This is not what I went to war for

By Sean Bruyea, Ottawa Citizen Special-September 25, 2010 10:28 AM
 This past week, Canadians learned that federal bureaucrats at Veterans Affairs Canada freely offered up extensive amounts of my confidential medical and financial information to federal cabinet ministers without my permission. And at least 850 federal employees, political staffers and politicians exchanged and/or accessed the most intimate details of my personal life.

Why? And what can be done to make sure it never happens to another Canadian?

I am a veteran with disabilities. I, therefore, depend upon Canada for my financial security as well as funding for my extensive medical needs for the rest of my life. I am also an advocate for the rights of injured soldiers and their families.

Internal e-mails show, Veterans Affairs employees sarcastically labelled me as their “favorite client” who is “very vocal in criticisms of our efforts” and “our programs.” It is exactly this bureaucratic sense of propriety over what are, in reality, veterans’ programs which seems to have fuelled the desire of numerous high-ranking bureaucrats to use my private and confidential information to impugn my credibility.

You see, in May 2005, I was the first of just a handful of veterans who opposed the single most important legislation to affect veterans in almost a century. The new law took away a lifetime monthly disability payment for injuries suffered by disabled soldiers and replaced it with a one-time lump sum. The law passed in the House of Commons in less than a minute without any debate. As a recipient of the lifetime monthly payments, I could not in good conscience stand by while other soldiers suffering the same injuries would receive dramatically less than what they deserve and what I still receive.

As part of my attempts to heal from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other physical and psychological injuries, I also started to write. As a budding journalist, my first article was a call for a veterans’ ombudsman. That article became more important than I imagined. It served as the foundation for the Conservative election platform of 2006, promising to create such an office.

As the recent scandal over not renewing the current ombudsman shows, the bureaucracy did not want anyone to watch over them.

What is also clear is that the 14,000 pages of documents obtained through Privacy Act requests and held by Veterans Affairs show that my volunteer efforts to defend the rights of disabled veterans and their families angered many in the federal department. However, their emotional reaction is not my concern. That these individuals worked together to knowingly circulate my personal documents to virtually every director-level bureaucrat and above, as well as to ministers, political staffers and MPs is my concern. That these documents served as the basis of a briefing to the minister’s chief of staff the day before he briefed the prime minister’s office is outright disturbing.

This also needs to be the concern of every Canadian, and especially all parliamentarians.

We are all clients of the federal government at some level. Government departments in Ottawa hold vast amounts of our personal information including recipients of the Canada Pension Plan, retirement and disability, First Nations health and welfare, or the millions of immigration records replete with information which, if misused, could not only jeopardize the security and well-being of individuals in Canada but also relatives in their countries of origin. And most every adult and all Canadian business provides Ottawa with detailed tax information including social insurance numbers.

But Veterans Affairs is an odd creature located principally in Charlottetown, P.E.I. It is the only federal department with its headquarters located outside Ottawa. This is also likely part of the reason why 850 federal employees thought that they had every right to widely disseminate and/or access the most sacred knowledge about me.

Is what happened to me an exception? Col. (Ret’d) Michel Drapeau, Canada’s leading expert in privacy law, knows that it is not. But my case is the most flagrant and extensive he has seen and the widespread circulation of my information should not and cannot be used “for political warfare to try to silence a critic.”

How will the government ensure what happened to me will never happen to not only another veteran but to another journalist or any other Canadian for that matter?

The Privacy Commissioner has been carrying out a year-long investigation into my situation. Her findings are due soon. Supportive findings as well as clear and strong recommendations will undoubtedly help, but over the past five years, Veterans Affairs has easily and successfully resisted literally hundreds of recommendations, most by their own advisory groups. And many federal departments have shown similar arrogance in resisting the recommendations of oversight agencies and even parliamentary committees.

For that reason, Parliament must look into this and opposition parties need to call for a full public inquiry. Parliament is the only institution which has the power to stand up to our federal bureaucracy.

I went to war to defend Canada’s sacred values and rights such as freedom of expression. Why is it that the government can use my most sacred information to destroy my credibility, thereby denying me that same freedom for which I and other soldiers have sacrificed so much?

What happened to my private information should have every Canadian asking whether they are next. Only a full public inquiry has the power to reassure all Canadians that they never have to ask this question.

Sean Bruyea is a freelance journalist, advocate for veterans’ rights and a retired Air Force Intelligence Officer.

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