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Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino speaks in Question Period on Jan. 30, 2014. (BLAIR GABLE/REUTERS)
Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino speaks in Question Period on Jan. 30, 2014. (BLAIR GABLE/REUTERS)

Conservatives order military to speed up probes into soldiers’ deaths Add to ...

The Harper government, stung by growing criticism over its treatment of veterans and suffering soldiers, has ordered Canadian Armed Forces to quickly clear a lengthy backlog of investigations into 75 military suicides.

The move comes as beleaguered Veteran Affairs Minister Julian Fantino faces calls to resign over his handling of the closure of eight veterans service centres across Canada. He’s been deluged by political fallout after failing to show up for a meeting with veterans in Ottawa this week, and then engaging in a fractious exchange with the former soldiers while TV cameras rolled.

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The office-closing controversy is sparking sit-ins by veterans in various cities, and Conservatives are increasingly relying on Erin O’Toole, a junior MP and former Forces helicopter pilot, to serve as spokesman on the file instead of Mr. Fantino.

Defence Minister Rob Nicholson announced the expedited suicide probes Thursday during a Commons debate where he was defending the government’s handling of the mental-health crisis afflicting Canadian soldiers and veterans.

Mr. Nicholson, in a particularly candid disclosure, told the Commons he’s expressed “serious concerns” to General Tom Lawson, Chief of the Defence Staff, over huge delays in board of inquiry investigations into military suicides. These unfinished investigations include deaths that occurred as far back as 2008.

“I have asked the Canadian Armed Forces to make their completion a priority. I want to see the result of those, as do all the families who are affected by this,” Mr. Nicholson said.

He said Gen. Lawson has convened a special team to conclude the investigations “as quickly as possible.”

David Desjardins, a Canadian veteran who served in Afghanistan, called the Forces’ move “too little, too late.”

“There’s no excuse for a backlog of 75,” he said.

Mr. Desjardins, who served in the military police, said delays in these investigations could hamper the ability of affected families to find closure.

“There’s an undue stress that’s put in the family … could you imagine yourself in that situation – having to wait?” Mr. Desjardins said. “The faster cases get resolved, the sooner [families] can carry on with their lives.”

The Conservatives, who have carefully cultivated an image as pro-military since they took power, have nevertheless managed to alienate increasing numbers of veterans and families angered by what they feel is insufficient federal support for soldiers and former soldiers.

Mr. Fantino was unbowed Thursday as he defended his government’s decision to close the veterans service centres – and send former soldiers to Service Canada offices instead, telling critics “I’m not leaving.” He blamed a union that represents Veterans Affairs employees for fuelling the controversy.

“One group, in particular, has questioned our loyalty to veterans.I am speaking of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. It has tried to paint itself as the champion of veterans. Let me be absolutely clear: It is anything but,” the Vaughn Tory MP told the Commons.

“Not every veteran needs to go to these offices. If they are in need of services and cannot travel, we travel there. We do not make them travel. We have been doing that all along and will continue doing that.”

Mr. Harper has proven reluctant during his tenure as Prime Minister to quickly shuffle members of his cabinet who are perceived to be fumbling their portfolios. The government, meanwhile, shows no signs of retreating on the Veterans Affairs office closing.

Senior Tories suggest privately that Mr. Fantino fares well during one-on-one meetings with veterans – away from TV cameras. However, as TV clips from Tuesday suggest, the minister can be more awkward when handling angry stakeholders in public.

NDP veterans affairs critic Peter Stoffer said he’s only twice in 16 years called for a minister to resign. He said he believes Mr. Fantino “deeply cares” about vets but, he speculated, is under strain because he’s forced to defend belt-tightening. “Maybe he’s under a lot of stress by all the cuts that are coming to balance the books by 2014.”

Follow on Twitter: @stevenchase

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