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Politics Veterans' advocate fights back, appeals defamation case dismissed on basis of anti-SLAPP law

Sean Bruyea disparaged Ottawa's proposed lifetime pensions in a column in the Hill Times in February.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Veterans’ advocate Sean Bruyea is appealing the ruling of a small-claims court judge who dismissed his defamation suit against Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan saying the minister’s comments about Mr. Bruyea were a matter of public interest.

In a factum filed recently with the Court of Appeal for Ontario, Mr. Bruyea says Mr. O’Regan is the powerful party in the dispute and has used his position to discredit a private citizen expressing his opinion on a new government policy.

Mr. Bruyea is claiming $25,000 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, when the two men were expressing differing opinions about whether veterans will be better off under the Liberal government’s proposed new Pension for Life program.

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“This isn’t about money,” Mr. Bruyea, a former military officer who was diagnosed with PTSD after taking part in the Gulf War of the 1990s, said Thursday in a telephone interview. “It’s about sending a strong message to government that they can’t treat veterans this way. And it’s also to inspire veterans that they don’t need to fear government, that they too can have accessible justice.”

Mr. Bruyea disparaged the federal government’s proposed lifetime pensions in a column in the Hill Times in February. He calculated that they will pay disabled veterans who apply for benefits after March of next year less than those who are already in the system – and much less than what is given to veterans, like him, who applied before 2006 and fall under the old Pension Act.

Even though Veterans Affairs bureaucrats told Mr. O’Regan’s office that Mr. Bruyea’s numbers were largely correct, the minister in a column in the Hill Times accused his critic of “stating mistruths,” making “numerous other errors” and writing to suit his “own agenda.”

Mr. Bruyea sued Mr. O’Regan for defamation and opted to press the matter in small-claims court so he could mount his own defence without the aid of a lawyer.

But government lawyers acting on behalf of Mr. O’Regan convinced Deputy Judge David Dwoskin to throw out the case on the basis of Ontario’s Protection of Public Participation Act, an anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) law, which was created to discourage the use of litigation to stifle debate in the public interest.

Judge Dwoskin ruled in August that, as minister, Mr. O’Regan had a duty to speak on public issues and had the right to respond to criticism.

But Mr. Bruyea says the government’s use of the anti-SLAPP law to halt his suit is a “novel and troubling application” of that legislation.

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He has hired well-known human-rights lawyer Paul Champ to argue his appeal. The factum that Mr. Champ filed with the appeal court says in typical SLAPP suits the more powerful party is the plaintiff and is using the courts to gag an individual citizen who is expressing views about matters of public interest.

“This case turns that dynamic on its head,” the factum says, “as the more powerful party is clearly the defendant, a federal cabinet minister, and not the plaintiff, a disabled veteran and private citizen.”

Using anti-SLAPP legislation as a shield to hide behind "while defaming and libeling a government critic surely perverts and distorts a law meant to encourage debate on matters of public interest,” the factum says.

The minister’s office said it could not comment on the matter because it is before the courts. The government has 60 days to respond and the case could be heard in the spring.

Mr. Bruyea has received some support from the public and the veterans’ community for his decision to move forward with the suit. A GoFundMe campaign he created to help with his legal fees has raised more than $3,000.

It is the first time, he said, that a case has gone straight from small-claims court to the Ontario Court of Appeals, instead of a lower court, because that is where anti-SLAPP appeals must be heard.

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“If this is allowed to stand,” Mr. Bruyea said, “then any big player, such as government or industry or a wealthy individual, can bully and intimidate someone by attacking their character and then escape accountability by applying this anti-SLAPP law.”

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