May. 11, 2001. 07:20 AM
War veteran not satisfied by MP Wappel's apology
Senior Liberals rush to aid of elderly man
Andrew Chung and Tim Harper
BERNARD WEIL/TORONTO STAR
END RESULT: Jim and Mary Baxter read the apology from Liberal MP Tom Wappel, who'd scolded Jim for not voting for him.
War veteran Jim Baxter sat in his tiny Kingston Rd. flat yesterday listening to his wife Mary read an apology from Liberal MP Tom Wappel. He leaned back, sighed - and said he wished it were all over.
Then he added, scowling: ``When he answers the question I asked him, then I'll accept his apology.''
Wappel's apology came riding a wave of national outrage, after the Scarborough Southwest MP found himself scorned by politicians of all stripes, veterans' organizations coast-to-coast, the butt of wrath in newspapers - and at the business end of a dressing down by his boss, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.
'I accept the criticism levelled against me.' - Liberal MP Tom Wappel
The controversy erupted Wednesday when The Star published a letter from Wappel, spurning Baxter's question seeking help in securing government benefits because the veteran had not voted for the Liberals in the last election.
``How is it that you are writing to me for help if you did not think enough of my abilities to justify voting for me?'' Wappel said in a brusque letter.
Yesterday, Wappel changed his tone: ``With the benefit of hindsight, I accept the criticism levelled against me, that the letter showed lack of judgment,'' he wrote. ``I should not have sent it.
``I sincerely regret any distress that my letter has caused Mr. Baxter or anyone else.''
Wappel added he is now ready to help Baxter in his bid to get a federal veterans benefit.
But Baxter made clear he is no longer interested in Wappel's help. He says the MP only apologized because ``the media and other members of Parliament were putting pressure on him.'' The apology was made ``under duress,'' adds Mary.
Other Liberals, however, stepped in.
The Prime Minister sent his own letter to Baxter yesterday. An aide said Chrétien wanted to reassure the veteran it is his right to expect government services whatever his political affiliation.
Veterans Affairs Minister Ron Duhamel had an official call Baxter offering help and the minister followed up with a letter.
Duhamel initially refused to apologize to Baxter, saying that responsibility rested with Wappel.
`The member has apologized and offered to help.'- Prime Minister Jean Chrétien
``Obviously, I don't do business that way. We respond to veterans with a great deal of kindness and sensitivity and we treat them with the dignity they deserve,'' he said.
Pushed by reporters for an apology, Duhamel said: ``I've never acted like that to any human being. I'm sorry he has received treatment that is not the kind of treatment you would receive from Veterans Affairs Canada. I am truly sorry for that.''
Wappel was also taken to task by the country's privacy commissioner, George Radwanski, who called the MP's actions ``regrettable and reprehensible.'' Wappel asked why he should help because Baxter had switched his allegiance to the Canadian Alliance in last autumn's election.
Chrétien again had to defend his government in the wake of the Wappel letter yesterday.
``The member . . . has apologized and offered to help,'' the Prime Minister said. ``The minister of veterans affairs made sure the person in question received an offer of help no later than (Wednesday).'' But opposition MPs continued the attack.
``The pattern here is pretty obvious,'' said Alliance deputy leader Grant Hill, who represents the Alberta riding of Macleod. ``Vote Liberal and you can get help from your MP.
``Vote Liberal and there might be some money for your business. Don't vote Liberal and you're shunted aside.''
Peter Goldring, the Alliance's veterans affairs critic, questioned the sincerity of the Liberal backbencher's change of heart.
`We respond to veterans with a great deal of kindness.'- Veteran Affairs Minister Ron Duhamel
``He's apologizing for the fact he got caught,'' said Goldring, the Edmonton East MP who believes Wappel should be ``drummed out of his caucus and Parliament.''
Wappel again refused to be interviewed yesterday. But an aide called Baxter and his wife before the MP's letter was released.
The couple were not home, but Wappel's aide read the letter over their answering machine and the aide said he believed the MP would personally call the war veteran and his wife yesterday.
Wappel also dealt with the question of how he knew which party Baxter supported.
``During last year's election, my supporters called all people who had been identified as my supporters in 1997, to ask for their continued support in 2000,'' Wappel wrote.
``Mr. Baxter was one of these. He advised the caller of his intentions, which were duly noted by the volunteer.''
That aspect of the Wappel saga sparked Radwanski's interest.
One of Radwanski's investigators spoke to Mary Baxter yesterday, who corroborated Wappel's version so the privacy commissioner was satisfied there was no breach of the privacy provisions of the Elections Act.
However, Radwanski said Wappel is in violation of the spirit of the Privacy Act for maintaining voting records.
The act specifically states that information garnered for one purpose - in this case, identifying supporters during a campaign - cannot be used subsequently for another purpose, such as a cross-reference to determine who should receive help from the MP.
MPs are not covered by the privacy act, Radwanski said, but they should act in an exemplary fashion.
``In this case, that standard was clearly not met,'' he said.
``This was a violation of the spirit of the act which was both regrettable and reprehensible.'' Liberal MP John Bryden (Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough) first raised the privacy concern, saying most MPs keep voting records away from their office between elections.
Radwanski said they should at very least be kept locked away in storage, but added that he didn't necessarily see this as a cautionary tale for other MPs.
``I've never heard of anything like this before,'' he said.
Baxter had written to Wappel in a last-ditch plea for help after Veterans Affairs Canada twice refused to grant him the special benefit which compensates merchant navy mariners not eligible for the same post-war benefits as armed-forces personnel.
He was turned down because he served in the regular armed forces for more than a year during the war. He felt this was unfair ``for a person who served his country not once, but twice.''
Baxter was discharged from the navy in 1943 after he was injured, thrown into a railing as a violent storm rocked his ship.
The next year he joined the merchant navy - which transported desperately needed fuel, equipment and other goods to Allied forces around the world - as a steam engineer. Again he was injured falling down a cargo hold. The war ended while he was still in hospital.
Wappel maintained yesterday that in 12 years in Parliament he has always tried to assist all constituents no matter how they vote.
``It has never been a requirement of my help to pledge allegiance to me, nor will it be in the future.''
That appeared to contradict an earlier statement in which Wappel said the Baxter case was not the first in which he had questioned the political background of somebody seeking aid.
``I can decide who to help or not to help,'' Wappel insisted at that time.
Wappel's constituents were also angry. In the Brenda Crescent neighbourhood, on which Wappel's constituency office fronts, many said they were angry enough not to vote for Wappel come the next election.
``He should resign.
``If he doesn't he'll surely be out next time,'' said Al Amory, 69, who voted for Wappel in the last election. The apology, Amory said, ``was just to get people off his back and to let them forget the whole thing.''
``If he was the only guy in the running,'' said Bill Ray, 73, ``I'd stop voting all together. His attitude is pompous and dictatorial.''
Ray and his wife, Wanda, 73, said although Wappel has written letters on behalf of their son, who they say is being mistreated in prison, he treats them as if they were a ``nuisance.''
So he made his pathetic attempt of an apology. This is really pissing me off!!! Holding back assistance to a man who laid his life on the line so that Mr. Tom Wappel could exercise his abuse of "freedom of speech" for a goddamn vote?!! Mr. Wappel looks like a weeney who probably got his head kicked in when he was in grade school. If I'm correct the 48th Highlanders are marching through Toronto tomorrow. This politician is an eyesore and an insult to every veteran, serving member, and relative of anyone who has ever worn the Canadian Armed Forces uniform with pride. Where is Don Boudria the party disciplinarian?! Why doesn't he kick Tom Wappel out of cabinet and the bloody Liberal Party. Lester Pearson is rolling in his grave as we speak!!!!!!!! John Nunziata never insulted or spit on any living war veteran and yet he was turfed by his party for doing the right thing (opening his mouth about repealing NAFTA and the GST). In closing, if a soldier ever questioned a lawful order, it would be an automatic charge of treason. Meanwhile, this son of a bitch lives everyday knowing that our sons and daughters are putting their very lives on the line overseas so that he can sit on his velvet padded bench in the House of Commons and enjoy a chauffered limo along with all the ammenities of being a Cabinet Minister. I just hope when he's home away from Parliament when it's not in session, that Police Chief Julian Fantino doesn't answer the distress call if Mr. Tom Wappel dials up 911. "We know where you live Tom. We know... where you live!!!!!"