01/12/2015 03:04 EST | Updated 03/14/2015 05:59 EDT

Erin O'Toole Taps Former Peter MacKay Adviser For Key Role

OTTAWA - The Harper government's efforts to rebuild bridges with veterans appeared to ramp up Monday as newly appointed minister Erin O'Toole recruited an experienced political hand as his top adviser.

The Canadian Press has learned that longtime Conservative John MacDonell was appointed as the new chief of staff in O'Toole's office following the cabinet shuffle last week that booted Julian Fantino from the portfolio.

In an interview, O'Toole himself confirmed the appointment. He said he's working to surround himself with advisers who are already familiar with the concerns of modern-day veterans.

"My goal has been to get a smart team that understands the issues and that can move quickly," O'Toole said.

MacDonell served for six years as chief of staff to former defence minister Peter MacKay and also worked closely with retired general Walt Natynczyk, who is now the top bureaucrat at the veterans department.

O'Toole and MacDonell have a political association that stretches back to their days in Nova Scotia when both were involved in the provincial Progressive Conservative party.

The minister is getting up to speed in the portfolio, an exercise that includes studying how to implement — and pay for — recommended improvements to the government's controversial new veterans charter.

Government sources say MacDonell's experience at Defence through the turbulent years of the Afghan war and his crisis-management skills will be central to bringing the veterans file under control ahead of an election later this year.

O'Toole, a former Sea King helicopter navigator, said he also hopes to add the voices of more veterans to his office, but would not get into specifics.

It's all part of a determined effort to put a fresh face on a portfolio where issues have become a major political liability for the Conservatives. Fantino's tenure was marred by a scathing auditor general's report, testy confrontations with veterans groups and cries of incompetence from opposition parties.

The Conservatives, and the Liberals before them, have tried before to get veterans more involved in the department, which takes care of the military's ill and injured, only to see them clash with the entrenched bureaucracy.

Former veterans ombudsman Pat Stogran, the ex-colonel who led Canada's first battle group in Afghanistan, was one of those appointments. He has become an ardent critic of the system and the government, which he described "penny-pinching" when he left the post four years ago.

Lessons were learned on all sides, O'Toole said.

"Those early attempts (at inclusion) led to some challenges," said the minister. "But the department knows it will be helpful to have the perspective of veterans within the department."

The Hill Times, an Ottawa-based publication, reported Monday that outspoken critics such as Canadian Veterans Advocacy have been booted from a government-sponsored advisory panel that provides policy input to the minister.

The group's president, Mike Blais, told the publication that the news came in a voice mail left on his phone last week, prompting a jab from the NDP: "When Julian Fantino upset veterans, he at least had the good grace to do it in person and not with a voice mail."

O'Toole disputed the report, insisting that dissenting voices are not being shut out. He said he reached out to Blais shortly after being appointed, and intends to keep doing so. But he was unclear whether the group would return to the panel.

In the voice message, obtained late Monday, the minister said he wants to deal with "groups that are truly non-profit, fraternal organizations that have bylaws, directors and annual general meetings, not just a Facebook page."

He said he wanted to hear the group's "plan to become that."

Canadian Veterans Advocacy and several other groups which had promised to campaign against the Conservatives in the next election were excluded from the advisory panel at a meeting in Quebec City last fall.

"I have been trying to reach out to all of them and see how we can engage all of them," O'Toole said.

Blais, however, says his group does have a board, non-profit status and more importantly it represents the wounded.

The government is interested in talking only to "friendly organizations," he added.

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