer.
But the minister's office has been shaken up, with his chief of staff leaving in recent weeks. Fantino has made few public appearances. His parliamentary secretary, Parm Gill, is taking on a greater role in question period. The government has just months before an election where its treatment of veterans — and Fantino's perceived role — may factor in to the outcome.
Julian Fantino at a glance
Born in Italy, emigrated to Canada at age 11.
Worked as a police officer for almost four decades, including as chief of the London Police Service, York Regional Police and Toronto Police Service. Became commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police.
Elected to House of Commons for Vaughan 2010, re-elected 2011.
Served as minister of state for seniors, and associate minister of national defence.
Served as minister of international development.
Currently minister of Veterans Affairs.
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The Canadian Veterans Advocacy Team.