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Legion Magazine – November 1999 « Douglas Fisher



Legion Magazine – November 1999

Newfoundlander George Baker was named minister of veterans affairs last August, replacing Fred Mifflin, another Liberal MP from Joey’s province. Baker also bears a further ministerial chore that will be a larger burden and interest for him than Veterans Affairs Canada, just as it was for his predecessor.

The dual responsibility for VAC and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency affirms what we have known since the early 1960s. That VAC—formerly known as the Department of Veterans Affairs, DVA—is not rated by either parliamentarians or mandarins as a major or heavy portfolio with arduous and dangerous pressures on its minister. Four times it has been handed off to the minister of National Defence. First under Allan McKinnon in the short-lived Clark government, 1979-80, then in the last term of Brian Mulroney under Kim Campbell and again through the first term of the Jean Chrétien government under David Collenette and Doug Young who were given a secretary of state, Lawrence MacAulay from Prince Edward Island, to help with VAC work.

The scandals that erupted out of the Somalia inquiry shook both Collenette and his successor Doug Young. However, the main reason for going back to matching VAC to its own minister was not that it overburdened Collenette or Young, but because there was a perceived need to keep Mifflin in the cabinet, but get him out of Fisheries and Oceans after the 1997 election and big Liberal losses in Atlantic Canada. Presto! Mifflin to VAC. Why wasn’t George Baker, the more striking and much longer serving MP from Newfoundland, given the job then? Too dangerous; too cleverly evocative, too much a hell-raiser who drove mandarins wild. By my count, 18 people have held the VAC portfolio since the department was formed in 1944.

All my reading suggests the department had two main proponents and founders. Its political father was Ian MacKenzie, a long-time Liberal MP from British Columbia and a veteran of the trenches in WW I. As minister of Pensions and National Health from 1939-44, MacKenzie became the main and best informed voice in the cabinet and the House of Commons calling for the return of military personnel to civilian life. His chief aide in this was an exceptionally gifted and determined, permanent official named Walter Woods. Woods became the department’s first deputy minister. MacKenzie’s seniority and Woods’ know-how got the department firmly functioning on the basis of plans that had been debated and crystallized before peace came in 1945.

MacKenzie’s successor, Milton Gregg, VC, a New Brunswick Liberal MP, was also popular, both in official Ottawa and across the land. The former honorary treasurer of Dominion Command handily took DVA to 1950 when he was moved on to the Department of Labour, a role which the press of the day considered a more difficult department. Gregg was followed at DVA by Hugues Lapointe, the only Quebecer who has held the ministry. Lapointe had led infantry in WW II. A reserved man, he was adroit in the House and well-informed on his department, and he kept it from 1950-57 without any serious crises and with very few entries under his name in the indexes of Hansard. He had the second longest term of any of the first 15 ministers.

In 1957, John Diefenbaker chose the much-respected Alf Brooks to lead DVA. He was a veteran New Brunswick MP who had served as a senior army officer in both world wars. He held the post until 1960 when he went to the Senate.

Gordon Churchill, another former army colonel, succeeded Brooks and held the post until the Liberal victory in the 1963 federal election. He was a patient, thorough and studious man who forsook partisanship as spokesman for DVA.

Lester Pearson gave the DVA post to Roger Teillet, a former officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force who represented the federal electoral district of St. Boniface in Manitoba. He held the job through the two Pearson cabinets and almost five years—quite quiet ones for DVA. Teillet had just one speech of substance and only 15 Hansard entries for his first session as minister. The department really didn’t figure in the parliamentary rowdiness of the Pearson era.

On forming his first cabinet in 1968, Pierre Trudeau picked as DVA’s head the first one without any military experience of any kind. Jean-Eudes Dubé, a New Brunswick MP, was a young lawyer who held office from 1968-72, probably with a lower public profile than any other DVA minister except Teillet.

In 1972, Trudeau appointed a new MP from P.E.I. to the post. Dan MacDonald had been a farmer. He was a war amp as a result of service as a sergeant in the Canadian Army from 1940-45. In my opinion, MacDonald ranks with George Hees as the most popular minister of DVA. He was to hold the post for eight years, made up of a long run to the ‘79 election, and a reappointment to the post after the 1980 election when the Liberals ousted the Tories. As noted above, Allan McKinnon, a former officer in the regular army and the MP for Victoria, had been minister for both DND and DVA in Joe Clark’s cabinet.

Rarely has any DVA minister had a hard time in the House as a whole or in any of its committees over annual departmental estimates, and this was particularly the case with MacDonald. Unfortunately, he died in office in the fall of 1980, only 62 years old. His successor in it was Bennett Campbell, only 38, an educator and a former premier who did not have military experience. He kept MacDonald’s riding for the Liberals with a by-election victory and remained the minister until the Mulroney sweep in the 1984 election.
It was back to a war veteran for DVA, the choice being a long-time Tory MP from Ontario, George Hees, age 74. Of all DVA ministers, George Hees is the only one who ranks with the first, Ian MacKenzie, and the 16th, Baker, as a colourful, public personality and capable of popularizing both DVA programs and a broad conception of the national legacy left by those who have served in the Canadian military.
Hees held the post until 1988 when he was succeeded by Gerald Merrithew, a New Brunswick MP and long-time active member in the militia. He was both deeply interested and knowledgeable about the Canadian Forces and its history. Merrithew held the department through Mulroney’s last mandate, and when Kim Campbell took over as prime minister she appointed Peter McCreath, a Nova Scotian and a member of the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve, but he had only a few months in the office before the ‘93 election swept away him and scores of Tory MPs and brought the Liberals back to power.

Jean Chrétien has had three ministers for Veterans Affairs. First his government went for almost four years with Collenette, a man without military experience, heading both the Department of National Defence and Veterans Affairs. Then the prime minister turned to Mifflin, a former admiral in the postwar Royal Canadian Navy for two years, but only for Veterans Affairs and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency. Last August, Chrétien turned to Baker, a former broadcaster and librarian, and a backbench MP for 25 years to replace Mifflin who has since moved to the backbench. Baker is without a military background.

Note the following about the ministers: Most have come from smaller and “have not” provinces; three of them have had French as their first language; New Brunswick has had four Veterans Affairs ministers and the Atlantic provinces as a whole have had nine of the 16; Quebec has only had one.

Anyone familiar with the behaviour of Veterans Affairs ministers in Ottawa knows that theirs is not a portfolio that needs or finds useful a tough-talking partisan. Rarely do the opposition parties try hard or consistently to lambaste and allege scandal or wrong-doing in VAC. And most of the department’s contretemps which have had much media notice are usually brought forward by the associations for veterans, not by MPs. Since the late 1980s, some senators, led for a time by Jack Marshall, have pushed veterans’ causes with the Ottawa establishment more forcefully—and I think usefully—than have members of the House of Commons.

It is clear that more and more Veterans Affairs Canada will be handling matters involving those who have served in the Canadian military after the Korean War. The lobbies on behalf of full rights and benefits for merchant seamen of WW II have been largely successful. An issue is still alive, but very tenuous as to the government awarding a special bonus benefit for aboriginal people who served in wars. It is argued on the basis of their general hardships and their alleged difficulties in attaining the postwar benefits open to all who served in the Canadian Forces.

In the main, VAC seems a very settled operation, one which has served its clientele well. A criticism can be made that the greatest failure of the department and of DND has been the weakness of their contribution to the education of the public, in particular the younger generations, about the worth and range of achievement by those who have served in Canada’s wars. Perhaps too much emphasis on mourning in official remembrance and not enough about deeds done together.

At 80, and after 42 years around Parliament Hill, it is hard for me to get excited about any one politician or one portfolio. Nevertheless, I anticipate with relish what George Baker is likely to do in leading VAC. This is not just because he has the gift of a shrewdly analytical mind, married to a knack of rollicking, witty talk. He tends to bare the truth and his own opinions more boldly than 99 per cent of the politicians I’ve known. At least he has been this way as a backbencher. I am wagering that being a privy councillor will not change him.