Equitas lawsuit has been underway for more than five years
OTTAWA (The Canadian Press) — The B.C. Court of Appeal dealt a devastating blow Monday to a group of injured veterans engaged in a landmark legal battle with the federal government.
The six veterans involved in the so-called Equitas lawsuit were alleging that they were unfairly treated because of a major overhaul in 2006 to the way the government compensates those injured in the line of service.
Chief among the changes was replacing lifelong disability pensions with a lump-sum payment, career training and targeted income support — a regime known as the New Veterans Charter.
The Equitas veterans rejected the charter as being worth less than the previous pension system, which they want reinstated or replaced with a true equivalent.
The case — first launched in 2012 under the previous Conservative government, but continued with the Liberals — is seen as having major implications for all recently injured veterans.
The Equitas veterans scored a victory in 2014, when a B.C. Supreme Court justice ruled that there was enough merit to the case — which the group planned to turn into a class-action lawsuit — to proceed to trial.
But after the federal government appealed the decision, the three-judge B.C. Court of Appeal panel struck down the claim in its entirety Monday, saying the case had no chance of success.
While Monday’s ruling represents a win for the federal government, it could actually represent a double-edged sword for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberals.
That’s because Trudeau campaigned with Equitas members during the last federal election campaign in 2015, and the Liberals were the only party that promised to reinstate the lifelong pensions.
Yet the Liberal government continued to fight the court case after coming to power and has yet to reinstate the disability pensions for injured veterans.
Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan was sombre Monday as he promised outside the House of Commons that the government would reveal its promised pension plan by the end of the year.
“We want to do right by those ill and injured veterans to make sure they have financial security,” he said.
“Regardless of the results of the case, the outcome of the case today, that was our determination. That was and remains our goal. We will have a pension for life option ready to present to veterans.”
But many veterans, including members of the Equitas lawsuit, have expressed concern that the government plans to keep the New Veterans Charter‘s lump-sum payment and simply spread it out over several years.
Asked whether the Liberals’ pension plan would satisfy veterans, O’Regan said: “One thing that I’ve learned in a short amount of time is that it is absolutely impossible to make everybody happy.
“But we believe, and what keeps us working every day and through weekends in these past few weeks is, we believe that we will do right by our veterans with what we are working on.”
Speaking to The Canadian Press shortly after the decision was rendered, lawyer Don Sorochan, who is representing the veterans, said he would talk to his clients to determine their next course of action.
“We’ll have to see whether the route to solve this problem is to seek leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, or whether it will be through advocacy,” Sorochan said.
In pressing for a return to the old pensions, the veterans’ lawsuit had argued that there was a “social covenant” between the federal government and those who served in uniform dating back to 1917.
That is when then-prime minister Robert Borden told Canadian troops before the Battle of Vimy Ridge that the government would always look after those who serve in uniform.
The lawsuit argued that the government was honour-bound to uphold that commitment, but that it had failed by getting rid of the disability pensions, which also impacted the charter rights of veterans.
Writing on behalf of the three-judge panel, Justice Harvey Groberman said the court was not in a position to rule whether the government was providing adequate compensation to those injured in uniform.
It also did not consider whether the new compensation was comparable to the benefits available under the previous pension regime or provincial workers’ compensation legislation.
Rather, it looked exclusively at whether the arguments put forward in the lawsuit had any chance of succeeding at trial — which, Groberman said, it didn’t.
“The idea that inspirational statements by a prime minister containing vague assurances could bind the government of Canada to a specific legislative regime in perpetuity does not, in any way, conform with the country’s constitutional norms,” Groberman wrote.
The judgement also dismissed the arguments put forward that the government had violated the veterans’ charter rights, though Groberman did leave the Equitas members with one possible course of action.
“While the benefits conferred under the New Veterans Charter cannot be characterized as deprivations of life, liberty or security of the person,” Groberman wrote, “we wondered whether the plaintiffs might wish to argue that their injuries, which were caused in their service to Canada, should be so characterized.”