This country’s Minister of Veterans Affairs and the Associate Minster of National Defence is Newfoundland & Labrador MP Seamus O’Regan. While proud of his political role, the member for St. John’s South – Mount Pearl has some personal connections to the military and Beaumont-Hamel, ties that makes what he does for a living so much more than a job
Seamus O’Regan is a familiar face to many in this country, though Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have long been thrilled to call him one of ours. O’Regan’s ten year career on the CTV morning news show, Canada AM, no doubt helped the then television host when it came time to switch careers and run for politics. However ,it’s his personable, rawly honest, ‘I’m only human’ mannerisms that has helped him connect with not only those back home but across the country as well.
O’Regan is nothing but proud of where he hails from. He’s equally as proud of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, including his own brother and a great-great uncle, who have or are serving in the military.
“Newfoundlanders punch well above their weight in the military and I have known that for a long time. Firstly, I grew up next to CFB Goose Bay, so I was surrounded by military all through junior high and high school,” he says. That familiarity gave him an appreciation for the work being done and the sacrifices made. His role as television host also helped bolster those positive feelings.
“You look at navy and infantry; there’s Newfoundlanders all over the place. When I went to Kandahar for a week when I was with Canada AM, half of them were Newfoundlanders. It was like you walked into a garden party in Bonavista, only in the middle of the desert. I mean, it was wild. And it makes you incredibly proud. Not only are (NLers) a huge contingent of our military, they are some of the best. If the senior officer wasn’t a Newfoundlander himself, and he was likely to be, he would always say; (NLers) are the hardest working bunch, they are the most dedicated bunch, they are the best bunch, best team players. You swell with pride. You are busting out of your shirt,” he shares.
Speaking of pride, O’Regan bursts while speaking about his brother (the one he jokes his mother calls; ‘the handsome one’ in the family, the one who apparently takes up the most real estate in family albums).
“My brother is Lieutenant Commander Daniel J O’Regan, everyone calls him Danny, and he is now the Commandant of the Naval Fleet School Pacific in Esquimalt. He had studied navigation and was very, is very good at it, and just months before I became Minister of Veterans Affairs he became Commandant of Naval Fleet School. Suddenly he was dealing, not just with navigation and teaching navigation, he was dealing more with human resource issues. He was dealing with issues of mental health, a lot of that, and he said to me at the time, and I was an MP, but he said; you have got to start talking to people because we have got to get a lot better at transitioning people from when they leave the military to becoming a veteran. The way it has been put to me is; when somebody walks into a recruitment centre, we are some of the best in the world at making you a soldier. Now we got to get equally as good at making you a veteran. You hear that from him and then three months later he’s in the car with me going to Rideau Hall to get sworn in as minister of Veterans Affairs.”
O’Regan flashes back to a trip he, his brother and sister took almost two decades ago.
“I was living in Paris 17 years ago and my brother came over to visit me and my sister was coming over at the same time at that time and we were not seeing much of each other except Christmas at home, so it was great to get together. So where are we going to go? Well we are going to go to Beaumont-Hamel, so we went to Beaumont-Hamel and Vimy Ridge and it was very emotional.”
O’Regan pauses. So much time has past, yet he still feels it to this day, he says. “The most emotional part of it was the names. When you see the list of names. First of all, it’s the caribou which you immediately know from Bowring Park. Mom and dad, every Sunday we’d go down from Cornwall Crescent and spend Sunday in the park, which so many families did and still do which is awesome, and there was always the pictures. That’s what tied it all together. Seeing the caribou in France? You are in a foreign country and you are way outside of Paris and you are in the countryside and then all of a sudden over some green hills and around a corner and around a bend is a caribou and it’s the same caribou. It really brings it home. Then you see the names underneath and it’s our names. They’re Newfoundland names. They are names that you know. Every last name there, you knew or had a buddy with the same last name. It hits you. It’s very heavy. It’s incredibly inspiring.”
There’s a link the O’Regan’s have to Beaumont-Hamel, though the three siblings didn’t know it at the time.
“My great great grand uncle died in Beaumont-Hamel; Richard Shortall (Lieutenant Richard Aloysius Shortall Regimental Number 395). He fought in Gallipoli. He was written up in a newspaper here in St. John’s, The Daily Star, for his heroism. I have the clipping. He was noted for going above and beyond to get the wounded, his friends, to safety. He survived Gallipoli and then died in Beaumont-Hamel.”
O’Regan laughs a little at how he found out about his heroic ancestor. “When we went over there my brother and sister and I, 17 years ago, we didn’t know that he was buried there and it was only when we got back mom said; ‘My gawd! You should have dropped by your grand uncle’s grave!’ My parents have gone back since and visited his grave and my brother brought his, at that time, 2 year-old son over there with his wife, and my brother told my nephew all about Richard Shortall. So, when they got there, Danny, who is incredibly bright, says to my brother; ‘I want to touch the brave man’, and he reached out and touched the grave and they took a picture.”
That image is now part of the permanent collection at the Newfoundland Regiment Gallery.
“As you are leaving, it’s the last thing you see; him touching the grave. When I showed (the picture) to Rick Hillier … Rick’s eyes filled up a bit and he went, ‘that’s incredible.’ And for us it signified younger generations who really have no idea of war and how reconnected they are becoming to that sacrifice of the Regiment and of our veterans right across the country. That really symbolizes that gap being closed across the generations.”
Does he and the Newfoundland-born former Chief of the Defence Staff speak often? “I have to have more (conversations with Hillier). Talking to someone like Rick and working with someone like Walter Natynczyk (retired Canadian Army general and former Chief of Defence Staff who serves as Deputy Minister of Veterans Affairs) these are former heads of the military and they have, as many veterans have, strong views on how we should go about treating our veterans. I will have more substantial conversations with Rick. I’ve been having them with a lot of veterans right across the country but I’ve known Rick for a long time and his energy and enthusiasm has not wained at all. I don’t think that man will ever retire.”
O’Regan says our military past has a “huge significance” in how seriously he takes his new position. “I co-chaired the campaign at The Rooms to raise money for the Newfoundland Regiment Gallery and I had to resign that position when I decided to run for politics which, if you asked me that was one of the things I didn’t like having to give up.”
On the up side, he was asked to give a speech on the day the official opening paying tribute to those who lost their lives at Beaumont-Hamel. “It was a moment, and I knew what I wanted to say about those men on that day and I felt very strongly about it and it turned out on that day what my biggest worry was the pages blowing away in the wind… but it turned out well and it was great that it was televised coast to coast so people across the country now have a better appreciation for what Beaumont-Hamel means. Every part of the country has their own story, but Newfoundland’s is very unique because we were our own country then, so we felt that loss then as a country and so it’s different, it’s very different.”
O’Regan goes back to the one-on-one with his boss, Justin Trudeau.
“I got sworn in on a Monday and it was the Friday before that I found out. 8:30 I show up at the Prime Minister’s office and it was just he and I and a few other people in the room and he sits you down and he says, so, so … a bit of drama, and then he quickly got to it, I would be Minister of Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence and you have to let that sort of sink in. It’s a huge weight and his instructions immediately afterwards were what my brother had told me; we need to close that gap. My brother said people are leaving the military and they have to find new doctors, they have to fill out all these forms and it could be months before they get their pay again.”
O’Regan says he relates on many levels. He worked for the same company for 14 years; changing roles and going from structured to unstructured can throw anyone.
“Some of these guys are 25/30 years knowing their pay check, knowing their benefits, knowing how to be a soldier and never having to worry about other stuff so they can concentrate on their job. We have got to make it easier for them; that was my order from the Prime Minister.”
Very shortly after that after being sworn in he was briefed by the bureaucrats and met Walter Natynczyk who is now his deputy minster. Days later he was on his way to PEI where the Department of Veterans Affairs is located. Then he was off to visit his brother and meet with the Minister of Defence, Harjit Sajjan. “Harjit and I had conversations; you and I are going to work like this (links fingers) to make sure nobody falls through the cracks, that nobody has to deal with anxiety. Anxiety is an awful thing, I know that myself. Our veterans, they have enough going on.”
People care that their veterans are treated properly and fairly, O’Regan continues. “That’s the least that we owe them, and I have been working very hard on that.”
What’s on his radar? Listening, consulting, and action, he says. He wants to help veterans find a measure of financial security for one thing and to help battle the issue of mental health issues, something he knows about all too well. “There’s a great new focus on mental health right across this country … No one talked in high school or university the way young people talk about it now and that’s amazing because it certainly makes it easier. For instance, when I wasn’t well it certainly makes it easier to seek help when you know you can do it. In the beginning for me (that support) came from great family, great friends, great husband and an unbelievable boss. After my friends and family kind of had the intervention and said you need to go get well (Trudeau) was kind of the cherry on the top. My brother got in touch with him and said; listen, I think he is ready to go but you would be a great help push him over the edge, which he did, and that was emotional. You couldn’t ask for a better boss when he looks at you and says; you have got to get well. Go get well. Come back, because I need you. Your province needs you. Your constituents need you, your country needs you and I need you at 100 percent. It’s not like anything had happened I just wasn’t where I needed to be. I wasn’t on top of my game. So yeah, I went away.”
Helping others comes from a very natural place for the PM, O’Regan shares. “His mom was a pioneer. Margaret Trudeau was talking about mental health in the 70s, 80s, 90s and it wasn’t cool back then. That’s being a pioneer. That’s bravery. I look at somebody like her and I owe my ability to talk about (my battle with alcohol) openly to go get help to get back on my feet and do well on my job because of people like her.”
Moving forward, what’s next?
“There will be people who will not be happy with some of the decisions I have to make and that’s not easy but I have been elected to use my judgment.. As long as we can say we are treating our veterans fairly, as long as we can say our veterans feel they have been given the benefit of the doubt, then I think that’s something they are striving for and they deserve that.”
In the meantime, O’Regan says he is trying to let the pride he feels in our veterans and in our military fuel his drive.
O’Regan shares that at a recent symposium, he was inundated with warm wishes and enthusiastic tales from those who know and have worked with his brother.
Like many Newfoundlanders, his brother punches above his weight, he says.
“I’m so proud of him. We all are. He does a tremendous job.”
On Nov. 11, O’Regan will be at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, something he will find strange because he is usually home. Still, it’s an honour he embraces, he says.
“I represent all our veterans but Newfoundland will be there (in thought). I’m honoured to be a Newfoundland and Labrador raised veterans affairs minister. It’s an honour for me.”