Erin O'Toole, Canada's new veterans affairs minister, has announced a new three-point "veteran-centric" plan for 2015, part of the government's renewed efforts to mend a fractured relationship with its servicemen and women.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper started the new year by appointing O'Toole, a retired air force officer and first-time MP, to replace the embattled Julian Fantino. The move was preceded by the appointment of Walter Natynczyk, the former chief of the defence staff, to deputy minister at veterans affairs.
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The government also appointed longtime Conservative John MacDonell, an experienced political hand, as O'Toole's top advisor. MacDonell served for six years as chief of staff to former defence minister Peter MacKay and also worked closely with Natynczyk.
"Today I'm going to share with you a few reflections on my first few weeks listening and meeting with veterans and advocates from across the country," O'Toole said to a crowd of current and former servicemen and women at the Rotary Club of Toronto in his first major speech.
"The veteran has to be at the centre of everything we do and their family."
O'Toole did not name Fantino by name but acknowledged the previous approach did not always serve the best interests of veterans.
"I want to create an informed and respectful dialogue about the opportunities and challenges facing our veterans," he said.
"In the last few years, we haven't always seen that, and that's not serving veterans."
Fantino, O'Toole's predecessor, was heavily criticized for a testy meeting with veterans early last year and for refusing to speak with the wife of a veteran who pursued him down a hallway in Parliament.
"Even when there's disagreements politically or among veterans or among advocacy organizations, let's agree to do that respectfully and show care and compassion to those who have served us," O'Toole said.
The new veterans affairs minister said the government's three-point plan includes:
- A "veteran-centric" approach to policy and programming.
- A "seamless integration" with the Canadian Forces.
- Creating "a culture that strives for service excellence."
NDP veterans affairs critic Peter Stoffer said, in a telephone interview with CBC News on Friday, O'Toole reached out to him a couple of days after being appointed to the new role.
"He understands what the problems are," Stoffer said, adding that he was "quite hopeful" to see O'Toole and Natynczyk appointed to key roles.
"The question is," he said, "do they have enough clout to get the resources and tools needed for veterans."
John McCallum, the Liberal MP for Markham-Unionville, was in the crowd to hear O'Toole speak alongside Leona Alleslev, the Liberal candidate for Aurora-Oak Ridges-Richmond Hill.
In a telephone interview with CBC News after O'Toole's speech, McCallum said that "O'Toole's heart is in the right place," but there was no substance or new policy announced in his speech.
The government has come under much criticism from some veterans and advocacy groups for closing regional offices for veterans and for a lack of mental-health services to veterans.
McCallum said O'Toole's speech did not address any of those concerns.
Angry veterans group have said they would rally against the Conservatives during the next election campaign.