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Fantino hopes to shed light on misery in the Sahel

Julian Fantino, Minister of International Co-operation, is photographed at his office in Vaughan, Ont., Sept. 7, 2012.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Julian Fantino made his name as a tough-guy cop, fighting crime on the streets of Toronto. Today, his new job requires a more macro world view – figuring out how Canada can help fight hunger in the Third World.

On Saturday, the police chief-turned-politician will travel to Africa for the first time. Getting a glimpse into life at refugee camps and emergency-feeding stations will be the focus of his first trip as Canada's newly minted Minister of International Co-operation, a job in which he has had to become a quick study since taking over in July.

"In my very early days in this job, people were talking about these exotic-sounding places – like Burkina Faso. I found myself running to the map: 'Where the heck is that?'" Mr. Fantino told The Globe and Mail Friday in an interview.

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He will be in the country this weekend.

"I'm very humbled by how much I don't know, but I'm learning every day."

Many Canadians know little about the Sahel, an arid belt that stretches across many countries in the widest part of the African continent. Millions of people are going hungry there because of persistent drought, armed conflicts and rising food prices. Aid groups say help is urgently needed – refugee camps are swelling, as are the numbers of starving children.

In August, Ottawa launched a fund to match private donations aimed at alleviating the hunger. The response to date, however, has been underwhelming.

"This particular one has not been going as well as we expected," Mr. Fantino said.

He said he hoped his travels would drum up publicity to put the crisis into sharper focus.

"We are talking about famine that is affecting millions of people," he said. "The whole region is in turmoil."

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First elected as a Conservative to the House of Commons in 2010, the 70-year-old Mr. Fantino has proven to be a rising star as a political rookie. In his previous cabinet role for Stephen Harper's government, he oversaw the purchase of tens of billions of dollars in military hardware. Then, two months ago, he was shuffled out of swords and into plowshares, when he was put in charge of the Canadian International Development Agency.

Compared to the bureaucratic leviathan that is National Defence, CIDA has a relatively lean $3.5-billion budget – an allotment that is shrinking because of austerity measures.

Mr. Fantino said his biggest ambition for the portfolio is to ensure that CIDA money gets to those in dire need.

"We must be accountable for every nickel," he said. "We have to be strategic as to where we go."

His six-day African itinerary includes stops in Burkina Faso and Nigeria.

Notably, he is giving one of Canada's close regional allies a pass. Mali is now suffering through the aftermath of an army coup in its capital and Taliban-style Islamist revolt in its hinterlands.

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"The situation is really difficult there," Mr. Fantino said.

The food crisis in the Sahel threatens to get worse because of terrorism.

"You've got things like the al-Qaeda tentacles spread out across Africa," he said, noting the ascent of Islamist guerrillas like the Ansar Dine faction in Mali and Boko Haram in Nigeria.

He argues that the leap from fighting crime to fighting hunger isn't like crossing a chasm, at least not if one considers that international security and food security can often march in lockstep.

"Food, or the absence of food, is often used as an oppressive weapon," Mr. Fantino said. "I think it was said that in the absence of food, people who are hungry do one of three things: They revolt, they migrate or they die."

The former big-city police chief expects to be humbled by the scale of suffering he'll bear witness to. As a police officer, he said, "you dealt with the homeless, the hungry, the destitute, but it was more of a singular thing – it was not en masse."

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