Fantino narrowly wins Vaughan byelection

Ontario's former top police officer, Julian Fantino, wins a narrow federal byelection victory for the Tories on Monday.

Click on photo below to hear As It Happens interview:

Ontario's former top police officer, the tough-talking, sometimes brash and often controversial Julian Fantino, won a narrow federal byelection victory for the Tories on Monday, taking what was once a Liberal stronghold.

Fantino and his no-nonsense approach to crime will nestle comfortably in the ranks of the law-and-order Conservatives.

He is widely seen as cabinet material and supports Prime Minister Stephen Harper in his battle to scrap the federal gun registry, calling it an "obscene waste of taxpayer money."

The Vaughan riding, which is just north of Toronto and is home to a large Italian community, had been held by the Liberals since 1988. But Fantino, himself an Italian immigrant and Harper's star candidate, turned the tide.

Fantino's Liberal opponent Tony Genco and other Fantino critics accused the high-profile candidate of running a troublingly low-profile campaign. He missed at least one public debate and his campaign staff rejected or ignored several interview requests from media. He has made few public comments about the campaign.

The 68-year-old Fantino said he missed the debate due to a family commitment.

The race was a tight one, with Fantino's victory not declared until well after midnight. Fantino garnered 19,260 votes — 49.1 per cent of the vote — and Genco ended up with 18,263 votes. Genco did not make an official concession speech, but earlier in the night he said, "One way or the other we'll be back."

At 1:15 a.m. when Fantino arrived at the Vaughan banquet hall where his supporters had gathered, the crowd had thinned out considerably, but loudly cheered and many shook his hand. One older woman pinched his cheek.

"Today Vaughan families elected a man with real-life experience, with family values, with a lifetime of hard work and strong commitment to community," Fantino said.

"I believe in our government, I believe in our ideas and vision for a stronger Canada. I believe in me and reject the fearmongering and risky Michael Ignatieff coalition."

The riding had been held by Liberal Maurizio Bevilacqua, who stepped down to run for and win the mayor's job in Vaughan last month.

A career cop, Fantino rose through the ranks of the Toronto police and served as police chief there, in London, Ont., and York Region — which includes Vaughan — and later served as commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police.

During his time as commissioner he was known as an aggressive champion of road safety and a passionate fighter against child pornography.

Police career not without controversy

But his storied law enforcement career was not without its share of controversy.

Some of his most dogged opponents accuse him of enforcing two-tier justice in favour of aboriginals in Caledonia, Ont., the site of a long-running native occupation.

Residents collected more than 4,000 signatures on a petition calling for an inquiry into his actions. Some Caledonia residents want provincial police to step in and end the occupation, which has dragged on for almost five years.

Fantino, who inherited the explosive Caledonia file when he took command of the provincial force in 2006, has said it's not the job of police to settle aboriginal land-claim disputes and that Ottawa must act.

Fantino was recently embroiled in a messy internal disciplinary hearing that stretched over two years and saw him accused of vindictiveness and witness tampering. The hearing came to an abrupt close last year when police prosecutors dropped misconduct charges against the two officers named in the case.

Critics called for his dismissal after wiretapped conversations between Fantino and Ontario aboriginal activist Shawn Brant about First Nations blockades were released. They indicated Fantino told Brant he would do everything he could to "destroy" Brant's reputation.

In 1989, when he was a staff inspector, he apologized after releasing statistics suggesting black people commit most of the crime in Toronto's Jane-Finch neighbourhood.

He stood by his decision to release the data to a race relations committee, but said his mistake was to do so without knowing a reporter was present.

Fantino came to Canada from Italy at the age of 10. In 1969, the 27-year-old Fantino became a cadet with the Toronto Police Service.

He later became a beat cop, working his way up through the ranks to undercover officer, homicide detective and division commander before his times at the helm of the Toronto, York Region and London, Ont., forces.