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tabatha southey

The question I imagine many Canadians have for Julian Fantino this week is, "Who do you think you are?" In fairness, we should be patient while waiting for an answer.

If Mr. Fantino responds, "I'm Minister of State for Seniors. No, hold on, I'm the Associate Minister of National Defence. Wait a sec, I got this one, I'm the Minister for International Cooperation" before coming around to "I'm the Minister of Veterans Affairs," it's understandable.

Cabinet ministers do get shuffled, of course, but the sense with Mr. "A Wandering Minister I" Fantino isn't that he was such a roaring success in one department that his talents and diplomatic skills were demanded elsewhere and tears would just have to be dried.

The constant redeployment of Mr. Fantino suggests his fellow Conservatives like the concept of Julian Fantino (his policing background boosts their tough-on-crime brand) and yet have very little idea of what to do with the reality of Julian Fantino.

That may be subconsciously why they made him Minister of Veterans Affairs. Conservatives, after all, love the concept of veterans. They appear to like what liking veterans might say about them. The reality of veterans, however – what veterans want and indeed are very arguably entitled to (their funeral expenses, for example) – doesn't appear to be something they're eager to deal with.

To recap the week in Fantino, a week he ended in the same portfolio in which he began, so a notable week for the minister, in any case: On Tuesday, veterans from across Canada came to Ottawa for a meeting the minister had agreed to attend; the veterans were there to express their concerns over the planned closing of eight Veterans Affairs offices, but once they arrived were told that Mr. Fantino had been called away.

If anyone can tell me what the national emergency was on Tuesday that made it impossible for the Minister of Veterans Affairs to arrive on time to a meeting with people who have served their country in what is surely the most demanding way possible, please drop me a line.

Mr. Fantino did turn up – 70 minutes late for what was to have been a 40-minute meeting. He then stayed for about eight minutes, insisting indignantly that he had been delayed because he was "at some meetings to champion some issues for veterans" he was "not in a position to discuss."

Those must have been top-secret meetings with people who came from a lot farther away than say, Newfoundland, like some of the veterans at the long-scheduled meeting with Mr. Fantino. (If it's eventually revealed that Canada has been fighting a 13-year clandestine war on Mars and that Mr. Fantino is charged with seeing to the needs of our brave space-veterans, all will be explained.)

What is particularly striking about this is that the Conservatives market themselves as the party that loves the troops. Judging from Mr. Fantino's behaviour at the fragment of that technically over meeting he did deign to attend (my goodness, he was stroppy), and from Prime Minister Stephen Harper's moving-right-along endorsement of Mr. Fantino's feeble apology for "yesterday's events" (events being something that just happen, not something one does or in this case fails to do), the Conservatives presume they still have the "soldiers and supporters of Canadian soldiers" in their back pocket.

Mr. Fantino's office even issued a self-congratulatory press release right after the "meeting" – "Minister Fantino holds roundtable with Canadian veterans" – making them the Department of Brass Balls, anyway.

Perhaps what we're seeing here is just what happens when two talking points collide. Lately "We support the military" and "We're the only fiscally responsible party" are coming up against each other. But characterizing soldiers whom we have trusted to defend us as mere hapless pawns of unions – as people who can't be trusted to know or articulate their own needs – isn't really working, and that is what the government has tried to do.

The veterans have suggested Mr. Fantino should be fired. History suggests Mr. Harper is more likely, fresh options close to exhausted, to create a special portfolio for him. The Associate Minister of National Defence position once held by Mr. Fantino was, after all, vacant from 2006 to 2011. It's thought it was dusted off to make Mr. Fantino present, like a mascot at a football game, without actually bestowing much independent authority upon him.

Let's hope if a new post must be manufactured, it's one well suited to Mr. Fantino's demonstrated skills: Minister in Charge of Pissing Off Strong-willed People With A Lot of Public Goodwill, for example.

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