‘I work hard and I try to work smart’

December 11, 2023
Seamus O’Regan.
As seniors minister, Seamus O’Regan says he will protect pensions, push for pharmacare and advocate for better service from Canada Life in the transition of the Public Service Health Care Plan, to name a few items on his to-do list. Photo: Dave Chan.  

Before the cabinet shuffle in July, federal seniors minister Kamal Khera had only that portfolio. Afterwards, the seniors minister’s portfolio was added to Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan’s responsibilities. And he understands how going from dedicated minister to one with a combined portfolio with joint responsibilities for labour might look like a downgrade for seniors. But he has one request on that topic: Give him a chance and let his record speak for itself.

“Ultimately, don’t judge on anything other than the results that I’m able to achieve for seniors,” says the minister, who represents the Newfoundland and Labrador riding of St. John’s South — Mount Pearl. “That’s the only thing I should be graded on.”

He lists some accomplishments: When he was Veterans Affairs minister, he completed the Pensions for Life program and established an education and training benefit. When he was minister of Indigenous services, he got child and family services legislatively returned to First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities. At Natural Resources, he led the department through COVID and an oil price war.

“I work hard, and I try to work smart,” O’Regan says. “I spend a lot of time listening, but I don’t take very long in acting. If people wonder what I can do to contribute to this file, I say, look at my record. I will produce.”

Lori Turnbull, director of the School of Public Administration and an associate professor of political science at Dalhousie University, doesn’t read too much into the split responsibilities.

“If there’s a dedicated minister, there’s a sense of priority,” Turnbull says. “On the other hand, people like Dominic LeBlanc and Chrystia Freeland have multiple portfolios. This is what this prime minister does. When he believes in a minister’s abilities, he tends to give them more than one [job].”

Patrick Marier, a political science professor at Concordia University and the director of the university research centre that studies social gerontology, says he thinks there’s a seniors minister because seniors want one. He argues it would make more sense to have a seniors’ secretariat attached to the PMO. 

“It would have a lot more power and strength,” he says. He does, however, like the connection between the seniors and labour portfolios because it disassociates seniors with health, which reinforces the idea that aging isn’t a pathology.

Isobel Mackenzie, British Columbia’s seniors advocate, says dual portfolios aren’t unusual.

“So it’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Mackenzie says. “I think we have to allow Minister O’Regan to get his feet under him. [Because we’ve] had a standalone ministry for seniors, there’s staff that’s been developed specifically for these issues. I assume those staff are now in [O’Regan’s] office. And sometimes, given the wider range of responsibilities, the minister has more voice at the cabinet table.”  

Safe Long-Term Care Act

When it comes to the items in this file, O’Regan says the Safe Long-Term Care Act is part of his mandate letter (the 2021 one written for Khera) and that seniors can expect it.

“This is part of our agreement with the NDP, because we both agree that what we saw during the pandemic was unacceptable for seniors and personal support workers,” he says. “[We’re working on] new penalties under the Criminal Code on this, too, and a new national policy definition for elder abuse.”   

In addition, his department has been working with the provinces on implementing its national standards for long-term care. Yet jurisdictional issues remain a challenge.

“But if we both recognize we have the same goals, [it can work,]” he says. “I have a fairly good track record on working with the provinces and territories. We need to work together on stuff. The federal government can be helpful — it can play a leadership role, or a co-ordination role.”  

Mental health a priority

O’Regan has a special interest in mental health for seniors, having overcome his own alcohol addiction. He’s also worked as a mental health advocate for many years.

“We have a saying in Newfoundland — ‘my nerves are rubbed raw’ — and I think people’s nerves are rubbed raw still,” he says. “I think we’re just starting to view mental health in the same way that we view physical health. I want to make sure seniors have as much access to mental health services as anybody else. I don’t know how that’s going to flesh itself out yet, but [stay tuned].”

As a gay man, O’Regan will also turn his attention to the issue of members of the 2SLGBTQ+ community being “re-closeted” in long-term care homes. Dalhousie University professor Jacqueline Gahagan, who works in the health promotion division in the School of Health and Human Performance, says “it’s unclear to people who are older and gay whether it’s safe for them to be out or not in long-term care facilities or nursing homes.” O’Regan knows about the issue and plans to advocate for them to be themselves at that stage of life. 

“You have a very deep appreciation for human rights when they’ve actually been realized in your lifetime,” he says. “I’m 52 and if you had told me in my 20s that there would such a day, I would not have believed you. Seniors have also seen these rights happen in their lifetime. When you see them happen, you know they can be taken away. I want to make sure seniors who earned these freedoms enjoy them until the day they die. And it shouldn’t have to come at the expense of the care you need.”

Again, he says it’s early days and he doesn’t know how this work will manifest itself, but he says to stay tuned.  

“It’s top of mind for me and something I need to advocate for.”   

Association relations

O’Regan has informally met Federal Retirees CEO Anthony Pizzino and foresees a good relationship with the Association.  

“It’s necessary,” he says. “They’re important stakeholders, with great ideas. Ottawa does not have a monopoly on good ideas and stakeholders often have more institutional memory than the ministers with whom they work. I come into this job with all humility.”  

O’Regan recalls a story told by broadcaster George Stroumboulopoulos in which he described being raised by a single mom who encouraged him to visit a local long-term care home after school. Stroumboulopoulos credits that for his ability to listen and be a good interviewer.  

“I used to do the same thing,” O’Regan says. “My mother encouraged me to go see my Uncle Fred at St. Patrick’s Mercy Home here in St. John’s. I would go after school, and then mom would pick me up. You learn a great deal. What [Uncle Fred and his friends] taught me was, if you take the time, and if you know how to listen, you’ll be that much richer for it. That had a big effect on me, even before I chose to [start my career in] journalism.”   

PSHCP transition

When informed of the difficulties faced by federal retirees in getting the Public Service Health Care Plan moved from Sun Life to Canada Life, O’Regan said he would raise the issue with his colleagues at Treasury Board. Federal Retirees as an organization is being called to task on this issue by thousands of members who are calling and emailing because they’re desperate for solutions, though it’s entirely out of the Association’s hands.   

“It’s something that I’ll push within government,” he says, adding that Federal Retirees being inundated with calls isn’t right. “Three hundred calls a week? Tell your team, thank you for your patience. They are not the ones [who should] be taking those calls.”   

Hartley Witten, O’Regan’s press secretary, followed up to say the powers that be are working on the transition and its challenges, calling it an “ongoing process.”   


O’Regan says pharmacare is coming as it’s part of the supply and confidence agreement that the Liberals have with the NDP. He said starting by investing in bulk drug purchasing is a step in the right direction.   “I’m a Costco member, so I get it,” he said with a laugh. “We are making steps, but you’re never going as fast as you want to go.”  


Although he won't say when this will happen, O’Regan says the Liberals have committed to increasing the guaranteed income supplement by $500 for single seniors and $750 for couples.

“The OAS and GIS are essential,” he says. “I will stay focused on those and making sure we keep meeting the mark on affordability.”

And regarding defined benefit pension plans for federal retirees and other Canadians, O’Regan says he will guard them closely, as he always has. Seniors make up 23.6 per cent of his province’s population so it’s a priority for him.

He also said he would work to keep Alberta in the CPP after Premier Danielle Smith threatened to leave and launch her own Alberta Pension Plan.  


O’Regan’s father, Seamus O’Regan Sr., died during the pandemic after a long illness, but his mother is almost 80 and “terrific.” He says having parents who are seniors has helped affirm something he’s always felt, which is that seniors deserve dignity and choice as they age.

“The National Seniors Council is working on this to understand ageism’s state and to work to defeat it,” he says. “And I’m trying to figure out ways, too.

Here’s where labour and seniors do overlap. We’re suffering the biggest labour shortage in Canadian history right now and we’ve got a huge workforce [in seniors] that’s certainly not tapped in the sense that it should be.”

He wants to figure out ways to encourage people such as his father, who continued to work as a federal judge until he was 75, to go ahead and stay in the workforce for as long as they see fit.

“I come into [this job] with a great deal of curiosity and a great determination to follow up on these things,” says O’Regan, who has previously served as minister of Veterans Affairs, Indigenous Services and Natural Resources.


This article appeared in the winter2023 issue of our in-house magazine, Sage. While you’re here, why not download the full issue and peruse our back issues too?