It's good that Julian Fantino has been fired from the Veterans Affairs post in the federal Cabinet. His toxic mix of incompetence and insensitivity were a profound affront to Canada's veterans. Not much is known yet about his successor, Ontario MP Erin O'Toole. He's clearly a better communicator than Fantino, but will he be substantively different?
One clue may be found in the people he chooses as role models. Among Conservative Prime Ministers, for example, will he simply mimic Stephen Harper, or will he strive to be more like Robert Borden? Prime Minister for almost nine years between 1911 and 1920, Borden was originally a school teacher and a Liberal. He was also the only Conservative PM to deliver a balanced budget in the 20th-century.
But here's the key point -- as he was sending young Canadians off to fight in WW1, Borden declared there to be a sacred covenant between Canada and its military personnel when they are put in harm's way to defend our values and our way of life. In war, they "stand ready" to give their all. And when they come home, their country must "stand ready" for them. With respect and gratitude, Canada has a duty to meet the social, economic, physical and psychological needs of returning soldiers and veterans.
But that sacred obligation seems lost on the Harper government.
With their focus exclusively on claiming a balanced budget in 2015 (so they can proceed with their Income Splitting scheme to benefit a small fraction of taxpayers), the Conservatives have sacrificed a great many important things -- including decent treatment for veterans.
Senior government managers were paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses to slash programs and services to veterans. Nine specialized service centres were closed. Support staff was chopped by 25 per cent. Over a billion dollars in funding -- promised by the government and approved by Parliament -- was never delivered. The families of thousands of deceased veterans were denied support for dignified funerals. Cemetery care was neglected. Veterans' health insurance premiums were doubled.
Over the past decade, more Canadian military personnel have died by suicide (161) than were lost on the battlefields in Afghanistan. Many more have lingering mental health problems. The government was warned about this growing issue more than two years ago. But still, the Auditor-General reported just weeks ago that those in such distress have to wait months-on-end to get appropriate attention. The government's pathetic response was a small trickle of new funding spread over 50 years.
Meanwhile, Fantino was confronting and insulting groups of Vets who had the courage to protest their mistreatment. He called them "dupes". He ran away from the families of PTSD sufferers. When that critical report came down from the Auditor-General, he went AWOL (overseas for a week) to avoid responsibility. He even failed to show up for a Parliamentary Committee to defend his budget.
But all the wrong-doing cannot be pinned on one discredited Minister alone. What has happened at Veterans Affairs is Harper government policy.
That policy saw veterans being hauled through the courts for six long years as the government tried to claw-back some of their pensions. Now, Mr. Harper's lawyers are in court again arguing that Canada OWES NO SPECIAL DUTY to its veterans. This government is dismissing Borden's solemn pledge back in 1914 was just political "hot air".
So which is it going to be for Mr. O'Toole? Borden or Harper?
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