OTTAWA – The office of Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino says a peacekeeping veteran’s suggestion that he was asked to write a politician’s speech for a commemorative ceremony is “completely false.”
But Wayne Mac Culloch, national president for the Canadian Association of Veterans in United Nations Peacekeeping, insists he was told by a department official he had to write parliamentary secretary Parm Gill’s speech if he wanted anyone from the Harper government to attend National Peacekeepers’ Day in Ottawa on Sunday.
“It boggles the mind to think that I would go looking for work,” Mac Culloch said Friday.
“We have never, ever written remarks for a government official before. We have coordinated on what the theme is going to be, but when I was told if I didn’t write it basically I wasn’t going to have anyone from government there, I was dumbfounded.”
In the past five years, none of the three ministers associated with peacekeeping – National Defence, Public Safety or Veterans Affairs – has ever attended the commemorative ceremony.
Fantino is in Belgium this week to mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War.
His office notes Fantino travelled to Cyprus in March with a delegation of 10 veterans to recognize the 50th anniversary of Canada’s peacekeeping mission in the Mediterranean nation.
The minister’s office was responding a Global News story about Saturday’s ceremony, in which Mac Culloch said he took the opportunity to inject a promise into Gill’s speech to add a fourth figure of a police officer to the Ottawa peacekeeping monument.
Mac Culloch, a 60-something veteran of four tours of duty in Bosnia and one in Haiti, said he’s “not surprised” by Fantino’s reaction.
“I think I’m going to be losing a lot of sleep tonight. It’s difficult to take government at its word and then have government turn around and say we never said that,” Mac Culloch said.
“We’re all veterans and we’re used to taking orders. Someone says do this, we do it, we believe in the individual, we take that individual at their word.
“If that concept is lost upon Veterans Affairs Canada, I’m at a serious loss to figure out who they think their clients are.”
But Fantino’s spokeswoman, Ashlee Smith, said department officials simply consulted with the event organizers on the themes of the event “to best capture the spirit of ceremony.”
The Prime Minister’s Office also told Global News Mac Culloch was not asked to write the speech, but rather suggest themes and provide some general guidance about what he thought would be appropriate to include in the speech.
Smith added the office has never been approached with a proposal to add a police officer to the Canadian peacekeeping monument in downtown Ottawa.
“This is the first time it’s been raised with us. We’re always happy to look at these things, but today was the first time we’ve heard anything about this,” she said.
While Mac Culloch said he’s never sent in a written proposal, he said he has raised the idea in the past with a departmental director.
Smith added Gill is still set to attend the ceremony, but is putting together his own remarks.
“We’re not looking to play politics on this one. We want to make sure that the commemoration is about the peacekeepers and that’s what we’re going to focus on,” she said.
As for Mac Culloch, he says he’s “hurt by the backlash” from both Fantino and the prime minister’s office. “I don’t make this stuff up,” he said.
He added that the department of veterans affairs has significantly scaled back its aid and support for the ceremony, which is set to honour about 300 police officers, military service people and veterans this year.
“It’s hard to comprehend that aging and disabled veterans are expected to organize their own commemorative events,” he said.
“Not the kind of a thank you that many of us thought we would get.”