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MONTREAL—On July 4, Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed Julian Fantino, the former head of the Ontario Provincial Police, as his new Minister of International Cooperation. The arrival of an ex-cop at the top of Canada's international development portfolio seems like a fitting symbol for the overall direction of Canadian foreign policy during the Harper government's reign.
A policeman for more than 40 years, Fantino rose steadily through the ranks, serving first as chief of police in London, Ontario, then the former York Region, and later Toronto, before being named as the Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner in 2006. Fantino's career then went political, and he was elected the Member of Parliament for Vaughn in November, 2010, and was re-elected in May, 2011.
Throughout his career, Fantino has been involved in a considerable number of controversies. Perhaps most famously, Fantino oversaw the harsh repression of Toronto residents and anti-G20 protesters in the Ontario capital city in June of 2010.
Enzo DiMatteo, associate news editor at Now Magazine, covered Fantino's career for over more than 20 years, and coined the term "the OPP's top dick" to describe the province's former head cop.
"When you think of Julian Fantino you have to understand that there wasn't a microphone that he didn't like. He was constantly in the spotlight," DiMatteo told The Dominion. "He was very much his own man, very much did his own thing, very much didn't really care about civilian oversight… He was viewed as a bit of a cop's cop, but I think he was just a stubborn fellow who really didn't have much time for anybody's point of view, other than his own, quite frankly."
The new International Cooperation minister hasn't always placed cooperation at the forefront, especially when it pertains to cops killing civilians. Fantino's name is on the docket of a case expected to appear before the Supreme Court of Canada in 2013, regarding how police take notes at crime scenes. The families of Levi Shaeffer and Douglas Minty, both of whom were killed by officers during Fantino's days as top dick at the OPP, have used the courts to try and prevent police from having their crime scene notes vetted by lawyers before they're written.
Rachelle Sauve, from the Coalition Justice for Levi campaign, agrees with DiMatteo's description.
"The modus operandi of a man who is very much a police officer, and who...has gotten very comfortable with a certain level of impunity that he still gets to act out [in] moving away from that old role, leaves me in a very uncomfortable feeling position regarding what sort of aid and development we are going to bring through CIDA while he is in office," Sauve told The Dominion.
Nation-to-nation relations have not been Fantino's strongest suit. Fantino's fame as a bully exploded with the release of wiretapped conversations between himself and Mohawk activist Shawn Brant in 2007.
In the spring and summer of that year, when Mohawks at Tyendinaga repeatedly blocked CN Rail lines, Fantino called Brant to let him know what his future would hold if he continued to work with his community to defend the land.
"And you know what I don’t wanna I don’t wanna get on your bad side but you’re gonna force me to do everything I can within your community and everywhere else to destroy your reputation," Fantino told Brant in a phone conversation which was illegally recorded by the OPP. Fantino later claimed he was unaware the line was tapped. Their conversation, which was later published by the CBC, continued:
Julian Fantino: You know if you pull this off I’m liable to say that your your issues are are are are critical and they’re important and and I’ll speak to that but uh if you don’t then I’m gonna go the other way and I’m gonna say that you’re just destroying and you’re abusing you’re using the people and you’re you’re actually being a mercenary about it using the suicide of children and all those those legitimate uh issues and you don’t want that because I think I can I can I can play the media routine like you do
Shawn Brant: Hey Mister Fantino uh
Julian Fantino: Right
Shawn Brant: I I put two of my own babies in the ground um
Julian Fantino: I’m sorry
Far from his checkered past of politicized police raids in poor communities, and threats of ruining the reputation of activists, Fantino's first statement as Minister of International Cooperation aimed for a kinder, gentler message.
"I look forward to continuing the good work already done by CIDA around the world," said the newly-appointed minister. "In particular the efforts to save the lives of mothers, children, and newborns as part of Canada's Muskoka Initiative."
The first male to hold the position since Don Boudria left his post in 1997, Fantino will oversee an international cooperation ministry with a growing emphasis on policing and police training.
"Maybe it's fitting that we have a police officer—a former police officer—running the aid agency now, kind of playing the good cop to the military's bad cop as far as global order is concerned," said Nik Barry-Shaw, who co-authored a recent book on Canadian non-governmental organizations titled Paved with Good Intentions. "One of the kind of rough titles that we had for the book was...Good Cops of Global Capitalism. That's kind of the role, putting the human face on things that are fundamentally pretty ugly."
Canada is deeply involved with police training around the world, but it is the RCMP's ongoing role in training Haitian police forces has come under perhaps the most intense public scrutiny.
"A large part of what was...listed as aid to Haiti was in fact funding for police training in Haiti, and that was done with RCMP officers who were down there to train their Haitian counterparts in the arts of close quarter combats," Barry-Shaw told The Dominion.
RCMP training of Haitian police was happening at a time when there were regular raids of neighbourhoods that supported deposed president Jean Bertrand Aristide. Some of these raids ended in civilian massacres carried out by police. More recently, the RCMP have become involved in training Mexican police.
Fantino's appointment followed the announcement of former Minister of International Cooperation Bev Oda's resignation. Oda will leave her post as MP of Durham, Ontario, on July 31.
Dawn Paley is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @dawn_.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.