Seamus O’Regan grew up by the 5 Wing Goose Bay airbase in Newfoundland, has a brother in the navy, and a great-granduncle who fought and died at Beaumont Hamel in France during the First World War.
Those were reasons Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave when he named Mr. O’Regan, a good friend of 16 years, as Minister of Veterans Affairs last summer.
But there was something else, too: an ability to empathize with those who served, as they return to civilian life.
“The other thing he knew too was, having just gone through a period of depression and anxiety, that I would be sensitive to transition. Because I did not transition well,” Mr. O’Regan said in a recent interview. “To be kind of left on my own to figure things out, it broke me.”
Mr. O’Regan, a boyish-looking 47, left CTV’s Canada AM morning show in 2011 to pursue other opportunities. He went to New York, got an agent, even auditioned for 60 Minutes. But the work never came. “You don’t make the cut. You aim high … but there wasn’t much of a soft landing,” Mr. O’Regan said.
After a decade of structure, he didn’t know how to handle the change. He started drinking too much to cope.
“I thrived on chaos at one point. I loved it. I don’t any more, I definitely don’t,” Mr. O’Regan said.
He ended up running for the Liberals in the 2015 election. A few months after winning his St. John’s-area seat, Mr. O’Regan entered a rehabilitation facility for alcoholism, at the urging of family and friends including the Prime Minister.
“ ‘You’re not running 100 per cent,’ ” he said Mr. Trudeau told him. “ ‘And I need you 100 per cent.’ ”
Sitting with a Diet Coke on the table of his office beside Parliament Hill, Mr. O’Regan, looking relaxed in a grey tailored vest, said he hasn’t relapsed since completing his 40-day treatment in early 2016.
Now, Mr. O’Regan said he draws on his own personal struggles to relate to the 130,000 or so clients of Veterans Affairs, who are returning to a life they may not recognize.
“I am just so grateful for this job and for this work,” Mr. O’Regan said. “As daunting as it is, it has purpose.”
But many outspoken veterans feel they’re not being heard – and that the Liberal government is failing to deliver on its pledge of better services.
“There’s been a lot of deception, disappointment and a very clear failure to follow through on a campaign promise,” said Sean Bruyea, a veterans’ advocate.
During the election campaign, Mr. Trudeau said the government would cover the cost of four years of postsecondary education for veterans. But it turns out that it will only be available to veterans who served after April, 2006, and those with less than six years of service will not qualify.
Mr. O’Regan blames the New Veterans Charter, which came into effect in 2006, for the cutoff – a timeline Mr. Bruyea describes as “arbitrary.”
Mr. O’Regan also defends the government’s coming “pensions for life” plan, which is set to take effect next April. The plan includes a tax-free monthly pension payment, and a top-up for pain and suffering. The government is also amalgamating six pre-existing benefits for veterans, whose service-related health problems make it difficult to find work, into one taxable income-replacement benefit.
Veterans groups say the lifetime pensions will pay much less than what was offered under the old Pension Act to military personnel who retired before 2006.
As part of the government’s pitch, Mr. O’Regan has been attending town halls across the country with veterans and their families. “I have work to do. I’m out there. I believe in this,” he said.
Mr. O’Regan may also be facing an investigation by the federal ethics commissioner for failing to disclose as a gift his December, 2016, trip to the Aga Khan’s private island in the Bahamas. In a statement, Mr. O’Regan said he received a request from the ethics office for information for a preliminary review, and will co-operate fully. He called the trip a “personal vacation” and said he reported it to the commissioner’s office when he returned.
In an interview, Mr. O’Regan brushed off concerns about the trip. “He came, he went, he came back … that’s it.”
Mr. O’Regan took the trip with the Prime Minister and his family, along with restaurateur Steve Doussis, whom Mr. O’Regan married eight years ago. He said that before he met his husband, he struggled with his sexuality “more than I knew.”
“I realized in my time in therapy, that all of those years of hiding it or coming to terms with it, had also built up with me,” he said. “I was relieved to meet him, and then realize, right, it’s okay.”
Mr. O’Regan said he’s often approached by people who are experiencing anxiety and depression in their own lives.
“My advice to them is, it doesn’t always have to be catastrophic. You’re not broken. It’s a bump and you’ll get through it.”