Former Air Force intelligence officer Sean Bruyea’s fight with Veterans Affairs Canada for veterans’ benefits and for his own reputation and privacy affected his health, his personal relationships, and his finances. But he’d do it again.
The Hill Times presents the second of an eight-part series called, “The Whistleblowers.” We wanted to find out from some of the country’s best-known government whistleblowers if their actions have actually made a difference to government policy today and if, given the personal costs to their lives, would they do it again.
Fifteen years ago, there were only two people advocating for Canada’s veterans: Sean Bruyea and Louise Richard, who called on the feds to improve a broken benefits system for injured and ill vets. Today, most people know something about how the federal government treats its war veterans.
“During that time, the bulk of public criticisms of Veterans Affairs in the media were prompted by press conferences held by me and Louise Richard, who I call the mother of modern veteran advocacy,” Mr. Bruyea told The Hill Times recently. “We knew the system was giving disabled veterans and their families a raw deal—bureaucratic run-arounds, mountains of paperwork, endless delays on treatment and benefit decisions, unjust decisions and inadequate programs to assist veterans and their families. The results amongst a shamed and cowering veterans’ community were broken marriages, suffering children, destroyed military men and women and, of course, even suicide. I knew the system had to change.”
Mr. Bruyea, 49, who grew up in southern Ontario and Montreal and graduated from the Royal Military College in 1986, is a former intelligence offer with the Canadian military. He served for 14 years in the Air Force, and was the senior intelligence officer for the Canadian Air Group of CF-18 fighter-bomber jets stationed in Doha, Qatar, in the first Gulf War, from 1990-1991. He was responsible for seeking and providing intelligence for all possible threats, including local terrorist and missile attacks. He was sent home early because of physical and psychological injuries incurred during that time and was medically released from the military in 1996 at the rank of captain. Today, he still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and works at the Canadians for Accountability in Ottawa.
His experience forced him to become one of the country’s best-known advocates for veterans and a whistleblower on Veterans Affairs Canada.
In April 2005, the federal Liberal government introduced a New Veterans Charter that changed the benefits system and legislated the creation of a Veterans Ombudsman, something that Mr. Bruyea had called for over the six previous years. Mr. Bruyea said the opposition Conservatives gave him a copy of the new bill and asked for his input. When he read it, he said he was “sickened” by it because it replaced lifelong pensions for veterans with much smaller lump sum payments.
“I could not betray my principles and watch others suffer while doing nothing. I had to speak out in the hopes of saving lives and diminishing suffering,” he said, noting that as an intelligence officer with six years of university education, he struggled to keep his head above water in the bureaucratic culture of Veterans Affairs Canada.
“The program was written in the most prejudicial manner towards veterans, removing any social contract which existed in 90 years of previous veterans’ legislation,” Mr. Bruyea said. “As a military intelligence officer, I was trained to study, analyse and anticipate the threat before it could harm my fellow military members. I knew enough about this new legislation, known as the New Veterans Charter, to determine it was a threat to the well-being and stability of disabled veterans and their families. I could see that it would not deliver what it promised, especially in the hands of a Veterans Affairs senior bureaucracy which has long proven itself to care more for pleasing Treasury Board than saving lives. I knew that this legislation, in the hands of this insensitive department, would harm veterans and their families.”
Mr. Bruyea was receiving a lifelong disability pension and the new legislation would not affect him, but he said he felt the need to stand up against Veterans Affairs Canada. He said he could not remain silent because he felt the changes would be “callously administered” by a department focused on saving money rather than caring for disabled vets who served their country.
“I felt a cold sweat thinking about how most veterans with far less education than me would drown in such a convoluted system to receive help,” he said. “I decided to advocate for change to help other military veterans and their families.”
On May 10, 2005, Mr. Bruyea held a press conference attacking the legislation, which he said repackaged existing programs, featured unrealistic deadlines for widows and disabled veterans, and erased lifelong monthly disability pensions for injured military instituted at the end of World War I.
“Instead, military members, in the middle of a war in Afghanistan, had these lifelong pensions replaced with one-time lump sum payments which paid out only a fraction of what the lifelong pensions otherwise provided,” he said.
The bill was fast-tracked through the House and the Senate.
Mr. Bruyea soon helped uncover Veterans Affairs Canada’s privacy breaches and vindictiveness against those who spoke up. Veterans Affairs Canada officials attempted to punish and discredit Mr. Bruyea by trying to cut off treatment for his PTSD and benefits while distributing briefing notes that falsely suggested he was mentally unstable.
“Government was furious. Senior bureaucrats who designed the legislation and manipulated both Parliament and a handful of representatives from veterans’ organizations felt I had no right to criticize what these bureaucrats referred to as ‘our programs.’ They felt I had no right to go to the Senate to testify against the legislation. Most of all, they wanted to stop me from having any influence on politicians or any other senior bureaucrats,” he said.
Veterans Affairs’ policy and client service sides shared his medical, financial, personal and marital information, distorting it and using it in briefing notes that “painted me as mentally unstable, greedy, impossible to please, and medically repugnant due to my multiple medical conditions,” he said.
More than 10 such notes, each containing four or more pages of this highly-personal information, were circulated to almost all VAC senior bureaucrats, two sitting Cabinet ministers, and the Veterans Affairs Parliamentary secretary, and were used in briefings to his MP and to the Prime Minister’s Office, he said.
Mr. Bruyea said the government wanted to cut off his benefits and fabricated an assessment at a Veterans Affairs hospital to say he no longer needed treatment, even though his own psychiatrist documented that if treatment ended, he would be suicidal. He said VAC did not question his treatment for the five years before that.
“Once the Conservatives were in government and after they received these briefing notes or received briefings on me, previous supporters of my efforts to improve the quality of life of veterans suddenly became outspoken critics of me or refused to meet with me to discuss improvements to Veterans Affairs,” he said, describing other reprisals he encountered once he started speaking out about how he was being treated.
The government generated more than 40,000 pages of internal documents and emails regarding Mr. Bruyea, which he received over three years through access to information and privacy requests at a personal cost of $30,000. Mr. Bruyea said that it was “daunting, terrifying and paralysing to realize the power of government over a citizen, especially when I was the enemy target of such power.”
Veterans Affairs Canada’s own departmental internal review in February 2011 determined that of the 614 bureaucrats who accessed his computer-based files, 54 officials “did not have a valid reason for access[ing]” those files. “These employees have been disciplined and department officials consider this matter has been successfully addressed and closed,” said a letter to Mr. Bruyea on the matter.
Mr. Bruyea, who suffers from half a dozen physical and psychological conditions resulting from the Gulf War, such as fibromyalgia, receives a disability pension which, he said, is “substantially less” than his military salary during the Gulf War.
More than 800 individuals in the bureaucracy had access to his personal medical records—a serious breach of Canadian privacy laws. Mr. Bruyea filed a complaint to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner. In fall 2010, then-privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart reported on Mr. Bruyea’s case, ruling in his favour that his privacy rights were violated.
“What we found in this case was alarming,” Ms. Stoddart said in a statement at the time. “The veteran’s sensitive medical and personal information was shared—seemingly with no controls—among departmental officials who had no legitimate need to see it. This personal information subsequently made its way into a ministerial briefing note about the veteran’s advocacy activities. This was entirely inappropriate.”
Ms. Stoddart also recommended that Veterans Affairs Canada provide training for employees on how to appropriately handle personal information and that consent for the transfer of personal information be gained when making hospital referrals.
As a result, the federal government made a public apology to Mr. Bruyea in October 2010.
“I was very troubled to learn that personal information concerning you was shared among public servants who had no need for this information in order to do their work,” then-Veterans Affairs minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn said in his statement. “I recognize that this information sharing has caused you needless suffering and anxiety, and for that the government and I are truly sorry.”
Mr. Blackburn also acknowledged that other veterans may have been subjected to similar privacy breaches and extended his “sincere regrets to anyone who may have gone through the same situation.” Additionally, he said that he would act on Ms. Stoddart’s recommendations and promised to increase penalties against those who broke the rules.
In January 2011, he announced changes to how VAC would service vets. This included reducing the standard turnaround time on decisions on rehabilitation eligibility to two weeks from four; reducing paperwork when applying for the Veterans Independence Program; hiring 20 extra case managers in high-demand areas across Canada, and improving response times at call centres so that callers can speak to VAC representatives within two minutes.
Mr. Blackburn also tabled legislation to make changes to the New Veterans Charter, which received royal assent on March 24, 2011. “This legislation represents a significant new chapter in the financial aid available to CF members and Veterans who are injured in the line of duty,” Mr. Blackburn said in a statement. “We are providing an additional $2-billion to ensure a better quality of life for ill and injured Veterans and their families.”
Mr. Bruyea’s fight with Veterans Affairs Canada affected his health, his personal relationships and his finances. He suffered from fits of “suicidal ideation, physical and psychological breakdowns as well as devastating shame” and months of “darkness and despair” during this time.
“I would call my wife almost every day at her work, sobbing, panicking, with yet another account of how Ottawa Veterans Affairs workers were attempting to take away my treatment, deny me benefits, question every aspect of what I received from VAC. I began to think about the only way out to save my wife…suicide. She would not have to pay for my care when VAC refused to care for me. She would have money and most of all, she could escape back to Mexico to avoid any effects of government persecution,” he said, noting at the time that his wife was making less annually than the cost of his medical treatment.
He was not working at the time, but was hoping to start again soon. “That hope became shattered with my downward spiral. I lost all my friends, my family, as I could not bear to deal with others. Survival at its bear minimum was all I could live each day. My wife remained strong but we did not know how long we would both last,” he told The Hill Times.
Despite all that, he said, he would do it again because it is too important not to.
“Veterans are indoctrinated to never question government. We had to believe that the government and the system were as near to perfection as possible. We die at government’s orders. How could we be willing to die for something flawed? Why would we waste our lives for the concept of government which uses military and veterans as pawns in policy, diplomacy or fiscal games? So veterans do not speak out for the most part. They beat themselves up inside when government neglects, mistreats or even belittles them. It is easier to believe we, the veterans, are at fault than we, the veterans, served in a government which made misguided or bad decisions,” he said.
“I knew that if I did not speak out, the new programs would begin to treat veterans most harmfully. Veterans would be unable to defend themselves, but instead believe that they deserved to be neglected. Others would merely give up and not receive help in such a difficult system. To me, it was fundamentally unjust that military members serving in Afghanistan, in a war zone, would have their lifelong benefits unilaterally terminated without any say in the matter. Throwing away almost a century of Canada’s profound commitment to veterans for cost savings shocked me to the point of disgust and nausea. … They gave me no option but to fight back in a most persistent, methodical and determined manner,” said Mr. Bruyea.
Of course, he would do it differently. He said today, he has many more tools and much more self-esteem to fight for what he believes is right and worth doing. He’s learned how to seek justice and is more comfortable collaborating with the media and advocacy groups and using Parliament, the courts and public opinion.
Mr. Bruyea said he was not successful in changing the benefits system for veterans, but he’s happy that vets are no longer afraid to speak out against their government. When he started, he and Louise Richard were the only advocates; organizations like the Royal Canadian Legion were publicly critical of them, he said.
“They loathed any public criticism of government, often siding with government against the veterans speaking out,” he said, whereas today the Royal Canadian Legion and other dozens of other organizations are more willing to be critical.
“The culture has changed for only one reason—veterans are increasingly less afraid of the department which holds near complete control over their financial and medical destiny. A solidarity of sorts has broken out as veterans see other veterans speaking out, making it easier to overcome ones fears and confront government, a once sacred and taboo target,” Mr. Bruyea said.
Part of that has to do with his case and Veterans Affairs’ reluctance to seek reprisals against those speaking out in its wake. Because the government and Veterans Affairs Canada sought “such horrific and comprehensive reprisals” against Mr. Bruyea, they forced him to become something they feared: “an advocate who set the stage for many more to advocate,” he said.
“Have veterans’ programs improved? Sadly, the opposite has occurred. Government has circled the wagons, and avoided making any substantial improvements to the New Veterans Charter in the eight years of its existence,” he said. “A culture of delay, deny and hope they die is alive and well at Veterans Affairs and Treasury Board.”
As for the whistleblowing culture, Mr. Bruyea said it needs major improvements.
For starters, the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner’s office needs to be able to protect RCMP, Canadian Forces, CSIS and veterans from reprisals.
“Certainly we need a far more robust whistleblower regime,” he said, noting that it should be completely independent, should not employ current public servants and should forbid anyone hired from being employed in the public service for at least five years.
The current system has a senior bureaucrat investigating other senior bureaucrats, leading to a culture of “playing nice” that interferes with prosecutions by protecting bureaucrats over whistleblowers, he said.
“The refusal of the current commissioner to even name those who violate the law clearly points to an office soft on persecuting those who persecute whistleblowers,” he said.
No bureaucrats involved in his case were disciplined beyond one-day suspensions or written reprimands, he said.
In September 2010, Mr. Bruyea also sued the government for $400,000. The suit was settled out of court for an unknown amount. Today, Mr. Bruyea, a married father with one son, is continuing his advocacy as a writer, having published editorials in all of Canada’s major dailies. He also volunteers as an adviser to two veterans organizations and is a vice-president of Canadians for Accountability, a group which helps other whistleblowers. He is currently working on a master’s degree in public ethics at St. Paul’s University in Ottawa.
“My thesis is on, you guessed it, Veterans Affairs and its treatment of modern day veterans,” he said. “I spend most of my time with my family healing the wounds of the war I fought overseas and the war I had to fight with my own government.”
The Hill Times