Conservatives go after O'Regan over conflicts with veterans' advocate

Federal Conservatives stepped up their attack on Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan today, accusing him of “publicly shaming” a frequent critic of his department during recent testimony before a House of Commons committee.

'The concern I have with Minister O’Regan is that it is all about him,' says O'Toole

Veteran Affairs Minister Seamus O'Regan in his office on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, December 6, 2017. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Federal Conservatives stepped up their attack on Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O'Regan today, accusing him of "publicly shaming" a frequent critic of his department during recent testimony before a House of Commons committee.

The testy exchange in question period Tuesday followed criticism the day before over remarks the minister made — in an attempt to empathize with former soldiers — comparing his experience leaving journalism with that of military members departing the forces.

Conservative MP John Brassard demanded O'Regan apologize for what he called the minister's recent "personal attack" on veterans advocate Sean Bruyea.

For months, Bruyea and O'Regan have been engaged in a public feud over whether the Liberal government's option of a pension-for-life for wounded soldiers is as generous as the older, pre-2006 system of compensation.

The two fought over the issue in court last summer, when the advocate sued the minister for defamation. Last winter, both Bruyea and O'Regan ran dueling articles in the Hill Times newspaper making their cases on veterans benefits.

The minister vs. the advocate

Last Thursday, Conservatives on the Commons veterans affairs committee wanted to know why O'Regan had chosen to pick a fight with Bruyea in print, when a Library of Parliament assessment suggested the advocate's numbers and projections were accurate.

Without naming Bruyea, O'Regan replied that veterans "are prone to anxiety, and we all know that anxiety can be a trigger for other mental health issues."

Conservatives — who had their own running battles with Bruyea when they were in power — characterized the remarks as a deeply offensive slur against a veteran with acknowledged post-traumatic stress disorder "who dared question" the government's plan.

In the Commons Tuesday, O'Regan would not comment on the demand for an apology. This week, the minister's office issued a statement saying his comments about mental health were not directed at "any one particular veteran," but rather addressed "the overall objective of helping veterans through benefits and services available to them."

Last summer, an Ontario Superior Court judge tossed out Bruyea's defamation case. That decision that is now under appeal.

It's not the first time he's fought a legal battle with the federal government. Eight years ago, Bruyea, who served in the Gulf War, sued and won a settlement after access to information requests uncovered the fact that bureaucrats, under a previous Liberal government, used information in his private medical records to discredit him in internal briefings.

Former Conservative veterans minister Erin O'Toole said that between O'Regan's public spat with Bruyea and his ham-fisted recent attempt at empathy, it's time the minister started "taking accountability."

"The concern I have with Minister O'Regan is that it is all about him. It actually should be about the veteran."

The minister drew the ire of both the opposition and some veterans on Monday by comparing the turmoil of his move from journalism to politics to what members of the military go through as they take off the uniform.

"As many of you know, I had very difficult transition leaving journalism, but more importantly, leaving what I had for 15 years in a broadcast medium that was extremely structured," he told an assembled audience of troops and civil servants at a ceremony to launch the military's new post-service transition group.

'A shock to the system'

O'Regan spent over 10 years as host of CTV's Canada AM and went on to do special correspondent assignments for the network before moving into radio and independent production in 2012.

"And when I left, it was a shock to my system. I suffered with addiction," he said referring to his treatment for alcoholism. "I suffered with depression. I did not transition well, and I felt I'd lost purpose in my life.

"I know enough about the military that I would never, ever say that I have, you know, an idea of what it's like to go through a transition [from] serving to becoming a veteran. But I got a peek into that window."

He was given some political backup following question period Tuesday by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, a combat veteran of the Afghan war, who said his cabinet colleague "speaks with passion about what we're trying to do for veterans."

Sajjan went on to say it is "a privilege" to work with O'Regan.

At the end of November, the veterans minister caused another political fuss with his attempt to defend a lack of progress in whittling down the backlog of claims.

O'Regan claimed an investment of $42 million by the Liberal government, and the subsequent hiring of 470 staff members was having an impact, but offered only anecdotal evidence.

He claimed he didn't have up-to-date figures for the current year. A few days after the interview, his office released the current figures after asking the department to process them.

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