Politics

Veterans Affairs was wrong to cancel child care support for prominent department critic, says ombudsman

One day after former veterans minister Seamus O'Regan publicly rebuked outspoken critic Sean Bruyea in 2018, officials in his former department improperly cancelled rehabilitation support for the long-time veterans advocate's child care expenses, a veterans ombudsman investigation has found.

Report recommends the benefit be restored and calls for mediation

Former minister of Veterans Affairs Seamus O'Regan (left) and veterans advocate Sean Bruyea. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press, Ashley Burke/CBC)

One day after former veterans minister Seamus O'Regan publicly rebuked outspoken department critic Sean Bruyea in 2018, officials in his former department improperly cancelled rehabilitation support for the long-time veterans advocate's child care expenses, an investigation by the veterans ombudsman has found.

The review recommended the benefit be reinstated and that, going forward, a mediator oversee the toxic relationship between the department and the former air force intelligence officer who has been a thorn in the side of many governments.

Six years ago, Bruyea was granted reimbursement for child care expenses related to his six-year-old son. He incurred the expenses while attending six to eight medical appointments per week for his post-traumatic stress disorder and other health issues related to his time in uniform.

That benefit was cut off abruptly on Feb. 27, 2018, a day after the Parliamentary precinct newspaper The Hill Times published an opinion piece by O'Regan tearing a strip off Bruyea over the advocate's criticism of the Liberal government's pension-for-life plan for veterans.

Sean Bruyea said he doesn't think there was any coincidence involved in the decision to cut off his child care benefit. (CBC)

The minister's criticism prompted a defamation lawsuit by Bruyea. The case eventually resulted in an out-of-court settlement, the terms of which are confidential, but left taxpayers with $213,000 in legal and court fees.

O'Regan has moved on and is now natural resources minister.

Bruyea said he does not believe the cancellation of his son's benefit was unrelated to his criticism of the department.

'Vengeful and retaliatory'

"There's no coincidence in the way bureaucracies operate," he said. "The spontaneous nature of this, the day after the minister published his article, given that there has been a multitude of excuses and backtracking. They're basically making it up as they go along in what was a vengeful and retaliatory decision."

A spokesperson for current Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay said there was no act of retribution against Bruyea.

"Decisions regarding veterans' files are made by professional, non-partisan public servants, always with the intent of ensuring that care, compassion and respect are exercised throughout a veteran's treatment plan," said John Embury, the minister's director communications, in an email statement.

"Veterans Affairs Canada employees are committed to providing veterans and their families with the best possible services and all the benefits to which they are entitled under the governing legislation and policies. For privacy reasons, we are unable to speak to the specifics of any individual case."

In his written response to the ombudsman, MacAulay apparently does not address the question of whether the benefit should be reinstated. The minister suggested he was open to the idea of a mediator but didn't say how that would happen.

According to the ombudsman, Veterans Affairs took issue with where Bruyea had chosen to place his son — a local Montessori school in Ottawa.

Officials said the government would not pay for "additional dependant care" during school hours when there are free, provincially-run options. But there is no such limit in department policy and Bruyea argued his son required specialized attention.

'A long and acrimonious history'

In subsequent appeals and before the ombudsman, Bruyea defended his choice of child care as necessary to meet his son's needs and pointed out that the regulations governing the program do not spell out eligibility criteria.

The ombudsman's office agreed and said it was "not satisfied that VAC had demonstrated that it had reasonably applied relevant legislation" in reaching its decision to terminate the benefit. It added that the rules "establish no eligibility criteria other than participation in a rehabilitation program."

The report, a copy of which was obtained by CBC News, noted that Bruyea "has a long and acrimonious history with VAC which included successful litigation resulting from a series of privacy breaches and more recent litigation resulting from an alleged defamation."

The ombudsman said "the veteran does not appear to trust VAC and feels that its decision in this case was retaliatory given timing of the decision."

Bruyea noted that most veterans services are delivered privately where there is a public provincial system.

"So don't give me this private versus public," he said. "It's whether [my son] is getting the care he needs."

Bruyea said he decided to ask for the ombudsman investigation because of the notorious case two years ago of convicted killer Christopher Garnier, who received taxpayer-funded PTSD treatment because his father was a veteran. Garnier, who eventually was cut off from the counselling, received his care under the same umbrella program used for Bruyea's son.

The investigation was initiated under former ombudsman and retired colonel Craig Dalton, who abruptly resigned his position earlier this year to take a job as municipal administrator in Alberta.

He was replaced recently by another retired colonel, Nishika Jardine, who was still being briefed at the time on the sprawling number of files on her desk.

Conservative veterans critic John Brassard said he finds Bruyea's treatment shocking.

"The government doesn't like what he says," said Brassard. "Most of the time he's right. He does his homework. There's no question. And to carry out retribution by revoking his son's care, I don't think that's very Canadian."

In the House of Commons on Thursday, NDP veterans critic Rachel Blaney took MacAulay to task over Bruyea's treatment, accusing the government of being more interested in fighting veterans in court than solving their problems.

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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