A proposed new class action lawsuit has been filed against Veteran Affairs Canada accusing it of failing to inform former soldiers, sailors and aircrew about the federal benefits to which they are entitled.
A statement of claim was filed in Federal Court last month by veterans advocate Sean Bruyea. The claim is being spearheaded by lawyer Peter Driscoll, who successfully sued the Department of National Defence over military pension clawbacks and secured a $887 million settlement.
The new case focuses on the handling of the former Supplementary Retirement Benefit. Bruyea — who recently won a separate small claims court settlement in a defamation case against former veterans minister Seamus O’Regan — had been eligible for the benefit before it was terminated by the Liberal government as part of its reform of veterans benefits, which came into effect in April 2019.
According to the court filing, Bruyea could have received a lump sum payout — equal to 69 months of the Supplementary Retirement Benefit — “had he been properly advised by the Department of the eligibility requirements” of the program.
Bruyea acknowledged the program was “small” but said it was important because it provided a small lump sum payment to qualified retiring veterans. He said he’s almost certain he’s not the only one who ended up being shortchanged.
The proposed lawsuit touches on one of the most common complaints of disabled veterans — that it can be almost impossible for them to determine which benefits they’re entitled to when the rules have changed so often over the past 15 years.
There have been three major overhauls of the veterans benefits system since 2005 — changes that have brought with them some confusing eligibility criteria and programs that run for several years only to be replaced, changed into something else or cancelled outright.
In 2015, the Liberal government promised to fix the system — and asserted as a statement of principle that no veteran should have to fight the federal government in court for their benefits.
It also pledged to spend more money on programs and communicate clearly with former military members about their options.
While the department has poured over $10 billion into additional veterans’ benefits and supports over the last five years, Bruyea said it’s still failing veterans if they don’t know what they’re entitled to receive.
“It is an important barometer of how veterans are being treated and the obligation the government has towards its veterans,” he said.
Bruyea said he learned when going through his files that the Supplementary Retirement Benefit should have been offered to him more than six years ago.
“There are probably more veterans like me that had not been given the option to sign up for this program,” he added.
A spokesperson for Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay said he was aware of the case but was unable to comment on it directly.
“Our government is committed to supporting Canada’s veterans and their families and ensuring they are aware of all the benefits they are entitled to,” said John Embury, the minister’s director of communications. “It would not be appropriate to comment on this specific case as it is currently before the court.”
The proposed class action is the second legal case this year to test the extent of the federal government’s obligation to keep veterans informed about programs.
Earlier this year, former master corporal Charles Scott sued the federal government after his case file allegedly fell between the cracks at Veterans Affairs not once, but twice.
Scott claimed he wasn’t told he was at risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder — even though the department noted it in his medical file — and was never given the option to seek treatment in 2008 when he left the military.
The second alleged lapse on his file took place in 2019, when Scott’s case management file was lost temporarily and he missed his chance to lock in a supplementary career replacement benefit. That benefit was phased out with the introduction of the current Liberal government’s revised veterans’ benefit system.
The Liberal government last year introduced a veterans benefit navigator, an online tool meant to distil the federal government’s array of benefit programs for veterans into an individually tailored readout that suggests options.
It took Veterans Affairs almost a decade to deliver the interactive tool. It was first recommended by the country’s veterans ombudsman in 2010.