By David Akin, National Bureau Chief
OTTAWA – Prime Minister Stephen Harper named a former Sea King helicopter navigator to replace Julian Fantino as the minister of veterans affairs, a move that will be widely seen as an acknowledgement Fantino had become a political liability on the file in this election year.
Fantino, 72, a former police chief, was appointed associate minister of defence, the cabinet post he held before taking over at veterans affairs.
Erin O’Toole, the 41-year-old MP from the Ontario riding of Durham, east of Toronto, becomes the new minister of veterans affairs.
“Mr. Fantino and Mr. O’Toole have been asked to draw on their considerable knowledge and experience to take on important portfolios,” Harper said in a statement Monday. “I am confident that they will deliver results and provide strong leadership as they go about addressing their duties and responsibilities.”
Neither Harper, Fantino nor O’Toole were immediately available to answer questions.
After graduating from the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., O’Toole joined the Royal Canadian Air Force where, among other things, he became a tactical navigator for the Sea King helicopter and participated in search-and-rescue missions and maritime surveillance.
After 12 years in the Air Force, he retired as a captain and became a lawyer.
He was elected in a byelection in November, 2012.
For a brief period, O’Toole and his father, John O’Toole, represented the same riding in two different legislatures, a historical rarity. Erin was in the House of Commons and John was finishing a long run as the riding’s representative in the provincial legislature at Queen’s Park. John retired with last spring’s provincial election.
Erin O’Toole had been parliamentary secretary to the minister of international trade and is widely seen as a capable MP.
O’Toole’s abilities will be tested in his new job. A series of veterans groups have loudly and frequently complained that the Harper government has been letting them down. They cite everything from the closure of veterans affairs offices to the red tape needed to qualify for certain benefits to the attitude of what they perceive to be an unfeeling and uncaring bureaucracy.
Fantino was unable to fend off attacks from the opposition last fall and further compounded matters with a communications style that often seemed clumsy.
O’Toole will be supported by what many see as a capable newly installed top bureaucrat in the veterans affairs department, former chief of defence staff Walt Natynczyk.
Natynczyk — known fondly by many in the military as “Uncle Walt” when he was Canada’s top general — was named deputy minister of veterans affairs in October.