OTTAWA – The Prime Minister’s Office is confirming Julian Fantino has been shuffled out of his position as veterans affairs minister after less than 18 turbulent months.
In a quiet ceremony today at Rideau Hall, Fantino was replaced in the post by Erin O’Toole, a southern Ontario MP and former member of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
However, Fantino — a tough-talking former police chief who represents the strategically important riding of Vaughan, north of Toronto — remains in cabinet in his old job as associate minister of defence.
Fantino was seen leaving Rideau Hall after the ceremony, but would only offer New Year’s greetings to the gathered reporters.
A tough-talking former street cop who later became Toronto police chief and commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police, Fantino entered federal politics by winning a byelection in 2010.
He was re-elected in 2011 and named to the cabinet in January as minister of state for seniors. He became minister of international co-operation in July 2012 and went to Veterans Affairs a year later.
He found himself in political hot water almost from the moment he took the post.
Under Fantino, the department came under heavy fire from veterans groups, the veterans ombudsman, the auditor general and the political opposition.
Fantino’s efforts to defend office closures, job cuts, lapsed budget money and tweaks to pensions and benefits provoked anger from veterans and scorn from the NDP and Liberals.
There were public relations gaffes, including a much-publicized — and televised — confrontation with veterans, and the sight of Fantino walking down a parliamentary hallway, ignoring shouted questions from the wife of a former soldier.
Government lawyers went to court to argue that the government has no special responsibility to care for veterans, although that had been iron-clad policy since the First World War.
There were howls of protest when it was learned the department had allowed more than $1 billion of its budget to lapse and return to the federal treasury since 2006. The anger only grew when the department admitted spending $4 million on ads last year promoting its efforts to help veterans return to civilian life.
Reports detailed the troubles veterans encountered getting help and benefits from the department. Other studies suggested that wounded veterans would face poverty once they hit age 65.
Efforts to calm the situation failed. Tweaks to benefits and more money for mental health brought no respite. Fantino’s chief of staff quit and was replaced by a staffer from the Prime Minister’s Office.
Retired general Walt Natynczyk, the country’s former top military commander, was also appointed as Fantino’s deputy minister and senior civil servant.