Housed in a utilitarian building in downtown Ottawa, the office of the minister of Veterans Affairs is a comfortable, but not opulent space with paintings and sculptures commemorating and honouring Canada’s veterans and serving military. During visits to interview previous ministers I’ve noticed personal photos and mementos that reveal a warmer side to the position of cabinet minister.
My latest visit to interview the current minister offers no such opportunity because it is convened in a small meeting room. Julian Fantino, who was named to the veterans’ portfolio in 2013, is the fourth minister since the New Veterans Charter (NVC) was enacted in April 2006.
Fantino has been busy during his time at the helm. He has made many close connections to veterans, but he has also been heavily criticized by those who are dissatisfied with veterans’ services; objections which have led to angry confrontations and left veterans feeling disrespected. Some of Fantino’s critics, along with representatives of various public unions and opposition politicians, have called for his resignation.
Today, I have a 30-minute interview with the minister, so there is not much time for long explanations or personal observations. There is time to touch on five or six key issues, but Fantino does not stray far from answers he’s given before about the department’s record and performance. My final question—what is the biggest challenge facing you now?—does arouse a more personal response.
“Negativity,” he answers. “The negative stuff, including mischief-making…does a disservice to all the good work our government has done (and which) the taxpayers have contributed to. We’re spending a lot of time…speaking to people directly, unfiltered, eyeball-to-eyeball. We’re always open to hear from people who have issues and concerns. I talked to all the veterans who came with us to Normandy (in the delegation during D-Day commemorations). I get direct information. I don’t need to read the negativity in the media to know what’s going on. I am in a very positive place working with great people in Veterans Affairs Canada at all levels, working on behalf of…the veterans we care greatly about.”
Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) has a $3.6-billion budget. The department says over 90 per cent of it goes to financial, vocational and rehabilitation support for its 208,000 clients, including RCMP veterans and serving members of the military as well as military veterans and their families. More than 80 per cent of VAC’s clients are happy with the service and benefits they receive, according to the department’s 2010 National Client Survey.
Major accomplishments in Fantino’s first year include bringing on more partners to offer jobs and careers to veterans through such projects as Hire a Veteran and Helmets to Hardhats; a pilot project for PTSD therapy dogs; partnerships to help homeless veterans; an expanded contract with The Royal Canadian Legion to support the visitation of veterans in long-term care; the organizing and hosting of various commemorations marking wartime anniversaries.
“He’s moved Veterans Affairs in the right direction,” says Gordon Moore, Dominion President of the Legion from 2012 to 2014. “If he puts into force all 14 recommendations arising from the Commons Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs’ review of the NVC, he’s going to look very good. But if he fails on any one of those recommendations, he may not be the minister of Veterans Affairs next go-round.” (See our news story on the government’s response to the 14 recommendations, which came at press time, page 87).
When Fantino stepped into the portfolio he inherited growing resentment over a number of issues, not the least of which is anger about gaps in the NVC. Anger reached a boiling point in January when he was late for a scheduled meeting organized by the Public Service Alliance of Canada with a delegation of veterans from across the country concerned about closures of nine district offices. When he talked to the veterans, they vented their fury in front of the media. He later publicly apologized for his late arrival and said the 70-minute delay was caused by a cabinet meeting that ran long. The media was there again in May as he was filmed walking away from the wife of a veteran with PTSD who was attempting to talk to him between meetings about needs for family support. A spokesman later explained the minister did not see or hear the woman over shouted questions from reporters.
These two events are trotted out frequently by those with beefs against the department and the minister. “People seem to feast on the one-offs,” Fantino says. “As far as some of the hiccups I’ve encountered, you know what: it’s not about me; it’s about what people see that is an advantage for their own particular agendas.”
Fantino is the first to admit there is no one veterans’ agenda. “There’s no one-size-fits-all. There’s no homogenous veterans’ community. There’s no cookie-cutter approach to any of this.”
One of the biggest challenges with the portfolio is trying to meet the very personal and complex needs of people in need or in pain or who are angry, with what is often seen as impersonal, bureaucratic tools—all at a time when the federal government is tightening departmental budgets across the board. Veterans Affairs’ priorities and planning documents show funding for benefits is increasing, but operating costs decreasing. The department says cutting red tape and modernizing procedures are priorities. Staff reduction has a lot to do with those savings. Veterans Affairs Canada will ultimately lose about a quarter of its employees to federal cutbacks, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
The department is working smarter, says Fantino. “We actually didn’t cut. We made some adjustments. We’re doing things more efficiently, more effectively. We’ve cut out red tape galore. We’ve done away with millions of transactions where veterans had to submit a bill for $35 for cutting the grass. We don’t have that hard manual, labour-intensive work to be done. These are not jobs for life. Working in government…there’s a taxpayer here too. We have to be conscious and we have to be responsible enough to realize we are in fact spending taxpayer’s money too. My duty, my responsibility…is that we do it wisely, we do it efficiently and with high regard for who is paying the freight.”
In modernizing, VAC is slowly changing focus from Second World War-era veterans, mostly volunteers who returned en masse to civilian life, to the differing needs of modern personnel who were counting on a long military career. Billed as a means to better meet the needs of post-Korean War veterans, the NVC focuses on medical, vocational and financial support meant to move veterans from military to civilian careers. Lifelong disability pensions were replaced by income support, allowances and a one-time award for pain and suffering, popularly known as a lump-sum payment. All political parties and most veterans advocates supported the charter, but it was on the understanding that it would be “living” legislation that could be amended as needed.
Gaps in the NVC began appearing almost immediately, but changes to the legislation were a long time coming. Amendments in 2011 addressing some deficiencies only seemed to emphasize how slowly beats the heart of the ‘living’ charter. “They forgot about us, the catastrophically disabled,” says Major Mark Campbell of Edmonton, who lost both legs in Afghanistan in 2008. “They adopted a discriminatory insurance model which bases compensation on salary.” The military takes “the lowest paid, newest and youngest members and puts them in the position of the most danger. So by adopting the civilian insurance model the government has ensured that those who incurred the most danger are the ones who receive the lowest (financial benefits). It’s based on a percentage of their salary at the time of injury. And it’s taxed.”
As a major, Campbell is near the top of the scale, “but the vast majority are not 17-year majors. They’re one, two, three-year corporals and privates” stuck near NVC minimum annual pre-tax income of approximately $40,000. And the lump-sum payment does not go far in outfitting a life for permanent disability. Campbell says his $276,000 NVC lump-sum payment was not enough to build a wheelchair-accessible house.
In 1996, after his medical release from the forces, retired air force intelligence officer Sean Bruyea became a vocal critic of Veterans Affairs. Slowly, others were emboldened to speak out about their own struggles with the military and veteran establishments, and soon a storm began building. In 2007 a class-action law suit was launched to end Service Income Security Insurance Plan (SISIP) clawbacks of monthly VAC pensions. In 2008 a breach of privacy complaint was filed over political use of information in a veteran’s medical file; veterans also began protesting federal government budget cuts. Two years later the Privacy Commissioner found that the department had many systemic flaws in the way it protected the information of veterans, their dependants and survivors. Bruyea subsequently sued the government and received a settlement.
That fall, a veterans’ protest rally on Parliament Hill was organized—and since then, protests and rallies have increased. In 2012 a privacy breach at the Veterans’ Review and Appeal Board was revealed. That same year the SISIP clawback suit succeeded, to the benefit of more than 7,000 veterans. The following year a Royal Canadian Legion letter-writing campaign resulted in increases to the funeral and burial benefits.
Fantino, 72, was elected in 2010 as Member of Parliament for Vaughan, Ont. He joined cabinet as minister of State for Seniors in January 2011 and was appointed associate minister of National Defence that May, then minister of International Co-operation in 2012.
His early background in law enforcement includes 23 years with the Metropolitan Toronto Police, during which time he rose through the ranks from police constable to acting staff superintendent of detectives. In 1991 he became chief of police in London, then York Regional Police and finally the Toronto Police Service. After a year as Commissioner of Emergency Management, he became Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner, a post he held from 2006 to 2010.
Fantino was no stranger to public controversy during his police career. However, each time he weathered the storm and his career continued to progress.
“… They can tell you they’ve done more than any other sitting government, and that may or may not be true. What I can tell you is, that is not the perception at the coal face, among the veterans.”
Critics, meanwhile, continue to mine the permanent memory banks on the Internet for data to support their causes. Media- and social media-wise veterans are using this technology to rally support and marshal forces. A significant number have become skeptical as they see a difference between what the department and politicians say, and what they’re hearing from each other.
Veterans’ skepticism notched up this year after Postmedia News reported on documents from 2012 revealing a communications strategy meant to head off angry reaction to the news of office closures and layoffs. “Bureaucrats were instructed to provide pre-approved, cookie-cutter responses as requests for information came in, assuring the public the government was still committed to helping veterans and indicating that service would actually increase,” stated the story that ran in newspapers from Montreal to Vancouver.
Meanwhile, there continues to be a steady stream of good news press releases from the minister’s office—more than 170 in his first year—announcing grants for improving memorials and cemeteries, commemorating military anniversaries and announcing and then reporting on appearances by the minister or his representative at conferences, meetings and other events.
The veterans who were reacting angrily to reports of the office closures were not mollified by announcements that benefit forms would be available at some 600 Service Canada sites, nor were they impressed by reminders that the department now has a 24-hour 1-800 number and has increased its presence on bases and wings across the country. Instead, veterans rallied and protested the closures. It was then announced that one staffer would stay on in some locations.
“We don’t expect veterans to go down to the local veterans’ office or Service Canada office if they are in any way, shape or form in a hardship situation,” maintains Fantino. “We will go to them. We do go to them.”
Campbell says he is one of a number of veterans who are no longer willing to take any minister’s word for anything.
“There’s truth and then there’s spin,” he said. “And there’s been an awful lot of spin. They can tell you they’ve done more than any other sitting government, and that may or may not be true. What I can tell you is, that is not the perception at the coal face, among the veterans.”
Fantino, meanwhile, remains proud of the department’s record. “We’ve enhanced greatly the services to veterans. Amplifying our delivery sites where veterans can go and get help if they need it.”
Second World War veteran Roy Lamore of Thunder Bay, Ont., doesn’t buy it. Offering forms at Service Canada Centres or over the Internet and advice via telephone trades quantity for quality. “We shouldn’t have to beg for face-to-face services.”
“Our workload has changed, our environment has changed,” says Fantino. “The demographics have changed and we need to change with the current situation as it presents itself.” Despite changes, “it’s totally and absolutely inaccurate to say that VAC has cut services.”
“All I hear is spin and deflection and blame and denial, denial, denial,” adds Campbell.
He and other veterans say the government cherry-picks statistics to put the best possible political spin on criticism. Four years ago, the Veterans Affairs client survey that reported 80 per cent satisfaction among clients was criticized on the website Our Duty, a Newfoundland veterans’ advocacy group. Author Jeff Rose-Martland pointed out only about half of those contacted agreed to be interviewed and seriously disabled clients were under-represented.
In April, suspicions were deepened for some veterans who had never believed government reassurances that the budget is not being balanced on the backs of disabled veterans. Retired lieutenant-general and Senator Roméo Dallaire told the Canadian Press that Conservative politicians’ complaints about the cost of supporting disabled veterans were “pissing me off.” The government responded by saying it has invested more in veterans than any government in modern history.
Dallaire argues the cost of benefits for wounded veterans should be considered at the outset, as part of the cost of any mission.
Campbell is part of a class-action suit filed in British Columbia Supreme Court on behalf of disabled soldiers who argue NVC settlements break a long-standing government promise to care for those injured or made ill in military service. Crown lawyers countered that today’s government shouldn’t be held to historical promises. Now advocates are pressing for a clear definition of the covenant between the people of Canada and the men and women who are killed, injured, disabled or made ill in their service.
“It’s become a matter of contention,” says Fantino. “I personally don’t know why. I’ll give you my personal opinion now. I believe we do have a responsibility and a mandate to look after our veterans. That’s why we’re here, why the government since 2006 has put some $4.7 more billion into veterans’ issues, programs, services, support for veterans. The reality is we’ve been doing it. We will continue doing it.”
But, says Moore, “It’s not just the minister of Veterans Affairs, it’s the government as a whole” that needs to keep the sacred duty in mind. “That’s why we’re pushing for the covenant to be in black and white.”
A recurring review of the NVC should also be in black and white, he said. Although it was promised that the charter would be changed when necessary, the first changes came after five years of reports and protests, and a full review was done after eight years.
Fantino does not favour a specific timeline. “My view is we should be driven by circumstances and events and situations that need to be addressed, as opposed to ‘no, no we don’t do that until 2016.’ I’d much rather have the flexibility of delving into these things on a needs basis when required when circumstances are such that we need to revisit, review, rethink a position.”
However, the definition of timely response is different for politicians than it is for veterans in need.
The minister’s office in downtown Ottawa will see a lot of work over the coming months, and Fantino seems aware criticism is likely to continue. “Are there gaps? Yes, there are, and we’re addressing them. It’s a work in progress. I do not profess that either I or VAC are perfect in everything we do.”