National News

Opposition demand apology from Fantino

By Murray Brewster, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA - Conservative MPs rallied around Julian Fantino on Friday as critics seized on the latest ugly encounter between the embattled veterans affairs minister and a disgruntled member of the military community.

Jenifer Migneault, whose husband is a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, chased after Fantino after a committee meeting Thursday, urging him to stop and listen to her concerns.

"Mr. Fantino, can I talk to you as a spouse?" Migneault called, to no avail, as the television cameras whirred.

"You're forgetting us," she cried.

Staff later said Fantino was unaware of Migneault, even though she hollered several times and followed him down the corridor amid a crush of reporters and photographers.

On Friday, Conservative MP Daryl Kramp described Fantino as a "caring person" who's been known to tear up when his emotions get the better of him.

In the House of Commons, opposition parties demanded an apology from Fantino, but since the minister wasn't there, it fell to Conservative MP Parm Gill, his parliamentary secretary, to answer on his behalf.

Everyone in Parliament knows that the minister is deeply concerned and cares about Canada's veterans, Gill said — a claim that left Nova Scotia NDP MP Robert Chisholm dumbfounded.

"The minister expects people to believe that he did not know that Ms. Migneault was the spouse of a veteran, even though she said flat out, 'I'm just a vet's spouse,' while standing a few feet away," Chisholm said.

"Instead of showing her basic courtesy, he and his staff bolted. It is pathetic. Veterans and their families are tired of being treated with this level of disdain."

Last winter, Fantino faced calls to resign after he was involved in a testy, televised exchange with veterans angry about the planned closure of nine federal Veterans Affairs offices and the consolidation of services across the country.

There could be more trouble on the horizon next week as a coalition of disgruntled ex-soldiers sets up camp on Parliament Hill to air their grievances, many of which revolve around the New Veterans Charter.

The legislation, introduced by the Liberals but championed by the Harper Conservatives, was a fundamental overhaul of the benefits and entitlements the government provides to soldiers, particularly the wounded.

On Tuesday, a parliamentary committee will release its latest review of the charter, which — among other changes — replaced pensions-for-life with a series of lump sum payment for injuries.

The system is being challenged in court by a group of Afghan war vets who say the charter is significantly less generous than the system it replaced — an assertion that Fantino has repeatedly denied.

"Too often I hear stories of a seriously injured veteran where the media report erroneously implies that they only receive a lump sum," Fantino told the same committee on Thursday.

"In fact, the seriously injured veteran is eligible for thousands of dollars each month, up to and including after age 65. In some cases a veteran can receive over $10,000 a month in financial compensation. This is in addition to two major tax-free award payments totalling in excess of up to a half-million dollars."

The example the minister cited would be for the most gravely injured; it's unclear how many of the nearly 40,000 troops who served in Afghanistan — including nearly 2,000 wounded — would qualify for that kind of reimbursement.

What has angered vets more about the charter, and will likely fuel next week's protest, is the government's line of defence in the class-action lawsuit.

Federal lawyers are arguing Ottawa has no special obligation to those who have fought wars on behalf of Canada, and that it's unfair to bind the Harper government to promises made nearly a century ago by another prime minister.

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