Rookie minister promises kinder, gentler approach to angered veterans | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Rookie minister promises kinder, gentler approach to angered veterans

January 23, 2015 - 1:00 PM

TORONTO - Canada's rookie veterans affairs minister sought to put daylight between himself and his predecessor in a maiden speech Friday that promised the dawn of a new era — in what is an election year.

Speaking to fellow Rotary Club members, Erin O'Toole began with a frank admission about shortcomings in the government's dealings with veterans.

"I want to create an informed and respectful dialogue about the opportunities and challenges facing our veterans," O'Toole said.

"In the last few years, we haven't always seen that, and that's not serving veterans."

O'Toole did not name his predecessor Julian Fantino, who was dogged by controversy in 18 months on the job. Veterans had complained a high-handed Fantino had been unresponsive to, and dismissive of, their concerns.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper shuffled him from the portfolio three weeks ago and appointed O'Toole.

Fantino had angered veterans by defending office closures, job cuts, lapsed budget money and changes to pensions and benefits. His gaffes included a televised confrontation with veterans and ignoring questions from the wife of a former soldier.

In his speech, O'Toole struck a different chord as he sought — in mostly general terms — to make up with an important voting constituency that had become increasingly hostile toward the Conservative government.

"We have to have a veteran-centred approach to everything we do," he said.

"From policies to future planning, to programming, the veteran has to be at the centre of everything we do — and their families."

Those in the friendly audience — which included some veterans — said they liked what they heard.

One of them, former Liberal veterans affairs minister John McCallum, said it remains to be seen what exactly O'Toole will deliver.

"He's obviously going to be doing his best for the veterans," McCallum said in an interview after the speech.

"He still has a lot of challenges on his plate — there's a litany of things that have gone wrong."

O'Toole said everyone in his department who deals with veterans should be looking to cut wait times and red tape, and be responsive to the rise of new needs: issues around mental health.

He said he found it stunning to learn mental-stress injuries among soldiers had doubled over the past five years.

He also noted the veterans community now spans geriatrics from the Second World War through to relative youngsters from the Afghan conflict — all with needs that can be quite different.

Former military engineer Tim Patriquin said he thought a sincere O'Toole had hit all the right notes and would effect positive change.

Fantino did make some gaffes, he said, but the new minister would be able to separate himself and take the troubled department in a new direction.

"That's just noise," Patriquin said.

"It's a new day and we don't just want to look backwards."

Since his appointment, O'Toole has been active on social media. He also moved quickly to shut down controversy over a non-lawyer representing vets before the veterans review and appeal board.

He has, he said, spent the last three weeks on a "listening tour" of the country.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2015
The Canadian Press

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