OTTAWA – Veterans Affairs is embarking Wednesday on an effort to rebuild bridges with groups that represent disgruntled ex-soldiers, but it is excluding some organizations that have threatened to campaign against the governing Conservatives.
It will be the first time in months that embattled Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino has faced the regular gathering of interested groups.
The meeting is taking place in Quebec City – not Ottawa, as per usual – at a time when several Conservative sources are acknowledging their party’s problematic relationship with Canadian military veterans.
Several groups opposed to the government’s so-called new veterans charter, which defines the benefits and entitlements of ex-military and RCMP members, have formed a coalition and are refusing to participate in government photo-ops until their concerns are addressed.
Some in the coalition, notably Cape Breton veteran Ron Clarke, say they will be actively campaigning to oust the Conservatives.
The declaration has effectively split the veterans movement.
Don Leonardo, the head of Veterans Canada, says his group has decided not to participate in the coalition, and yet it has still been excluded from the Quebec City meeting.
In the past, Leonardo has been one of the few disabled veterans at the table. The consultations were a chance for injured vets, those most directly affected by the charter, to have direct face time with the minister, he said.
Leonardo said he doesn’t expect any disabled veterans to be on hand Wednesday, just interest groups.
“They’re controlling the message,” he said of the Conservatives. “How do you control the message in an election year? Get rid of the people who’ve been the loudest. Don’t give them a soapbox to stand on.”
When asked why certain groups were being excluded from the meeting, Fantino’s spokeswoman, Ashlee Smith, did not answer directly.
“Minister Fantino will be at the stakeholder meeting (Wednesday) and looks forward to meeting with veterans, veterans stakeholders and experts in the continued efforts to improve veterans benefits and programs,” she said in an email.
Mike Blais of the group Canadian Veterans Advocacy, one of the most vocal critics of the government’s handling of the benefits issue, accused the government of playing politics by shutting out its most vocal critics.
“They don’t want to hear from anybody other than the ones who brought you the new veterans charter,” he said.
Regardless, it’s clear that what might have been reliable support for the Conservatives in next year’s federal election is instead morphing into a possible liability, bringing with it the risk of that dissent bubbling up in a very public, high-profile way in the middle of a campaign.
Multiple Conservative sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, say there is growing frustration within the party at Fantino’s inability to forge positive relationships with veterans – a strength of his predecessor, Steven Blaney.
Fantino was also at the centre of two televised incidents in the past year that made him appear less than sympathetic to the plight of the wounded and their families.
Last winter, he had a testy exchange with angry ex-soldiers on Parliament Hill. The following spring, cameras recorded the minister walking away from an angry military wife as she urged him to stop and acknowledge her.
The Conservatives recently moved well-known former general Walt Natynczyk into the department’s deputy minister post, a move seen by many observers as an attempt at damage control.
Observers say Natynczyk, a former chief of the defence staff, has stature among ex-soldiers and experience dealing with the impact of the war in Afghanistan that could ease the bitterness some veterans – particularly the wounded – might be feeling towards the government.