In Conversation with Julian Fantino

In an exclusive one-on-one, Vaughan’s federal member of parliament discusses bouncing back from one of the most difficult years of his political career

What does a politician do when coming off one of the most challenging years of their career? If you’re Julian Fantino, you stick to your moral compass, continue to work hard and trust in your constituents.

“I’m very confident the people in Vaughan are very supportive,” says Fantino, Vaughan’s federal member of parliament. His constituents are intelligent, reasonable people who understand the difficulties of public service, he adds. “I don’t think I need to draw them any pictures.”

It’s a clear afternoon in April, nearly six months to the day of the tentative date proposed for the next federal election. Fantino, wearing a slate-grey suit with a soft blue check, exerts the stalwart composure of a seasoned general on the verge of battle as he sits in his Maple office. The fall election will be a watershed moment for Fantino’s political run, and it’s this dignified yet grounded self-assurance that may be the key to his victory in October.

For the past five years, Fantino has become somewhat of a folk hero here in the city. He’s a man who first called Vaughan home nearly 35 years ago and, through volunteer efforts and his various high-ranking positions in police service, including time as chief of police in Toronto and York Region, he’s been a central figure in helping the community blossom into the progressive city it is today.

When he first jumped into the political ring in 2010, defeating Liberal Tony Genco in a neck-and-neck byelection after Maurizio Bevilacqua stepped down, Fantino planted the Conservative flag in what was a Liberal stronghold for over 20 years. When he won decisively in the 2011 federal election, it not only cemented his place as a star MP for the Tories, but also as a pillar that the people of Vaughan confidently rallied behind.

But 2014 proved to be a testing year for Fantino. Almost immediately after he was named Minister of Veterans Affairs in July 2013, he was besieged with criticism for both reported failings of that office and, later, for his own attitude in front of the camera. There was the veterans omsbudman’s report that the compensation provided by the government to soldiers was insufficient; the protests over plans to close eight Veterans Affairs offices; and the media frenzy over two unflattering videos, including one of a confrontation with a handful of veterans after Fantino was late for a scheduled meeting.

Both the media and the opposition heavily criticized his time in Veterans Affairs, with the latter calling for his resignation on more than one occasion. The result was Fantino being reshuffled into the role of Associate Minister of National Defence in early 2015, a post he formerly held from May 2011 to July 2012.

But despite those bumps in the road, Fantino isn’t entering this next election from the political perspective. “I come at this thing more as a community person, someone that’s been involved in community building from the very first day we came here, which was back in 1981,” he says.

In those days, Vaughan was still in its infancy. A lack of infrastructure and facilities meant much work was needed to lay the foundation for the city’s future, and Fantino was at the heart of it all. He worked with volunteers on an industrial development advisory board, was part of the group that pushed for city designation and even joined the “407 in ’87” campaign.

Today, he remains a familiar face at community events — he enjoys spending time with seniors, for instance, and delivers roses to seniors’ residences every Mother’s Day — and business roundtables; he even came from one for women entrepreneurs earlier this morning. As a son of Italian immigrants, Fantino understands the value of getting help when you need it most and that desire to give back propels his actions.

“So for me it’s not so much about politics. It’s about doing the political thing within my own framework of who I am, what I feel I can continue to contribute, and also the opportunity to make a difference,” he says. “And that’s not always easy, obviously. But you just stay on mission and do the best you can.”

The mandate for his current role at the Ministry of National Defence is Arctic sovereignty and cyber security. But he’s also going to continue to work on the things that are important to Canadians. “For me it’s not complicated,” he says. “I have a very grounded reality about the kinds of things that we need to keep on doing and do more of — the economy, jobs, public safety issues. Very uncomplicated.”

Because of the difficulties he faced throughout the past year, one would think that the idea of defeat in the upcoming election would be on Fantino’s mind, that perhaps retirement might be a possibility for the 72-year-old grandfather. But you’d be wrong. When asked if he’s thought about what happens if he comes up short in the next election, Fantino says: “I never plan failure into anything I do.” He doesn’t mean it in an arrogant way, but you never begin a task thinking that you’re going to fail.

“Never do that.”

There’s an admirable tenacity to Fantino’s character, a never-say-die attitude that holds firm like a mountain in the face of a brewing storm. He knows that as a public figure he’s constantly under the microscope and that things can happen that are out of his control. But, he says, his value system remains his compass, and “my motivation is always honourable, it’s always ethical and it’s always well-intentioned.”

Will that be enough for the people of Vaughan? We’ll find out come October.

Photography By John Packman

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