Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino is being told to resign by opposition MPs who accuse him of deliberately lying to Canadians about the scope of the Conservative government's investment in the mental health of former military men and women.
Mr. Fantino returned to the House of Commons on Monday after an official trip to Italy to face questions about an announced $200-million for mental-health initiatives that Veterans Affairs documents said would be spread over six years. Staff in his office later told The Globe and Mail that $140.1-million of the money will be spread over the duration of a program for operational stress injuries. And that, they said, could take 50 years.
The funding was promised by Mr. Fantino and two other cabinet ministers on Sunday of last week – two days before the release of an Auditor-General's report that said many vets are waiting months or years to access mental-health disability benefits.
Mr. Fantino has been in Europe since the report was made public and was unavailable, until this week, to answer its criticisms.
Stephen Lecce, one of Mr. Harper's own communications people, has been dispatched to serve as Mr. Fantino's interim chief of staff in an effort to get things back on track. But the minister's most recent problems may be difficult to surmount.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, who accused Mr. Fantino of cowardice for leaving the country, asked the House how Prime Minister Stephen Harper could still have confidence in someone with "so many faults" as a minister. "Will the Minister, for once, do the honourable thing and resign?" he asked.
Mr. Fantino responded by saying the government has significantly improved mental-health programs for Canadian veterans and that the money announced last week will create eight new sites across Canada where veterans can get treatment.
As for his absence from the House at a time when the work of his department was being questioned, Mr. Fantino said: "I attended a very moving commemoration in Italy involving the soldiers who were there during the war. I saw them visit the graves of their comrades in the various cemeteries and I am very proud of having done that. In my world, 'lest we forget' means something."
To which Mr. Mulcair said: "How about showing up for work and taking care of them when they are alive?"
Mr. Mulcair says he has rarely asked for a minister's resignation since being named leader of his party two and a half years ago. But "Julian Fantino's pathetic lies are literally beyond the pale," he told reporters.
Liberal MP Ralph Goodale also said it is time for Mr. Fantino to go.
"Veterans are forced to wait months, even years, for the most basic mental-health services. When a new program gets announced, the Minister misleads veterans by claiming it will be delivered in six years when it is really spread over 50 years," said Mr. Goodale. "There is no trust or credibility left. Will the minister simply stop the travesty and resign?"
Mr. Fantino, a former police chief, has had a rocky time since being appointed to the Veterans Affairs portfolio in July, 2013. He has been captured on camera as he lectured an elderly vet about the improprieties of finger pointing and also as he appeared to dodge the wife of another veteran with mental issues.
Scott Taylor, the former soldier who is the editor of Esprit de Corps military magazine, said he wonders why Mr. Fantino was allowed to stay after his previous run-ins with veterans and the latest problems won't help matters.
The $200-million promised by Mr. Fantino and the other ministers last week appeared to be an attempt to persuade Canadians that the government was taking action on veterans' mental health, said Mr. Taylor. "Well, if that action is not going to take place for five decades," he said, "who is even going to notice that trickle?"