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Politics Ottawa spent $60,000 to fight $25,000 defamation case against O’Regan, and will spend more before case is decided

The federal Liberal government spent $60,000 to defend a cabinet minister against a $25,000 defamation case launched against him by a disabled veterans’ rights activist, and it is expected to spend much more before the matter is resolved.

Sean Bruyea obtained Justice Department documents under Canada’s Access to Information (ATIP) law that show the government spent $59,039.85 in legal fees to defend former veterans affairs minister Seamus O’Regan, who is now the Minister of Indigenous Services, in a suit Mr. Bruyea filed in small-claims court.

“I was shocked,” Mr. Bruyea said. “They are willing to spend more than twice the amount in the small-claims court action than what it would have cost to settle.”

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Mr. Bruyea said the amount disclosed in the heavily redacted documents was likely what the government spent between the time the suit against Mr. O’Regean was filed last May and Sept. 18, when the access request was made.

But it is impossible to know for sure because all of the dates have been removed from the documents, except for the year 2018, and an ATIP analyst at the Justice Department said in a letter to Mr. Bruyea last week that the date range is protected information.

A spokeswoman for Mr. O’Regan said the government cannot comment on the matter because the case is still before the courts.

The dispute goes back to a year ago when Mr. O’Regan was still in charge of the veterans portfolio.

Mr. Bruyea is claiming compensation for the damage he says Mr. O’Regan did to his reputation in a column the minister wrote last March in the Ottawa newspaper The Hill Times.

Mr. Bruyea had disparaged the federal government’s proposed lifetime pensions for disabled Armed Forces personnel in his own column in The Hill Times in February. He calculated that the pensions will pay some veterans who apply for benefits after March, 2019, less than those who are already in the system − and much less than what is given to veterans, such as him, who applied before 2006 and fall under the old Pension Act.

The Parliamentary Budget Officer said in a recent report that the federal government saved tens of billions of dollars over the lifetimes of disabled veterans by replacing the Pension Act with the New Veterans Charter in 2006. And, he said, some of the most disabled veterans will lose hundreds of thousands of dollars as a result of the changes introduced by Mr. O’Regan under the new Pensions for Life, which takes effect in April.

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Even though staff in Mr. O’Regan’s department told his office last winter that Mr. Bruyea’s numbers were largely correct, the minister responded in his column by accusing his critic of "stating mistruths," making "numerous other errors" and writing to suit his "own agenda." Mr. Bruyea then sued Mr. O'Regan for defamation.

But government lawyers acting on behalf of Mr. O’Regan persuaded Deputy Justice David Dwoskin to throw out the small-claims case on the basis of Ontario’s Protection of Public Participation Act, a law that was created to discourage the use of litigation to stifle debate in the public interest.

Mr. Bruyea has now turned to the Ontario Court of Appeal and a hearing is scheduled to take place in Toronto on June 13.

The government, on behalf of Mr. O’Regan, filed a response last month asking the appellate court to agree with the lower-court ruling that the public interest served by the “measured and reasonable response” by the minister to Mr. Bruyea outweighs any harm Mr. Bruyea claims to have suffered.

The decision to fight the case will clearly cost more money, Mr. Bruyea said.

“Considering that they had to go through our appeal documents, as well as produce a 40-page response to that, I can comfortably say that that number is more than double [the $59,039.85 already spent] right now,” he said. “And that, by the time that they have to go to Toronto to defend the appeal in June, that it will be well over $200,000 in cost – so 10 times the amount it would cost them to settle.”

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