Politics

Government lawyers ask for defamation case against veterans minister to be tossed

An Ottawa judge heard five hours of arguments on Friday over the question of whether a defamation case against Veterans Minister Seamus O'Regan should be thrown out of court. The lawsuit was filed by a veterans advocate.

Justice Department lawyers cite Ontario law meant to protect freedom of expression of advocates

Veterans advocate Sean Bruyea, right, is suing Minister of Veterans Affairs Seamus O'Regan, for defamation. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press, Ashley Burke/CBC)

An Ottawa judge has reserved decision on whether to throw out a defamation lawsuit against Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O'Regan.

Federal lawyers argued in a five-hour hearing on Friday that allowing the case to proceed would infringe on the federal politician's freedom of expression.

A motion to dismiss the lawsuit, brought by outspoken veterans advocate Sean Bruyea, was filed in Ontario Superior Court on Aug. 16, a copy of which was obtained by CBC News.

It cites provincial legislation that was originally intended to protect the so-called little guy from strategic lawsuits by well-funded corporations and interest groups.

Bruyea, who acted on his own behalf, is suing O'Regan — who is being defended by Justice Department lawyers — in small claims court.

The suit stems from a Feb. 26, 2018 column written by the minister.

It was printed in The Hill Times, a twice-weekly publication that covers Parliament, and served as a rebuttal to a previous column written by Bruyea which analyzed the Liberal government's recent decision to offer veterans 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."

Bruyea's statement of claim described O'Regan's characterization as "libellous and defamatory."

The government's motion to quash the lawsuit denied that.

"Stating that a person is "incorrect", or has "an agenda", is not the same as calling a person a liar," said the court filing. "Mr. Bruyea has not suffered 'serious harm' and his claim does not have 'substantial merit', while the minister has several valid defences. This action must be dismissed."

Fair comment

Government lawyers cite amendments to the provincial Courts of Justice Act, Section 137, known as protection of public participation act, which aims to "prevent lawsuits that limit freedom of expression."

They say O'Regan was expressing himself on a matter public interest and his remarks constitute what's known as fair comment.

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

On the hook

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

The minister wrote that Bruyea was comparing different systems constructed in different ways.

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

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.

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