January 5, 2015 / 6:04 PM / 4 years ago

Canada PM demotes gaffe-prone veterans affairs minister

Julian Fantino waves while leaving Rideau Hall in Ottawa January 5, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada’s gaffe-prone veterans affairs minister was demoted on Monday after a string of embarrassments that threatened to harm the Conservative government’s image less than a year before the next election.

Julian Fantino, widely criticized by opposition politicians and some veterans affairs advocates, will now serve as a junior defense minister, a government statement said. He was replaced by backbench legislator and former air force officer Erin O’Toole.

Fantino, 72, took over the job in July 2013 and quickly became the focus of angry veterans who complained about what they said were inadequate services for those who had served in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The right-leaning Conservatives have long courted the veterans’ vote but in a sign of how bad relations have become, some ex-soldiers say they will campaign against the party in the next election, which is scheduled for October.

Most recent polls show the Conservatives - led by longtime Prime Minister Stephen Harper - trailing the opposition Liberals in popular support.

Fantino, a brusque former police chief, landed in trouble soon after taking over the veterans post. In January last year he arrived more than an hour late for a meeting with veterans and then shouted at them in front of cameras.

Later that year, in a scene that was also televised, he walked quickly away from a military wife who said she was seeking help for her sick husband.

An official watchdog said in a stinging report last November that Canada was failing veterans suffering from mental illnesses.

Late last year, Harper’s office abruptly replaced both the minister’s chief of staff and the top bureaucrat at the veteran affairs ministry.

Reporting by David Ljunggren and Mike De Souza; Editing by Peter Galloway

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