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Can We Trust a Veterans Affairs Minister Who Doesn't Even Know What Makes a Veteran?

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Newly-minted Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino hasn't exactly been winning friends recently. Nor his influence on veterans been inspirational, except in the way that an emetic inspires. It appears the Honourable Minister is in over his head with his portfolio... or perhaps gagging on it... as mere months after his appointment -- and before he has even taken his seat -- veterans are demanding his resignation. Fantino has been handling the issues at Veterans Affairs with all the grace of a newborn moose on ice skates.

2013-10-16-Julian_Fantino_November_2012.jpg

© 2012 Giovanni Aprea

First up: the Government's appeal of the Lump-Sum Lawsuit.

This is hardly Fantino's fault -- the case, legal arguments, and probably the decisions to appeal, preceded his appointment. But he's the guy charged with defending to Canadians the decision to waste even more of our money fighting our veterans in court. Trying to explain away the inexplicable position of his government, Fantino maintains the party line that veterans' issues should be settled in the Commons while simultaneously arguing that the Harper Government isn't bound be decisions of previous ones. The Legion calls the government's position 'reprehensible', taxpayers are backing the veterans, and Fantino is now the focus of the anger.

Next issue: the closures of VAC offices.

This also predates Fantino's appointment. The Harper Government has decided to trim its spending by closing Veterans Affairs offices in such remote locations as Corner Brook (NL), Charlottetown, Sydney (NS), Saskatoon and Windsor, Ontario. This decision has veterans and civil servants united to save their local office, where a veteran can go and receive help in person. Instead, the federal government -- in the person of Julian Fantino -- is promoting the new Veterans Affairs smart-phone app.

The impact on veterans is easily predictable.

But what really has veterans riled are Fantino's comments on Vancouver's CKNW radio earlier this month.

In an interview with Bill Good, the Honourable Minister demonstrated some fundamental ignorance of his stakeholders:

"I spent 40 years in law enforcement. I too have served. I've been at the trenches and heard the guns go off. I guess I can also put myself and other colleagues, firefighters, and police officers who put themselves in harms way every day in the same category."

If you'd been listening attentively, you might have heard the vast cry of obscenities as people nationwide discovered that the Minister Responsible doesn't understand what makes a veteran a veteran.

That is not to take away from the dedication and sacrifices of civilian police, firefighters, or other first responders. All Canadians, including veterans, recognize the amazing - sometimes heroic - contributions made by these fine individuals as they protect and save people and communities. They do fantastic work and should be commended for it. But that's not the point. The point is that they are not veterans.

Minister Fantino obviously was a dedicated career police officer. I'm sure he did witness some horrible things. And if he says he heard gunfire, who am I to say otherwise? (Although I suspect he was being metaphorical in at least one claim. The last time I checked, police didn't engage in trench warfare, not even with very bad gang situations.) But the fact is, the Honourable Minister is not a veteran, does not qualify as a veteran, and, no matter how big his sacrifices, could never be considered a veteran, because of one simple fact:

Julian Fantino did not agree to be ordered to die.

It is that fact which separates civilian services from military and paramilitary organizations like the Canadian Forces and RCMP. It is known as 'unlimited liability' and means that, as a serving member, you agree to follow orders even if that order is to die. As in: Go throw yourself on that grenade! Refusal to do so can, and likely will, result in jail time. Civilian services are not under such constraints. That is what makes them not-veterans.

Which isn't to say that a first-responder wouldn't make such a sacrifice. We see them do risky, death-defying things all the time, sometimes even sacrificing their lives for others. But the point is that they are not required by law to do so. They might be asked to, they might volunteer to, they might feel compelled by circumstance, but they are not under threat of prison for refusing. The Forces and RCMP are.

That is what makes them veterans, and Minister Fantino, not...

Unless they are planning on seriously revising VAC to include anyone who sacrifices and endures hardship for the public good. If that is the new definition, then VAC better hire more staff, because there's a whole lot of civilians who are injured and killed while executing their jobs. Not just first responders: doctors and nurses attacked by patients or contracting illnesses they are treating; game wardens accidentally shot during hunting season; snow removal drivers killed in accidents... how many does Fantino intend to include in this new definition?

Obviously, the Minister didn't intend that every person who dies or is injured in service to the public is a veteran. But what he did was imply that injury or death is required for one to be considered a veteran. That may be a convenient definition for a government intent on saving money on the back of our veterans, but it's a silly notion for nation that requires a military. By the Fantino definition, someone might serve 20 years in the Forces, receive many medals, but, because they escaped injury, they are not a veteran. He can't have meant that, can he?

Who knows what he meant. In a few sentences, the Minister muddied the waters so much that only one thing was clear: Fantino, the Minister of Veterans Affairs, doesn't know who a veteran is.

Which prompted Canada's veterans to call for his resignation.

In case you are still confused (many are, now), here is how you become a veteran: You enlist in the Forces or RCMP; sometimes other groups like the Merchant Marines, or perhaps more in the future. Upon enlisting, you take an oath of service. That oath means you agree to go where you are sent and do as you are told, even if that means dying. Failure to comply means dismissal, disgrace, and probably prison -- not too long ago, it could mean execution. Your sacrifice begins immediately: you give up your free will to your country.

You are now a veteran: if you get run over on your way home from taking the oath and are incapacitated for life, your benefits will come from Veterans Affairs. Even if you did not get the opportunity to do anything, you still made the commitment. They also Serve who only stand and wait, Minister Fantino. A veteran is one who took an oath to die if ordered or be severely punished for refusing.

There's another way of putting this. This definition is used by many veterans:

A veteran - whether regular or reserve, active or retired - is someone who, at one point in their life, wrote a blank cheque made payable to "the Government of Canada," for an amount of "Up to and including his life."

In fact, that definition is even used by the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman:

We ask of everyone who puts on the uniform in defence of our country to be ready to pay the ultimate sacrifice. In recognition of that bond, they write a blank cheque to the people of Canada up to and including their lives.

But perhaps the Minister wishes to change that perception. After all, it's cheaper to focus only on the injuries -- which the veterans themselves must prove -- than to honour the sacred covenant. We citizens of Canada agreed to look after those who served us. They sign that blank cheque to us; we agree to provide for them, with the same conditions. This is something else Julian Fantino doesn't understand. In the same interview, he stated, "I don't have a blank cheque, and neither do Canadians, to do everything that people want."

Sorry Minister, it doesn't work that way. Unlimited liability means unlimited responsibility. If Canada can't provide for its veterans, then we are not entitled to create any. In which case, your Government shouldn't be boarding up Veterans Affairs offices -- it should shut down recruiting stations.

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