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Harper dumps Fantino from Veterans Affairs, promotes Erin O'Toole

Then-Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Sept.18, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

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.

The text of a statement issued Monday by Julian Fantino after he was removed as minister of veterans affairs and returned to his old job as associate minister of defence:

I will remain forever grateful to the countless veterans I had the distinct honour of meeting in all regions of Canada and while abroad visiting the cemeteries of those brave men and women who died in service to their country. Each and every day that I served at Veteran Affairs I was guided by a firm belief that government must stand by those who have served and continue to serve.

Under Prime Minister Harper, I can say with confidence that we have fully embraced that principle. I am proud of the critical improvements we have delivered for Canadian veterans and their families — including the opening of seven Military Family Resource Centres, more than doubling the number of counselling sessions for family members, investments in critical research and new treatment benefits to assist veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and additional investments in front-line, mental-health clinics in eight communities.

I also want to express gratitude to many dedicated veterans stakeholders, many of whom partnered with the government this past year to enhance mental-health support and reduce bureaucratic red tape. I also wish my friend, Erin O’Toole, a patriot and veteran himself, the very best as he builds on the important work underway to improve the quality of life of veterans and their families for generations.

“I am humbled to take on this new responsibility as Canada’s associate minister of National Defense (sic) — where I pledge to work hard to assure the safekeeping of our land, people and interests at home and around the world. As a young immigrant boy, I imagined Canada as the great northern frontier — a country defined by its majestic northern beauty, its immense resources, rich traditions and youthful communities.

Having served for over forty years in law enforcement, I have an acute appreciation for the solemn duty government must undertake to protect its citizens and sovereignty. In my oath, I pledge to forcefully defend Canada’s sovereignty and national security and continue to stand with our men and women in uniform who uphold and protect those sacred values of democracy, freedom and the rule of law.

I also want to thank Vaughan families and seniors for their continued support over the past years. I look forward to running for re-election under the steady economic leadership of Prime Minister Harper, who has delivered lower taxes, new infrastructure improvements and safe streets for Vaughan families.

As we start anew in 2015 — let us thank our men and women in uniform who keep our country safe. God bless all who serve and keep our true north, strong and free.”