Veterans Affairs Canada Has a Case of Premature Closure

By Sean Bruyea-THE HILL TIMES-April 11, 2011

OTTAWA—Just prior to the election campaign kick-off, Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn showed just how out of sync he and some in the department are with veterans and Canadians, not to mention Canadian law and Treasury Board policies. He recently made a number of public comments in Alexandria, Ont., (“The Review,” March 23, 2011) in response to widespread privacy law breaches by Veterans Affairs bureaucrats.

Last fall, nationwide revelations showed that department bureaucrats had illegally and widely trafficked in my private financial and medical information. To date, 54 individuals have been disciplined mostly with letters of reprimand although some received up to three-day suspensions. It is not known whether these were paid suspensions. The minister justified disciplinary leniency, emphasizing it was as if privacy protection “didn’t exist” and that “no one had a system adapted to the new requirements [of the Privacy Act].”

Curious thing these “new requirements” which escaped the attention of the widespread “culture” of ignorance in VAC: the Privacy Act took effect on July 1, 1983. Of course, ignorance of the law has never been an excuse. Twenty-plus years of ignorance are even less of a non-excuse. The terms of employment for all federal public servants require that they specifically abide by Canadian laws (just in case they didn’t realize all Canadians must abide by Canadian laws). The “Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service” pointedly emphasizes the need to abide by seven laws, one of which is the “Privacy Act.”

Breaking the law is absolutely inexcusable for our highly-paid federal government employees entrusted with great power and knowledge over the lives of all Canadian citizens.

The disciplinary measures for the 54 individuals was a result of an internal bureaucratic investigation. The so-called investigation of 614 individuals was restricted to just those individuals who accessed the files on the Veterans Affairs computer system. The internal investigation never consulted me, the person whose privacy was violated, and it does not appear that the investigation was carried out by those trained in truly independent investigations.

As such, the “internal investigation” did not follow certain key Treasury Board requirements for investigative procedure. Furthermore, the department has thus far failed to provide me the names of the 54 individuals the department unilaterally determined had illegally or inappropriately viewed my personal information. Bureaucrats now consider “this matter has been successfully addressed and is now closed.”

However, the so-called “investigation” did not address the damning findings of the privacy commissioner. Due to unavailability of the computer logs at the time, Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart, instead found widespread breaches of the Privacy Act in briefing notes for ministers. Many of the participants in the briefing notes were EX level employees. Furthermore, at least 400 individuals trafficked in my highly personal medical and financial information through emails as well as the briefing notes.

The department refuses to confirm at this time whether anyone has been disciplined for breaking the law as a result of the Commissioner’s findings. In fact, the three EX level bureaucrats who orchestrated the briefing notes (and named in my lawsuit) all received promotions after they wrote and circulated the notes.

The minister also claims that “there is no one that used [his information] to reduce the services of veterans, or transmitted it in a public place. We looked at their intentions.”

The minister’s statement is disingenuous at best. The briefing notes were part of a well-documented plan to inappropriately tie gross distortions of my medical condition to my public efforts to improve new veterans’ programs. You see, I was not and never have publicly advocated for my own services and benefits. The new veterans’ programs never applied to me.

However, bureaucrats briefed ministers that the only way to deal with me was to force me into a week-long or more “in-patient assessment” in a Veterans Affairs facility. Results of that assessment were written up by non-clinician bureaucrats and provided to the minister before the assessment ever occurred. The pre-determined assessment intended, amongst other things, to cut off all my treatment. If I refused, the minister was informed that Veterans Affairs would, you guessed it, cut off all my treatment. These officials sought legal advice to carry out this plan.

It was an obvious no-win situation for me. For the bureaucrats who broke privacy laws it was a win-win game, playing with my life. Either way, I would be without treatment, and my condition would worsen as documents show they were well aware. This plan dovetailed sweetly with non-medically trained or qualified bureaucrats predetermining, without any medical evidence, that I was already mentally unstable.

Whatever happened, the plan would ensure that I would not be able to speak credibly in defence of veterans or their families ever again.

Through the strength of my belief in Canada and the loving support of my wife we fought back.

More than 16,000 pages of emails and briefing notes clearly document the privacy breaches. That is why the Privacy Commissioner found in my favour. What the documents also reveal is that although the minister claims my information was not transmitted in a public place, it was seen by at least 857 (and counting) individuals including two ministers, a Parliamentary secretary and served as briefing material for my Member of Parliament’s staff, the staff of Stephen Harper’s Prime Minister’s Office and likely a high-ranking Canadian Forces general as well as other Canadian Forces personnel.

This was highly inappropriate under any circumstances, especially considering I had been out of uniform for more than a decade.

During the last six years not one individual from Veterans Affairs has ever sat down with me to seek resolution. Veterans Affairs did it all through lawyers. In spite of the minister’s and the bureaucrats’ claims of compassion and understanding in this matter, none of the so-called internal investigations have ever involved speaking with me. It is difficult to imagine a police investigation which doesn’t involve speaking with the victim.

My lawsuit has been settled out of court. There has been no public announcement of what constituted that settlement contrary to some media reports (see The Hill Times, March 14, 2011, “Ouimet to testify along with AG on AG’s scathing report”). As is custom with out-of-court settlements, I am not at liberty to discuss my settlement. However, setting the resolution of my case aside, I am not aware of any settlement which provided the full amount of what was being claimed. I am and always was conscious that whatever I asked for was to come from Canadians. Justice was my guiding principle not avarice.

The amount we requested ($400,000) was in response to Veterans Affairs bureaucrats repeatedly breaking Canadian laws and government policies which destroyed much of our lives for five years. This amount is noticeably less than the more than the $500,000 payout Ouimet actually received in dramatically failing to uphold what Canada, Parliament, and whistleblowers expected and deserved from her three-year tenure. This is not surprising as Ouimet’s reward is in keeping with promoting Veterans Affairs bureaucrats after laws have been broken.

This is all more serious than just my private information. The message is clear to bureaucrats throughout the federal public service. Whether they are looking at your soon-to-be submitted tax forms, your immigration papers, your old age and CPP information, your social insurance numbers or your disability medical files: there is far greater reward to break the law than there are punishments.

It is a classic case of an all too common disease: highly contagious bureaucratic inadequacy, reward and premature closure. This is not the Canada I and more than 300,000 other Canadian casualties sacrificed in war to defend.

Sean Bruyea is a freelance journalist, advocate for the rights of disabled veterans and a retired Intelligence Officer who served in the Persian Gulf War.

The Hill Times