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Minister Fantino sorry for behaviour at meeting with aggrieved veterans

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Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino answers a question during question period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Wednesday, January 29, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

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Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino answers a question during question period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Wednesday, January 29, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA - Julian Fantino offered an olive branch Wednesday to former soldiers left angry and insulted by the way the minister of veterans affairs dealt with their concerns.

The Conservatives were in full damage control mode as both opposition parties joined veterans in demanding Fantino be fired over his brusque handling of a meeting late Tuesday — something the minister later said he "absolutely regrets."

Some veterans, stung by the encounter, refused to accept his apology. Fantino showed up to the meeting late and had a couple of testy exchanges with frustrated ex-soldiers.

At the centre of the controversy is the imminent closure of eight regional Veterans Affairs offices, which provide support and benefit services to veterans across Canada, as the government moves toward providing services online.

It's unclear how far Fantino's regrets will go mitigate a corrosive political debate about the government's push toward more online and remote services for Canada's ex-service members.

Conservatives portray it as increased efficiency; the opposition, public service unions, and an increasing number of veterans groups call it cost-cutting to the detriment of those who put their lives on the line for their country.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood by Fantino, dismissing the growing public outcry as having been manufactured by the union that represents Veteran Affairs staff, which helped facilitate the meeting with the minister.

"We have a small number — a small number — of duplicate veterans offices that have a very small caseload," Harper told the House of Commons.

"I know the unions don't like it, (but) it makes a lot more sense to have 600 points of service for veterans," he said, a reference to the government's plan to move services from Veterans Affairs to less specialized — but more plentiful — Service Canada outlets.

"I know why the unions and the NDP oppose that. This is in the best interest of veterans. They can play politics. We're going to keep delivering for veterans."

One of Harper's MPs, veteran Alberta Conservative Laurie Hawn, went a step further and accused the Public Service Alliance of Canada of not only sandbagging Fantino at the meeting, but cynically playing on public sympathy and mistrust.

"The fact is, we're caught in a bit of a love-hate relationship," said Hawn, a former air force colonel. "People love to love soldiers, as they should. A lot of people love to hate government. That's the reality."

The union has run a high-profile campaign against the closures, including the organizing of public rallies.

The centres — in Kelowna, B.C., Saskatoon, Brandon, Man., Thunder Bay, Ont., Windsor, Ont., Sydney, N.S., Charlottetown and Corner Brook, N.L. — are slated to shut down Friday. A ninth office has already closed in Prince George, B.C.

A veteran's advocate says Conservatives are mistaken if they believe the groundswell of opposition is nothing more than another front in their undeclared war to ramp back benefits, entitlements and the power of public sector unions.

"It is disingenuous for the government to dismiss these veterans' concerns as a union matter," said Mike Blais, president of Canadian Veterans Advocacy. "It is the services that are being denied that must be the focus."

Gordon Moore, head of the Royal Canadian Legion, said he believes the Conservatives are being hurt by the weight of this and other recent veterans controversies. Moore said he can't understand why the government seems to be picking a fight with vets.

There are still 118,000 Second World War and Korean veterans in Canada, many of them of an advanced age and lacking computer skills.

Moore said the government could delay for a few years the transition toward greater online access.

Late Wednesday, the NDP introduced a motion calling in the Commons calling on the Conservatives to halt the office closures and to improve mental-health services for soldiers.

Much of the fallout from Tuesday's angry meeting focused on Fantino's personal style, which has occasionally rubbed ex-soldiers the wrong way. He caused an Internet furor last fall for remarks that likened his time with the Ontario Provincial Police with that of soldiers who've seen combat.

The abrasiveness was not lost on NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, who led the charge for the minister's resignation.

"Mr. Fantino has showed a lack of understanding, a lack of heart, a lack of feeling, a lack of respect," Mulcair said. "He shows nothing but scorn for people who come to him for help and he must be removed from his position."

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau also demanded Fantino's ouster.

Veteran's advocate Jerry Kovacs said the people he talks with are pining for the days of dealing with former veterans minister Steven Blaney.

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