The Hill: Blaney puts friendlier face on Toews’ old portfolio

Vic Toews was still the federal minister responsible for emergency management in the early hours of July 6 when a runaway freight train wiped out much of Lac-Mégantic, Que., and killed several dozen people.

If there ever was a town in need of some immediate emergency management that morning, it was Lac-Mégantic.

But instead of rushing out to the scene, Toews quit his job. He walked out on his boss and the town’s victims in their time of need even before the cabinet shuffle.

Granted, Prime Minister Stephen Harper had probably already told Toews he’d be out of a cabinet job after the floods hit Calgary and Toronto.

Harper might even have told Toews he wouldn’t be getting an appointment to the Manitoba Court of Appeal. And Toews may have replied that Harper could do what he wanted with his emergency-management duties in Lac-Mégantic.

In any case, Toews resigned and there was no trip to Quebec for him.

Maybe Toews was still smarting because they laughed at him in Calgary when he showed up for a photo during the flooding.

People can be awfully cruel to ministers who show up at disaster sites for photo sessions for public relations purposes, especially when they arrive without their federal chequebooks.

We don’t really know where Toews went that Sunday and in the following days but we know it wasn’t Lac-Mégantic.

Toews wasn’t the only minister to leave cabinet. A lot of ministers have left in recent weeks. Former environment minister Peter Kent, once considered a bright light in the cabinet, wasted his time fighting environmental groups and finally realized the shuffle wasn’t likely to go in his favour.

Marjory LeBreton, who was over her head in Senate scandals, quit while the going was still good. Two Alberta junior ministers, Diane Ablonczy and Ted Menzies, also announced they were leaving.

For a while, the opposition parties were making their usual cruel jokes about the departures of long-tailed furry animals on a sinking ship.

Harper also lost his chief of staff, Nigel Wright, but that was because of his misplaced cheque-writing abilities.

Former fisheries and oceans minister Keith Ashfield had a good reason to leave as he’s battling cancer.

Steven Fletcher left cabinet but in doing so regretfully noted he wished it was for one of the usual reasons: a sex scandal. He at least has a sense of humour.

Harper put his spin on the departures as he talked about bringing in fresh, younger faces. That lowered the average age in cabinet to 52 from 55. That’s some change.

Harper said he wanted more women in cabinet. But having four more women in cabinet out of 39 ministers is hardly overwhelming.

Yet it was Toews’ sudden departure, leaving Harper and a devastated Quebec town in the lurch, that drew the most attention.

Toews had been something of a right-wing curmudgeon taking strong stands on incarceration and criminal justice over the years as he delighted in larger prisons, putting more people in jail, and keeping them inside for longer periods of time. It made him the most controversial minister in Harper’s cabinet.

When Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia questioned a proposed law giving cops the right to access people’s Internet activities without a warrant, Toews shot back that his opponent could “either stand with us or with the child pornographers.”

Only Toews could turn the right to privacy into a child pornography smear.

Toews had fished a link out of thin air. He’d find anything to make an adversary look bad.

Adam Carroll, a Liberal aide at the time, was so angry about the smear tactics that he set up a smear account against Toews on Twitter called Vikileaks. It featured salacious bits from court documents on Toews’ messy divorce.

In Toews’ Mennonite community, it couldn’t get any nastier.

After Toews walked away from cabinet, Harper luckily found a good replacement in Steven Blaney, the veterans affairs minister from Quebec who had been doing a great job in that difficult department.

With Harper’s militarization of Canada and the several lovely new wars he has found for our armed forces, a lot of veterans need help. Hundreds have suffered injuries and many have died in the line of duty.

Of course, money that should have gone to the veterans instead went to one of Harper’s War of 1812 projects. But Blaney, the good soldier that he was, took it all in stride.

Blaney is a frequent guest on political talk shows, especially those in French, his first language. Unlike Toews or the talking puppets sent out by the control freaks in Harper’s office to rattle off memorized talking points, Blaney sounds credible in getting the government’s position across without the patented partisan insults many Conservative MPs use.

But the public safety portfolio, the department Blaney inherited from Toews, has been a tricky area as of late. Soon after the train derailment, Quebec Premier Pauline Marois was at the site of the tragedy with her provincial ministers and their chequebooks as they doled out money to victims.

As of last week, federal ministers were still thinking about it as they tried to get their minds around the concept. It could take months before they hand out any federal cheques. Harper’s Ottawa is like that.

Maybe Harper should have told someone in his office that the residents of Lac-Mégantic are actually needy senators and sent a staffer there with his chequebook.


Richard Cleroux is a freelance reporter and columnist on Parliament Hill. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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