Vets minister sued for defamation in fight over pensions

A high-profile veterans advocate is suing the veterans affairs minister for defamation. Sean Bruyea claims Seamus O'Regan defamed him in a column about the Liberal government's plan to give injured soldiers the option of a lump sum compensation payment — or a pension for life.

Government ministers are rarely sued for public comments, says legal expert

Minister of Veterans Affairs Seamus O'Regan takes questions from veterans about changes to the pension plan on Feb. 20. (Gary Moore/CBC)

A well-known, outspoken veterans advocate is suing a federal cabinet minister for defamation, CBC News has learned.

Sean Bruyea of Ottawa filed the action against Veterans Minister Seamus O'Regan in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice on May 11, copies of which were recently released.

The suit, which asks for $25,000 in damages, stems from a Feb. 26, 2018 column written by the minister and printed in the Hill Times, a twice-weekly publication that covers Parliament.

O'Regan's piece was a rebuttal to an analysis — published two weeks before by Bruyea — of the Liberal government's recent decision to offer veterans the option of taking either a pension for life or a lump sum payment for injuries sustained in the line of duty.

The lawsuit alleges the minister's column painted Bruyea as "a liar" who "was deliberately untruthful to serve some dishonest personal agenda."

The statement of claim calls the characterization "libellous and defamatory."

The claims have not been tested in court.

Veteran's advocate Sean Bruyea says O'Regan defamed him in a Feb. 26 piece the minister wrote for the Hill Times. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

Taxpayers on the hook?

A legal expert says the case is very unusual.

"It doesn't happen all that often," said Rory Fowler, a retired lieutenant-colonel and military lawyer.

Government ministers — federal or provincial — are named as defendants in lawsuits all the time over specific policy decisions, but they are rarely targeted for public comments in their official capacity.

Because O'Regan made the statements as the minister of veterans affairs, taxpayers could be on the hook if Bruyea is successful.

"The Crown could be held vicariously liable for the actions of its servants and the minister of the Crown could be a servant," said Fowler.

Canadian soldiers help a comrade, centre, after he was injured in an IED blast near Kandahar, Afghanistan, in June 2010. The Liberal government recently decided to offer injured veterans the option of taking either a pension for life or a lump sum payment. (Anja Niedringhaus/Associated Press)

The Justice Department has filed a motion to dismiss the case, suggesting a lawsuit against a minister of the Crown would put a chill on public debate.

"If this proceeding is permitted to continue, then its effect will not only stifle the defendant's free speech but also potentially deter others from expressing their views on this issue," government lawyers wrote.

A spokesman for O'Regan was reluctant to comment on the case, but said the minister believes in public dialogue.

"The Minister of Veterans Affairs engages regularly with veterans from coast-to-coast-to-coast and is always open to different viewpoints," said Alex Wellstead, in a statement.

"It is important to note that we do not take veterans to court. And with respect to this specific case, it would not be appropriate for me to comment as it is before the courts."

Not easily intimidated

Bruyea said he doesn't believe his lawsuit will chill debate — about the compensation option or any other issue related to the treatment of ex-soldiers.

"I'm not suing the minister because of his opinion… I'm suing him because he personally defamed me," Bruyea said. "I'm prepared for a public debate about the facts with the minister."

Fowler said the veterans community is outspoken and diverse, and not easily intimidated.

Given how far they have pushed the federal government to improve benefits, he suspects it would be very tough to stifle ex-soldiers.

"Personally, I prefer to see rational and calm discourse, but sometimes heated discourse will actually trigger change more rapidly than a calm discourse," he said.

Bruyea's original opinion piece compared the old pension system for injured soldiers with the one enacted by the former Conservative government and with the overhaul planned by the Liberals, which will come into effect on April 1, 2019.

He concluded "the numbers don't add up" and that pain and suffering compensation for ex-soldiers is "grossly unfair" and that disability claims had become "miserly."

O'Regan responded by saying it was time for a "reality check" and pointed out the comparisons Bruyea made involved different systems with benefits constructed in different ways.

He went on to state: "But let me be clear, individuals like Sean Bruyea, who are stating mistruths about Pension for Life [the Liberals' overhaul] are leaving out parts of our programs, are doing so to suit their own agenda."

Wildly unpopular

Bruyea's court filing contains an email exchange with communications officials in the veterans department, who challenge his arguments.

They pointed to two instances where they claimed he was wrong.

There were other examples where officials were unable to answer his questions — or address the points he raised.

The Liberals campaigned on a promise of giving veterans a choice between lifelong pensions and lump sum payments, the latter of which has been wildly unpopular since its introduction in 2006.

The difference between the two systems resulted in a lawsuit by Afghan veterans, who claimed they were discriminated against and that the old pension system was more generous.

O'Regan defended the Liberal government by pointing out it has invested $10 billion in new money for veterans benefits since taking office.

Bruyea came to prominence more than a dozen years ago opposing the overhaul of the veterans benefits system under the Liberal government of then-prime minister Paul Martin.

He won a previous court settlement in 2010 after bureaucrats at Veterans Affairs stitched his private medical records into ministerial briefing notes as a means to discredit his arguments.

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.