WATCH: Stephen Harper has demoted his much-criticized Minister of Veterans’ Affairs, Julian Fantino, which critics say is about time. Meantime, after months of refusals, the prime minister has agreed to meet Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. Vassy Kapelos reports.
OTTAWA – Julian Fantino is out as Veterans Affairs minister.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced on Monday the embattled Fantino will be replaced by Erin O’Toole, a southern Ontario MP and former member of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Fantino will become associate minister of National Defence, a post he previously held.
In a lengthy statement, Fantino said he was grateful for the time he spent as minister.
“I will remain forever grateful to the countless veterans I had the distinct honour of meeting in all regions of Canada, and while abroad visiting the cemeteries of those brave men and women who died in service to their country,” Fantino said.
“Each and every day that I served at Veteran Affairs I was guided by a firm belief that Government must stand-by those who have served and continue to serve.”
Both Fantino and O’Toole arrived at Rideau Hall, along with Harper, for the surprise mini-cabinet shuffle on Monday morning.
Watch: NDP leader Tom Mulcair skewers outgoing Veterans Affairs minister Julian Fantino calling Harper’s move a “halfhearted attempt at removing an incompetent minister.”
NDP leader Tom Mulcair says it’s a “bit of mystery” as to why Fantino remains in cabinet – at 40 people, the largest in Canadian history – despite Fantino’s much-criticized performance over the past 18 months.
“It’s a halfhearted firing of an incompetent minister,” said Mulcair.
He noted Fantino was also the lead on the bungled F-35 fighter jet file, suggesting Harper was pulling the strings on both portfolios.
“How Stephen Harper still has confidence in that man to put him there – maybe it’s because he is such a representation of Stephen Harper’s government.”
Liberal Veterans Affairs critic Frank Valeriote said the move to replace Fantino with a more communicative minister wasn’t much of a surprise – but he doesn’t think it will change the government’s attitude.
“The substance of the message will not change,” Valeriote said.
“It doesn’t require a veteran to respond to the needs of veterans, it requires a thoughtful prime minister who understand the meaning of our social contract, our sacred obligation, and that is to look after our veterans and their families when they return. And that has not happened.”
He pointed to the department’s lapsed $1.1 billion in funding, as well as the decision to nix almost 900 jobs, as evidence the Conservatives have failed Canada’s veterans.
Fantino has been under fire in recent months for his department’s spending, including a $200-million funding announcement for mental health facilities that was spread over 50 years instead of six, as initially announced.
Watch: MP questions why Fantino still has a job in Ottawa in wake of Veterans cuts
It follows the controversy surrounding the government’s decision to close eight veterans affairs offices across the country.
The opposition had been calling for the minister’s resignation prior to Parliament taking its winter break.
O’Toole, a 12-year air force veteran, represents the southern Ontario riding of Durham. He was elected in the 2012 by-election and was previously posted as parliamentary secretary to the minister of international trade.
Harper said Fantino will support the minister on issues of arctic sovereignty, information technology security and foreign intelligence.
“Our Government remains focused on the priorities of Canadians: jobs, the economy, safe communities, and standing up for Canadian values at home and abroad. With this in mind, Mr. Fantino and Mr. O’Toole have been asked to draw on their considerable knowledge and experience to take on important portfolios,” Harper said in a release.
“I am confident that they will deliver results and provide strong leadership as they go about addressing their duties and responsibilities.”
A representative from the Royal Canadian Legion said he welcomed the change and was looking forward to meeting with O’Toole.
Bruce Poulin said he hoped to discuss changes recommended in a recent Veterans Affairs committee report on the New Veterans’ Charter, including increasing disability damages, before the January 30 deadline.
Read Fantino’s full statement below:
“I will remain forever grateful to the countless veterans I had the distinct honour of meeting in all regions of Canada, and while abroad visiting the cemeteries of those brave men and women who died in service to their country. Each and every day that I served at Veteran Affairs I was guided by a firm belief that Government must stand-by those who have served and continue to serve.
“Under Prime Minister Harper, I can say with confidence that we have fully embraced that principle. I am proud of the critical improvements we have delivered for Canadian Veterans and their families – including the opening of seven Military Family Resource Centres, more than doubling the number of counseling sessions for family members; investments in critical research and new treatment benefits to assist Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder; and additional investments in front-line mental health clinics in 8 communities.
“I also want to express gratitude to many dedicated veterans stakeholders, many of whom partnered with the Government this past year to enhance mental health support and reduce bureaucratic red tape. I also wish my friend, Erin O’Toole, a patriot and veteran himself, the very best as he builds on the important work underway to improve the quality of life of veterans and their families for generations.
“I am humbled to take on this new responsibility as Canada’s Associate Minister of National Defense – where I pledge to work hard to assure the safekeeping of our land, people and interests at home and around the world. As a young immigrant boy, I imagined Canada as the great northern frontier – a country defined by its majestic northern beauty, its immense resources, rich traditions and youthful communities.
“Having served for over forty years in law enforcement, I have an acute appreciation for the solemn duty Government must undertake to protect its citizens and sovereignty. In my oath, I pledge to forcefully defend Canada’s sovereignty and national security, and continue to stand with our men and women in uniform who uphold and protect those sacred values of democracy, freedom and the rule of law.
“I also want to thank Vaughan families and seniors for their continued support over the past years. I look forward to running for re-election under the steady economic leadership of Prime Minister Harper, who has delivered lower taxes, new infrastructure improvements and safe streets for Vaughan families.
“As we start anew in 2015 – let us thank our men and women in uniform who keep our country safe. God bless all who serve and keep our true north, strong and free.”
© 2015 Shaw Media