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Updated: Wed, 29 Jan 2014 22:01:21 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Julian Fantino apologizes for late arrival at meeting with vets



Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino answers a question during question period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino answers a question during question period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino is apologizing to veterans for arriving late to a scheduled meeting the night before.

He said the 70-minute delay was "due to a cabinet meeting that ran long," in a statement released early Wednesday afternoon.

"I have been committed to having an open dialogue with the men and women who served Canada in uniform, but I realize that yesterday’s regrettable delay has brought that into question," the statement read.

Fantino also said in the statement that he wanted to reach out to veterans to apologize personally.

But veterans who spoke with CBC News are still angry with the cabinet minister, who wound up meeting only briefly with the vets.

"What the minister did yesterday was disgraceful. The only thing we want is a commitment to keep open the eight offices and reopen the Prince George office. Veterans have earned that respect," said a joint statement from veterans Ron Clarke, Bruce Moncur, Paul Davis and Roy Lamore.

PM should fire Fantino, Mulcair says

The fractious meeting between the Veterans Affairs minister and veterans Tuesday evening led NDP Leader Tom Mulcair to call on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to apologize to veterans and fire Fantino. 

"When the veterans complained that the minister had missed their meeting, [Fantino] said, 'I'm not going to stand here and listen to that' and he stormed out," Mulcair said during Wednesday's question period. 

"Will the prime minister do the right thing — apologize himself and fire that incompetent?"

Harper defended Fantino.

"The minister has apologized for the events of yesterday but the fact of the matter is that this government and this minister have increased services for our veterans without precedent."

Dissatisfied with that response, other opposition members joined in calling for Fantino's resignation – including Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and NDP Veterans Affairs critic Peter Stoffer.

Fantino himself stood up to point out that there will be 650 locations across Canada at the beginning of February where veterans are able to receive in-person service. 

"Veterans have told us that they want less paperwork and fewer trips downtown," he said. 

He also repeated his apology on the floor of the House of Commons.

"I absolutely regret yesterday's events," Fantino said.

"I wanted to meet with them to hear their case and their stories and explain to them the changes that we are making that will in fact look after their interests and their families in the long term."

Veterans' treatment 'just not kosher'

Veterans left the bitter meeting on Tuesday night visibly frustrated and said they were disrespected.

The veterans who were in Ottawa with Public Service Alliance of Canada union officials to lobby against the closing of regional offices had set up a meeting with Fantino, only for him to show up very late. 

At a news conference held afterwards, the veterans said, bluntly, that it did not go well. Video from the meeting shows Fantino and veterans trading testy exchanges over the closing of nine Veterans Affairs offices across Canada. 

"There have been eight military suicides in two months," Mulcair told reporters Wednesday morning. "This is the last moment where we should be cutting back on services to our veterans."

Ron Clarke, a 36-year veteran of the Canadian Forces, said the meeting was "unbelievable, unacceptable and shameful. The way we were treated is just not kosher." He demanded that Fantino resign and said he would campaign "across Canada" against the Conservatives during the next election.

Veterans Ombudsman 'taken aback'

Guy Parent, Canada's Veterans Ombudsman, said he was "taken aback" by the entire situation, especially considering the Harper government signed off on a new bill of rights in 2007, which says veterans "are to be treated with respect, dignity, fairness and courtesy."

Parent, in an interview on CBC Radio's Mainstreet Cape Breton, said he didn't see any recognition of those rights during Tuesday's meeting. However, he did say he was glad that Fantino apologized.

"Certainly, that was the thing to do," Parent said.

Fantino released a statement Tuesday saying he and the veterans had a "candid conversation" during a "roundtable" and that meeting with veterans is one of the most important parts of his job.

"I am always willing to hear from veterans face-to-face on any issue," he said in the release.

Mulcair is unconvinced.

"It is extraordinary to watch the body language and the behaviour on the other side — the robotic answers, delivering talking points," Mulcair said. "As if a talking point could replace the fact that they're closing offices."

But Parent said the offices aren't as important as the services provided to veterans. 

"We cannot go on assumptions that veterans' families will be ill-treated because of office closures," he said.

Parent said it's important to look at the outcome, as long as mechanisms are in place to compensate for the closures – such as proper access to information, programs, benefits and face-to-face visits.

"Unfortunately, I don't think that Veterans Affairs Canada was very transparent and very strong in their communication as to exactly what would be put in place to provide that."

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