By TIM NAUMETZ-THE HILL TIMES-October 11, 2010
Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart says she is concerned other federal departments may be gathering and circulating personal information about critics of the government in the same way the Veterans Affairs Department improperly gave a Cabinet minister medical files about Gulf War veteran Sean Bruyea when he tried to expose weaknesses in a new financial-support net for veterans in 2006.
“It’s a general concern, yes, of mine,” Ms. Stoddart told The Hill Times after she released her finding last week that senior bureaucrats in the Veterans Affairs Department violated provisions of the Privacy Act by disclosing aspects of Mr. Bruyea’s medical file to former veterans affairs minister Greg Thompson (New Brunswick Southwest, N.B.) and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) office in what Mr. Bruyea says was an attempt to discredit him as a veterans advocate.
“At the present time, though, I have no indication that this is happening in other departments,” Ms. Stoddart said. “If it is, I’m sure that they are heeding the lessons to be drawn from this particular incident.”
Ms. Stoddart also disclosed to The Hill Times she is ready to continue as privacy commissioner for “a few more years” once her seven-year term ends this Dec. 1, but she declined to say whether the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) has indicated it is willing to re-appoint her.
“I think that’s all I can say at this point,” Ms. Stoddart said in response to questions.
Ms. Stoddart acknowledged the Harper government over the past 18 months has not extended terms for other tribunal heads, including the former chair of the Military Police Complaints Commission, the chair of the RCMP Public Complaints Commission and, most recently, Veterans Ombudsman Pat Stogran, after they made statements or decisions that either conflicted with the government or put it in a poor light.
“I have to do my job,” Ms. Stoddart said. “I’ve been trying to do it for seven years and it’s a job in which implicitly, I think, and, explicitly, you’re bound to make critical comments of the government, so I’ll just leave it there. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last seven years.”
Ms. Stoddart reported that what her office learned during its investigation of Mr. Bruyea’s complaints and allegations from other veterans “remain a significant concern” and told the Veterans Affairs Department to take immediate steps to improve privacy protection and confirmed she is going ahead with an audit of the department’s privacy policies and practices. She said she became aware of the concerns of other veterans through media reports as well as information provided directly from some of the veterans.
Mr. Stogran, who earlier disclosed to The Hill Times he was concerned over his own medical files as another diagnosed stress-injury veteran, was to meet Ms. Stoddart this week.
Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn (Jonquierre-Alma, Que.), who refused last week to apologize to Mr. Bruyea on behalf of the government, had criticized Mr. Stogran for not reporting concern earlier over the security of his files. Mr. Stogran last week once again displayed his anger over the government’s policies on veterans’ issues by calling Mr. Blackburn’s position part of a “scam,” noting it was Ms. Stoddart who is responsible for investigating Privacy Act violations and pointing out that he believed department bureaucrats had tightened control over his personal information after he discovered his file had been accessed more than 400 times.
Mr. Bruyea at one point came close to tears at a news conference where he denounced the way the government treated him and called for a public inquiry. Human rights lawyer Paul Champ, Mr. Bruyea’s lawyer in a separate $400,000 lawsuit he has filed against the department, also called for a government-wide review of privacy policies.
“This is the ultimate betrayal for a soldier wounded in the service of his country,” Mr. Bruyea said, calling the privacy violations “morally disgusting” and saying evidence among 14,000 documents he obtained about his file showed the department was intent on blaming his advocacy for veterans on his stress injury.
Former army colonel Michel Drapeau, a lawyer and expert on privacy and access to information laws, called the disclosures “outrageous” and “scandalous,” but added he was “underwhelmed” by the temperate tone of Ms. Stoddart’s report and said Ms. Stoddart should have urged the government to hold the bureaucrats who were responsible for the affair accountable.
NDP MP Peter Stoffer (Sackville-Eastern Shore, N.S.), however, praised Ms. Stoddart while denouncing Mr. Blackburn and also called for a public inquiry. He also said Prime Minister Harper should personally apologize to Mr. Bruyea on behalf of the government.
Despite documents that showed Mr. Thompson received a briefing note with confidential medical information about Mr. Bruyea, the prime minister blamed the department. “The fact that some of the bureaucracy has been abusing these files and not following appropriate process is completely unacceptable,” Prime Minister Harper told reporters. “The government has absolutely no tolerance for the behaviour that went on here.”
Ms. Stoddart told The Hill Times she has no power to impose penalties under the Privacy Act, and even her criticism is limited to comments about how the law was breached, rather than the ethics of how the information was used against Mr. Bruyea.
“It clearly violates the letter and the spirit of the Privacy Act and this act has been around for 25 years,” she said. “So I am really dismayed to see there is such profound lack of knowledge of privacy practices anywhere in the Canadian government.”
Mr. Stoffer agreed it is possible other departments use similar tactics to undermine government critics.
“I could only assume that if it happens in this department, how many other departments has it happened with,” he said. “These deputy ministers and assistant deputy ministers share things with other departments, so if it’s happening in one, to a department like Veterans Affairs, did it happen in Health, did it happen in Natural Resources, the Department of Defence?”
Liberal MP and medical doctor Carolyn Bennett (St. Paul’s, Ont.) also shared concern over whether other departments may also be gathering private information on government critics with the aim of some day disarming them.
“Absolutely, discrediting people seems to be the stock in trade of this government, and I think that obviously, even the [veterans] ombudsman himself has come forward saying he believes this has happened to him,” she said.