…same as the old boss?
Stephen Harper’s sudden replacement of Julian Fantino with Erin O’Toole was a smart political move. O’Toole is a veteran himself, and apparently competent enough to cover for Fantino over the past few months.
It was, after all, the eleventh hour for Harper: keep Julian Fantino on for much longer, and the vets would have shown up to the October polls with fresh memories of his high-handed treatment of them. New outrages, after all, just kept arising as he stumbled and bumbled through his Ministry. The latest was a Veterans Affairs memo accusing traumatized soldiers of fraud. Fantino didn’t pen the thing, but it seems to sum up his dubious eighteen-month reign: a toxic mixture of arrogance and ignorance.
Under his watch, our veterans truly suffered. Their wounds, both physical and mental, were made worse by deliberate neglect. Essential services were cut back: nine regional offices offering those services were closed. So many front-line jobs were eliminated that the department has had to start hiring again to cope with the impossible workload.
We will soon be marking the one-year anniversary of the closing of the Sydney office in Cape Breton. Events are being organized in both Sydney and Charlottetown on January 31st to mark the closures, and to demand that the offices be re-opened and the cuts to Veterans Affairs be reversed.
The government’s treatment of those it should be honouring is difficult to understand. The Auditor General this past November slammed Veterans Affairs for lengthy wait times for treatment. A group of Afghan vets who went to court to fight the slashing of benefits were informed, in response, that the Harper government has torn up the social contract with vets that has been in place since World War I. Fantino’s department, in the midst of all the cutbacks, returned $1.13 billion of unspent funds, and then announced that $200 million of that would be returned to improve services. Over the next fifty years.
Meanwhile, Veterans Affairs disability decisions have been forcing desperate veterans to appeal to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board (VRAB), which is independent, but reports to the same minister. Last year the Board banned a veterans’ advocate after he won 48 appeals in a row. The Board claimed he wasn’t qualified to represent on appeals. (Imagine what a “qualified” advocate could do!) Surely this says something about the quality of Veterans Affairs’ decision-making.
It would be unfair to blame Fantino for all of these anti-veteran moves, of course: stiffing our vets is Conservative government policy, which gets made in the Prime Minister’s Office. But Fantino kept rubbing salt in the wounds. Last year he kept a group of vets waiting for more than an hour, and then was unspeakably rude to them when they showed annoyance. He later apologized, but we can judge his sincerity by the way he treated the spouse of a vet later on, striding past her as though she didn’t exist.
I’m glad the abrasive Fantino has been shuffled away. But for the veterans it may be a case of out of the frying pan into the fire. O’Toole has always vigorously defended the government’s anti-vet policies. And his first move as Minister was to kick a strong pro-veteran advocacy organization off the Veterans Affairs stakeholder advisory group. I hope he starts listening to the voices of veterans soon and reverses his predecessor’s bad decisions.
But rest assured, we will keep working to get good services for our veterans—at the bargaining table, at organized events, and wherever else our union and our members can make their voices heard. We’re going to do everything we can to keep this issue in the public eye until it’s resolved. The veterans deserve nothing less.
[Photocredit: Nick Brancaccio, Postmedia]