OTTAWA — An aide to Prime Minister Stephen Harper has taken over as chief of staff to embattled Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino as opposition MPs call for his resignation.
Stephen Lecce, the director of media relations for Harper, will now also serve as interim top aide to Fantino as the Conservative government struggles to get a grip on a file that has turned into a political nightmare.
The staff shuffle comes just weeks after Walt Natynczyk, a retired top general who headed the Canadian Armed Forces, was named deputy minister of Veterans Affairs after a short stint heading the Canadian Space Agency.
The twin moves are seen as an attempt by the Conservatives to turn around a struggling department that has angered veterans and dragged down the government politically.
In the Commons Monday, the New Democrats and Liberals pressed Fantino to resign over criticism the department is failing veterans in need.
Liberal MP Ralph Goodale said Fantino, who has served in the post since 2013, has no trust or credibility left.
“The longer the minister clings to the government the worse they both look. His portfolio has been grossly mismanaged,” Goodale said. “To prevent any more trouble for veterans, will the prime minister fire this failed minister.”
Last week, the auditor general laid bare new problems with the department’s efforts to treat veterans suffering chronic mental health issues, saying those seeking help faced long waits that threatened their recovery.
But as the bad news dropped, Fantino was in Italy, leading a delegation of veterans to mark Canada’s Second World War campaign in the country, a trip that the minister defended Monday.
“In my world, lest we forget means something,” said Fantino, who served as Toronto police chief and commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police before entering politics.
But that prompted a sharp response from Mulcair, who accused the minister of “cowardice” for being out of the country. “How about showing up for work and taking care of them when they are alive,” the NDP leader said.
“He showed dereliction of duty by fleeing the country. Will the minister for once do the honourable thing and resign.”
Fantino responded to the criticism by listing initiatives launched by the Conservatives to assist veterans while accusing the opposition of “mud-slinging” and “fear-mongering.”
“We are in fact making substantial improvements that are generating better outcomes for Canadian veterans,” Fantino said.
Still, the problems are piling up with damning revelations of more than $1 billion in unspent funding by Veterans Affairs since 2006, delayed treatment of ailing veterans and continuing charges that wounded ex-soldiers are being short-changed in their benefits.
Nor has the situation been helped by Fantino, who has appeared chippy in his dealings with some veterans. In February, he was forced to apologize for his snub of veterans upset by the closing of regional Veterans Affairs offices. More recently, he was chased down a hall by a woman crying out to him, seeking help for her husband suffering from post-traumatic stress. Fantino didn’t stop to talk with her.
Fantino is the face of the problem but the problems run deeper into the bureaucracy that has an insurance company mindset in dealing with veterans who need help, said retired colonel Pat Stogran.
“It’s a department desperately in trouble . . . they’ve really got to change the culture of it,” said Stogran, who commanded ground troops in Afghanistan and later served as veterans ombudsman.
As veterans ombudsman, Stogran said he warned two ministers that what was unfolding in the department “was a scandal about to erupt.”
Stogran said a public inquiry is needed to probe the problems within Veterans Affairs.