Bruyea’s Fight Inspires Others

Editorial-THE HILL TIMES-October 11, 2010

Canada’s Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart announced last week that she’s launching a wide-ranging audit of Veterans Affairs Canada after her office found the privacy rights of former Gulf War veteran Sean Bruyea had been seriously breached.

“What we found in this case was alarming,” Ms. Stoddart said in a statement. “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 is right. Mr. Bruyea, a former intelligence officer who served in the Gulf War and has post-traumatic stress disorder, has been fighting Veterans Affairs Canada since 2005 for better compensation for wounded Canadian soldiers. Most would give up this tiresome battle. But Mr. Bruyea didn’t. And he has had the guts to stick with it, despite the odds. Mr. Bruyea deserves a lot of credit for uncovering this mess in Veterans Affairs Canada. Outgoing Veterans Affairs Ombudsman Pat Stogran, who also has PTSD, also says he believes his medical and personal files were circulated at Veterans Affairs. And now former Gulf War veteran and nurse Louise Richard, who also has PTSD, is beginning to look through her files. Both were inspired by Mr. Bruyea’s actions.

Through the Access to Information Act, Mr. Bruyea got 14,000 pages of documents related to him showing that after he started to criticize Veterans Affairs over changes in the compensation package for wounded veterans under the New Veterans Charter, VAC bureaucrats started circulating his mental health records. Mr. Bruyea says the medical mental health records were circulated to discredit him as a vocal advocate for veterans’ benefits. If this is true, Mr. Bruyea is also correct in saying the privacy breach is “morally disgusting to all Canadians.”

Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn called the commissioner’s findings “embarrassing,” and Prime Minister Stephen Harper said “it is completely unacceptable that rules are broken in this manner.” But Mr. Bruyea’s documents also show Mr. Bruyea raised his concerns with the PMO and senior political staff in a meeting in 2006 at which Mr. Bruyea’s harassment allegations were discussed. Mr. Bruyea is now suing the federal government.

In her report, Ms. Stoddart recommended that Veterans Affairs Canada “take immediate steps to support an enhanced privacy policy framework with adequate protections and controls to regulate access to personal information within the department”; “revise existing information-management practices and policies to ensure that personal information is shared within the department on a need-to-know basis only”; “provide training to employees about appropriate personal information-handling practices”; and “review and comply with its existing policies and procedures concerning hospital referrals to ensure that the consent for the transfer of personal information has been obtained and that the information shared is limited to that which is necessary.”

For all its talk about ministerial accountability on numerous other issues, this government must start taking responsibility and that responsibility should start at the very top.