The Conservatives say it is “outrageous” the federal government has spent more than $180,000 fighting a veteran in small claims court.
The party’s veterans affairs critic, Phil McColeman, had submitted a written request in the House of Commons to determine how much the government has spent on the case involving veterans advocate Sean Bruyea and Seamus O’Regan, the former veteran affairs minister who is now Minister of Natural Resources.
Mr. Bruyea is seeking $25,000 in compensation for damage he says was done to his reputation in a 2018 column written by Mr. O’Regan when he held the veterans portfolio that was published in The Hill Times, an Ottawa-based newspaper that covers Parliament.
In response to Mr. McColeman’s question, Justice Minister David Lametti said that $183,551 in legal costs had been incurred as of Dec. 9, 2019, adding the government could not provide additional information due to solicitor-client privilege.
Mr. McColeman said he requested information on government spending on the lawsuit because his party wanted to know how far the government would go to fight a veteran like Mr. Bruyea.
“I think the number is very revealing,” he said. “It is quite outrageous, in my opinion.”
In response to a request for comment, Carlene Variyan, the director of communications for Mr. O’Regan’s office, said it would not be “appropriate to comment on this specific case as it is currently before the court.”
The minister’s 2018 column followed an article by Mr. Bruyea in the same newspaper in which Mr. Bruyea wrote that changes to the pension system for disabled Armed Forces staff would pay some veterans who apply for benefits after March, 2019, less than a previous system.
Mr. O’Regan accused the veteran of “stating mistruths” and suggested he made numerous other errors, prompting Mr. Bruyea to sue for defamation.
Mr. Bruyea told The Globe and Mail this week that Mr. O’Regan’s “personal attacks” forced him into court to defend his honour and reputation along with “defending the right of all Canadians to speak freely.”
“Government claims it honours veterans and then bullies and intimidates them through expensive and vindictive court motions,” he said.
“I fought in uniform and paid a heavy price to defend our constitutional rights. Now I have to defend my dignity against the very government I sacrificed to protect, merely for exercising our right to freedom of expression.”
Mr. Bruyea’s Ottawa-based lawyer Paul Champ said one of the most outrageous things about litigating against the federal government is that it is always prepared to fight vigourously, regardless of whether it has a strong case or the value of the case.
“Mr. O’Regan did have some pretty blunt, critical remarks about Mr. Bruyea that he put in a newspaper,” he said. “Does it rise to the level of defamation? We think it does, but they should understand that there’s definitely a risk there so why would they spend almost $200,000 on a case that they should know there’s a good chance they may lose?”
Mr. McColeman agrees the government and Mr. O’Regan could have conducted themselves differently, adding the minister shouldn’t have “forced a veteran to have to take him to court over his comments.”
The matter could have been resolved without legal costs far greater than the compensation being sought, he said, adding that a “simple apology would have been nice."