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OTTAWA — Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O’Toole has recruited an experienced political hand as his top adviser.

The Canadian Press has learned that long-time Conservative John MacDonell has been appointed as the rookie minister’s chief of staff following last week’s cabinet shuffle that saw Julian Fantino removed from the portfolio.

The appointment is seen as the next step in the Harper government’s attempt to rebuild its relationship with the community of ex-soldiers.

MacDonell served for six years as chief of staff to former defence minister Peter MacKay and also worked closely with retired general Walt Natynczyk, who is now the top bureaucrat at the veterans department.

O’Toole and MacDonell have a political association that stretches back to their days in Nova Scotia when both were involved in the provincial Progressive Conservative party.

Government sources say MacDonell’s experience at Defence through the turbulent years of the Afghan war and his crisis-management ability are key components in an effort to bring the veterans file under control ahead of this year’s election.

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