OTTAWA — After an 18-month tenure marred by controversy, confrontation and cries of incompetence, Julian Fantino has been booted out of the Veterans Affairs portfolio and demoted to his old job as a junior minister.
In a quiet ceremony Monday at Rideau Hall, Prime Minister Stephen Harper replaced Fantino with Erin O’Toole, a southern Ontario MP and former member of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Fantino, a tough-talking former police chief who represents the strategically important riding of Vaughan, north of Toronto, remains at the cabinet table as associate minister of defence in charge of procurement.
After the ceremony, Fantino didn’t speak to reporters other than to offer New Year’s greetings. But in a written statement, he later defended both his own record and that of the government in their treatment of ex-soldiers.
“Each and every day that I served at Veteran Affairs I was guided by a firm belief that government must stand by those who have served and continue to serve,” Fantino said.
“Under Prime Minister Harper, I can say with confidence that we have fully embraced that principle.”
Fantino went on to list some of the recent improvements, announced in November, including the expansion of services to deal with operational stress injuries.
News of the shuffle was greeted cautiously by those in the veterans community. The Royal Canadian Legion called it a “political move,” while others say it’s designed to restore the government’s credibility with a core Conservative constituency.
Whether it works remains to be seen, said dominion president Tom Eagles.
“The legion has great expectations that this government and all political parties will put the past behind and move forward to create an environment where veterans know that this country’s obligation to care for them when they need it will be met,” Eagles said.
“Given the outpouring of support veterans saw this past Remembrance Day, the Legion expects all Canadians will want their government to embrace whatever needs to be done to care for our Veterans now and in the future.”
A former street cop who later became Toronto police chief and commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police, Fantino entered federal politics by winning a byelection in 2010.
He was re-elected in 2011 and named to the cabinet in January as minister of state for seniors. He became minister of international co-operation in July 2012 and went to Veterans Affairs a year later.
He found himself in political hot water almost from the moment he took the post.
Under Fantino, the department came under heavy fire from veterans groups, the veterans ombudsman, the auditor general and the political opposition.
Fantino’s efforts to defend office closures, job cuts, lapsed budget money and tweaks to pensions and benefits provoked anger from veterans and scorn from the NDP and Liberals.
There were public relations gaffes, including a much-publicized — and televised — confrontation with veterans, and the spectacle of Fantino walking away from the wife of a former soldier, ignoring her shouted questions.
Then there was the government’s decision to go to court to argue that it had no special responsibility to care for veterans, despite the fact that such a responsibility had been iron-clad policy since the First World War.
There were howls of protest when it was learned the department had allowed more than $1 billion of its budget to lapse and return to the federal treasury since 2006. The anger only grew when the department admitted spending $4 million on ads last year promoting its efforts to help veterans return to civilian life.
Reports detailed the troubles veterans encountered getting help and benefits from the department. Other studies suggested that wounded veterans would face poverty once they hit age 65.
Efforts to calm the situation failed. Tweaks to benefits and more money for mental health brought no respite. Fantino’s chief of staff quit and was replaced by a staffer from the Prime Minister’s Office.
Retired general Walt Natynczyk, the country’s former top military commander, was also appointed as Fantino’s deputy minister and senior civil servant.