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While Fantino founders.

WHEN YOU SEE someone drowning, you're supposed to save them. At the very least, you should shout some words of encouragement, say a prayer, and have a fresh towel ready should a miracle actually transpire. It's common decency, really. Going out of your way to push them under is just bad form. Would my mother approve of this? Probably best not to ask, though given how people are piling on Julian Fantino with calls for his job, if not necessarily his head, you might think the mothers of this nation are as sick of the Veterans Affairs minister as everyone else.

That's not hard to fathom, as the former police officer and once-prized Conservative candidate can be as congenial as a honey badger with jock itch. Whether it's lecturing veterans on their impertinence when it comes to pointing fingers (let alone actually explaining why), purposely strutting away from the confused and frightened wife of a veteran, or berating journalists on their misunderstanding of the facts, Fantino has been a one-man public relations train wreck since he took on the responsibility of looking out for Canada's military veterans. To say he doesn't tolerate those he has deemed fools would be akin to suggesting that cats dislike water; same reaction in both cases.

This might be all well and fine if things were going swimmingly, or if the good Minister didn't seem to exhibit some foolish tendencies of his own. But as Auditor General Michael Ferguson made clear in his fall report, all is not fine with Veterans Affairs. Specifically, wait times for veterans to receive mental health benefits are far from ideal, with one fifth of applicants waiting eight months just to find out if they're eligible. A quarter of those who then apply are denied, though 65 per cent of those denials are overturned on appeal, but only after many more months (or years) have elapsed when much-needed support has been withheld.

This all assumes such support is even useful, as Ferguson noted, there are no procedures or plans to assess the value and success of the whole process, despite a half-decade old promise to do just that. Wait your turn and hope it works, in short. And try not to kill yourself along the way.

This was all the more damning when it was preceded by news that the Harper Government[TM] had been happily rolling $1.1 billion worth of unspent money earmarked for veterans back into its coffers rather than applying them to the well-documented problems at hand.

And what of the contemptuous minister officially responsible for it all? Well, he high-tailed it out of Ottawa before Ferguson could even table his report. Took a trip back to his homeland of Italy actually, paying homage to Canadian war dead from the Second World War campaigns there. But he did this not before lecturing the gathered media on how people just don't understand the technical "to and fro" that is the government's budgetary process, followed by some feel-good funding promises based more on Einstein's ideas of flexible time than any concrete commitment to respond to the impending critique.

Not surprisingly, the idea seems to be that if you can just drop a political rock on Fantino's head all will be right with the world, or at the very least with the Veterans Affairs office. It's certainly hard to imagine a great flow of tears shed at his ultimate departure from the portfolio. But so is it difficult to imagine any great improvement in the basic problems that have plagued the ministry for years, long before Fantino ever grumbled his way into the whole quagmire.

As former Veterans Ombudsman Col. (ret'd) Pat Stogran has argued repeatedly to anyone who would listen, the culture of the department is fundamentally flawed, acting more as a gang of confrontational insurance adjusters than the government support network Canadians assume is being provided our veterans. Budget clawbacks started long before Fantino took up the reins. The New Veterans Charter, in all its flawed glory, began before Stephen Harper took office; though he, then-Prime Minister Paul Martin, and the late Jack Layton all signed off on it.

Julian Fantino is a man out of his depth; foundering in a public relations role he isn't just ill-suited for, but demonstrably incapable of. It makes for an easy target. It also makes for an easy scapegoat. Whether our elected officials allow our veterans to drown with him is another matter.

Don't hold your breath.

Michael Nickerson is a freelance writer and satirist based in Toronto. His website is www.NickersonOnline.com

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Title Annotation:COMMENTARY
Author:Nickerson, Michael
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Date:Jan 1, 2015
Words:775
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