02/03/2014 11:37 EST | Updated 04/05/2014 05:59 EDT

Fantino and Harper Have Failed Veterans

Last week was a busy one in federal politics.

Parliament resumed after its Christmas recess. Justin Trudeau launched a major Senate reform initiative. The House held an emergency debate about Ukraine. A budget date was announced. The latest economic data reflected poorly on the Harper government. And Mr. Harper was again reminded of his ongoing ethics scandal, even while another scandal -- this one about spy agencies running amok -- began to emerge.

But the thing that left people the most slack-jawed was the outrageously disrespectful behaviour of the Minister of Veterans Affairs, Julian Fantino. You'd think that as a former police chief, Fantino would have some natural rapport with Armed Forces personnel. Instead, to be kind about it, he is acting like a jerk.

There are close to 90,000 surviving vets from the Second World War and another 9,500 from Korea. Their average age is about 90. They're joined by thousands of younger veterans from various peacekeeping missions and the War in Afghanistan. They all share the distinction of having answered their country's call to put their lives on the line in dangerous places around the world.

Upon returning home, some have made a successful transition to civilian life, but many have serious physical disabilities to cope with and a growing number are suffering psychological damage including PTSD. Eight suicides have been identified in just the last couple of months.

Disregarding the obvious moral obligation this country owes to its veterans, and driven by Stephen Harper's manic obsession to slash budgets (no matter who gets hurt in the process), Fantino shows no compassion or even common courtesy as he goes about chopping federal services to veterans.

Eight service centres across the country were shut down last Friday. Personal attention to the complex needs of retired military personnel will thus become increasingly remote and harder to access. That is what vets came to Ottawa from across the country last Tuesday to protest.

They had a time and place confirmed to meet Fantino. But he stood them up. And then, as they were about to answer questions from news reporters, in blundered Fantino to insult them again -- this time right before the television cameras. He told the vets they didn't know what they were talking about.

Embarrassed by toxic media coverage, Fantino read an "apology" the next day in the House of Commons. But the day after that, he was back on the attack, calling veterans "dupes." It was appalling.

It's easy to dismiss Fantino as miserable and insensitive, and demand his resignation. Indeed, he should be gone. But he's only a symptom of what's wrong with this government. Stephen Harper is the source of the problem. Fantino has no independence of thought or action. He's just doing what he's told.

Diminished services. Closed help-centres. Reduced staff. Under-funded programs. More than 20,000 families of recently-deceased veterans denied support for dignified burials. Vets dragged through the courts by the government for six long years. A new court fight now in which the government says it owes veterans no special duty whatsoever. Soldiers tossed out of the Forces just before they qualify for a pension. Seriously deficient resources to cope with mental health problems -- a situation so bad that even retired General Rick Hillier called for a public inquiry.

These are Stephen Harper's policies. Fantino and other Ministers are the stooges sent out to implement them. But Mr. Harper is the instigator. He's the one who cut the budget. He must shoulder the responsibility and bear the shame.


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