Disabled vets seeking to sue federal government

CTV.ca News Staff

Date: Thu. Jan. 21 2010 8:41 PM ET

A group of disabled Canadian war veterans will head to the Supreme Court of Canada today to battle the very country they once served, in an effort to recoup payments they say were unfairly clawed back.

The soldiers are trying to recoup millions of dollars they say have been unfairly deducted from their long-term disability payments. After demanding unsuccessfully that the government stop the deductions and compensate them, they are now going to the Supreme Court to find out whether they can proceed with a class-action lawsuit against the government.

Gulf war vet Sean Bruyea, one of the former soldiers waging the battle against Ottawa, explained the somewhat complicated case to CTV’s Canada AM. He said when a soldier is injured on duty, Veterans Affairs compensates them with pain and suffering payments and gives them a monthly award on top of their full Canadian Forces salary, until they are ready to return to service.

However, if the soldier’s disability prevents them from returning to work, they lose their Forces position and go on a long-term disability plan run by the Canadian Forces, from which they are then paid 75 per cent of their salary.

While that is not unexpected, it’s what has happened next that really has the soldiers angry.

“The government, in some seeming act of petty revenge, then deducts those pain and suffering payments from their already-lowered income,” Bruyea explained to Canada AM from Ottawa Thursday.

“It’s just so inexplicable for disabled soldiers. They don’t understand why, in their time of greatest need, this injustice occurs.”

Bruyea, who served 14 years as an Air Forces intelligence officer before he was disabled while serving in the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91, notes that no other long-term disability income plan in Canada is allowed to deduct Veterans Affairs payments for pain and suffering.

The National Defence ombudsman has called the deductions “profoundly unfair” and both the House and Senate committees on National Defence strongly recommended the deductions be stopped.

But the deductions continue and Bruyea said the federal government has never offered a reasonable explanation why. He said the government has explained that the Canadian Forces would have to raise premiums on the Service Income Security Insurance Plan so high that soldiers wouldn’t be able to afford the costs. But Bruyea said that’s ridiculous.

“We’re talking about increasing the premiums by the price of a latte each month,” he said.

The federal government wants the veterans’ planned Federal Court lawsuit stayed. It claims the legal battle should first be first fought through a judicial review in Federal Court.

“This is just a ridiculous obstacle,” responds Bruyea, who notes that with a judicial review, each soldier would have to then fight their own case individually.

“The absurdity of it all is that judicial review cannot resolve the issue of the deductions,” he said.

The more than 4,000 soldiers affected by this case are sick of the government throwing up obstacles to a decision on the matter, Bruyea said, adding that the soldiers are uncomfortable enough having to sue the country they once served.

“For a soldier, especially the ones with psychological injuries, their soul has been profoundly wounded. They feel a great deal of shame. Especially the ones that were sent to countries like Haiti, Rwanda and Bosnia, they just feel an immense sense of shame and betrayal that they have to come back to their government and say, ‘Why are you doing this injustice to us?’” he said.

Bruyea said he hopes a decision will be made by the end of the week on whether they can proceed with the class action suit or wait for the judicial review. But he still holds out hope that it won’t have to come to a fight in the courts.

“Hopefully, the government, somewhere in the decision-making process, will say, ‘you know what, let’s make this easier. Let’s resolve this, let’s not force these disabled soldiers to go through a whole new obstacle course.’”