Fantino's last chance at empathy

Tim
Tim Harper
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Julian Fantino, the sinking Veterans Affairs minister, has been handed a lifeline.

It's not much, but a minister who appears to have had his empathy surgically removed would be wise to grab it. It could be a final chance.

An all-party committee report Tuesday recommended enhancements and updates to the Veterans Charter and even though it was immediately panned by veterans' advocates, it is a tangible first step toward repairing the growing rupture between the Conservative government and the Canadian men and women who have returned from war with physical and psychological injuries and a sense that they have been used up and spit out.

Four factors point to the need for quick action. First, the report had unanimous agreement, a refreshing splash of Parliamentary co-operation in a partisan hothouse.

Secondly, it won the endorsement of New Democrat Peter Stoffer, the country's most passionate and eloquent advocate for our veterans and Fantino's most persistent and effective critic.

Stoffer's statement that Tuesday was a "very, very proud day for our veterans across the country," may not be shared by their advocates but it provides political cover for the minister to move quickly.

Thirdly, the report was accompanied by calls to action by members of Fantino's team, with Edmonton Conservative MP Laurie Hawn, himself a veteran, saying he wants to hold his government to account and insisted the report eliminated any "wriggle room" for the minister.

Finally, timing - and not because veterans have waited long enough for action.

Canadian veterans begin massing on Parliament Hill Wednesday in what is expected to be the largest series of protests against the treatment of those who have returned from war since frustrated soldiers headed to the capital after the First World War.

They are arriving in the shadow of ceremonies in Normandy commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day, attended by Fantino and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

They are demanding justice as they look to the suffering of their brothers and sisters south of the border, where corruption and lax political oversight of Veterans Affairs not only caused undue delays for medical treatment but is tied to deaths. It cost Eric Shinseki, the head of U.S. veterans affairs, his job.

So far Fantino has helped the plight of our veterans in ways he never intended.

With his ineptitude, walking away from veterans seeking a meeting, ignoring the plaintive cries of the spouse of a veteran suffering from PTSD, he has raised the profile of frustrated veterans and has single-handedly cemented a perception of an unflinching, uncaring, government disrespecting those who served this country with honour.

In the House of Commons, he has responded to questions of compassion by reading talking points.

Harper inexplicably placed a man with decades of experience with a regimental top-down approach to policing in a portfolio where he needed someone exuding sincerity, concern and a common touch.

The report says the government must not medically discharge injured soldiers before everything is in place for their care at Veterans Affairs to ensure a smooth transition. It must guarantee benefits for life for those veterans most seriously disabled and must improve the lump sum payments to those left with the most debilitating injuries.

Most importantly, it seeks to define the social covenant between the government and its returning soldiers, following a government submission in a lawsuit which maintains there is "no special obligation" from this government to its returning vets and that Ottawa cannot be bound by past practices of previous governments.

Fantino, who asked for the report, praised its findings Tuesday but only promised a response this autumn after a careful review.

The anger remains and it will be on full display beginning Wednesday. And it will not last one day. Organizers have a permit to gather in front of the Centre Block until June 19.

Organizers expect at least 2,500 veterans, their spouses, their advocates and their family members to be joined by American vets.

They will deliver speeches, march and join a motorcycle convoy, but they are making it clear they are speaking to Canadians. No politician will speak.

"This is veterans, for veterans, telling Canadians how things work despite what they are hearing from their government," said organizer Rob Gallant, an Air Force vet from Nova Scotia. "We want to counter the misinformation coming from this government."

I asked for Gallant's assessment of Fantino's job performance. He asked me if it was on the record.

"Dismal," he said finally, measuring his words.

Out of curiosity, I asked for his off-the-record assessment. It might have made even an old cop blush.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column is distributed through Torstar Syndication Services. tharper@thestar.ca Twitter:@nutgraf1

Organizations: Veterans Charter, Veterans Affairs, House of Commons Centre Block

Geographic location: Normandy, U.S., Ottawa Nova Scotia

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