The sketch: Julian Fantino and the veterans

From one contentious meeting to another
Minister of International Cooperation Julian Fantino responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons Thursday December 6, 2012 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Thomas Mulcair pointed at Julian Fantino, but the Veterans Affairs Minister did not object. Possibly because the rules of polite conversation do not apply in this august chamber.

“Will the Prime Minister do the right thing,” the NDP leader loudly wondered, “apologize himself and fire that incompetent?”

The leader of the opposition did not even add the word “minister” to that sentence.

The NDP leader had at that point just finished misquoting Mr. Fantino. “Mr. Speaker, when the veterans complained that the minister had missed their meeting, he said, ‘I’m not going to stand here and listen to that,’ and he stormed out,” Mr. Mulcair reported.

In actual fact—the full eight-minute video of the minister’s meeting with unimpressed veterans is viewable here—Mr. Fantino had been trying to state his case when the veteran to whom he was stating said case exclaimed, “Hogwash.” It was at that point that Mr. Fantino said, “Okay, fine, thank you” and turned to leave, though he lingered for awhile to discuss matters further before making it out the door. And before that Mr. Fantino had expressed some discomfort with the fact that one of the veterans, in registering a complaint, had pointed a finger at him. There is, as well, an allegation that the meeting did not go off as planned. And, of course, both the meeting and the displeased reaction of the veterans in attendance were captured on tape and broadcast on the evening news.

Other than that, the minister did not perform too terribly in those eight minutes, but today he sat in the House as both Mr. Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau demanded he exit, voluntarily or otherwise, from the cabinet.

“Mr. Speaker, the minister has apologized for the events of yesterday, but the fact of the matter is that this government and this minister have increased services for our veterans without precedent,” Mr. Harper explained to Mr. Mulcair. “It is important for our government, it always has been, to protect those who wear the uniform and who once wore the uniform, which is why we have overwhelming support for veterans and we will continue to serve them.”

Now Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Harper exchanged words over the case of a bill sent to husband of a veteran who had committed suicide—with Mr. Mulcair rather audaciously accusing the minister of sending the bill—and the Conservatives howled. Mr. Mulcair then erroneously accused the Conservatives of shutting down veterans’ “hospitals”—conceivably he meant veterans affairs “offices”— while spending more on ministerial offices and the Conservatives howled again.

The NDP leader jabbed his finger into the ground and Mr. Harper stood and pumped his fist and jabbed his finger. A voice from the government side suggested Mr. Mulcair’s pants had caught fire.

“When we have a small number of duplicated veterans offices that have a very small case load, it makes a lot more sense,” Mr. Harper explained, “I know the unions do not like it, to have 600 points of service for veterans who live closer to that—”

“Ahhh!” mocked the New Democrats at this mention of “unions.”

“Actually, Mr. Speaker,” Mr. Mulcair shot back when the Speaker had restored order, “the veterans do not like it either.”

Mr. Mulcair proceeded en francais and Mr. Harper responded in kind and then the Prime Minister switched back to English to finish. “It is important that we state the facts and ensure veterans get these facts,” Mr. Harper ventured. “This government is increasing points of service for veterans from a very few number of offices: the 600 points of service across the country. I know why the unions and the NDP oppose that, but this is in the best interests of veterans. They can play politics; we are going to keep delivering services to veterans.”

Awhile later, Mr. Fantino had the opportunity to defend himself. In response to the NDP’s Sylvain Chicoine, the Veterans Affairs Minister declared that “the NDP and the Liberals voted against increased investments for Canadian veterans.” (To which votes the minister was referring was not immediately clear.) “Veterans have told us that they want less paperwork and fewer trips downtown, which begs the question, ‘Who is the member actually working for?’ ” Mr. Fantino continued. “The record will show that they have consistently voted against our initiatives to increase benefits and services to veterans.”

The NDP’s Peter Stoffer now stood and mused that he had seen ten different veterans affairs ministers from two different parties in his sixteen-and-a-half years in Parliament and yesterday “lowest of the low in my advocacy for veterans, RCMP members and their families across this country.” And then he mocked Rob Anders over previous allegations of sleepiness and then Mr. Stoffer asked if the Prime Minister would demand Mr. Fantino’s resignation.

“Mr. Speaker, I absolutely regret yesterday’s events. As I did last evening when I apologized directly to the veterans, I again apologize now,” Mr. Fantino told the House in response. “I wanted to meet with them to hear their case, their stories and to explain to them the changes we are making that will in fact look after their, and their families, interest in the long term. I reached out to veterans from yesterday to reiterate that apology.”

There would be more questions and then, out in the foyer afterwards, two veterans, flanked by Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis, would stand against the wall, under the grand portrait of Alexander Mackenzie, and explain their concerns for the microphones and cameras.

Amid all of this remains the question—at least in the minds of the concerned—of how well veterans’ services will be delivered, but not much was to be settled in this forum, at least not on this day. The Royal Canadian Legion is asking for further clarity. and possibly this dispute will ultimately require the scrutiny and judgment of the veterans ombudsman. But in the interests of avoiding (or at least limiting) political games it is actually tempting to wonder if this might be better hashed out in another public meeting of Mr. Fantino and the complainants.