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Sean Bruyeau and his wife Caroline listen to a question during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Thursday October 7, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Sean Bruyeau and his wife Caroline listen to a question during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Thursday October 7, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Globe Editorial

Close those prying eyes at Veterans Affairs Add to ...

Sean Bruyea is a Canadian veteran of the Gulf War whose sensitive medical files were treated as an open book in the Veterans Affairs department. His personal information was written unnecessarily into briefing notes to a minister in the Conservative government, according to Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart.

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That misuse of his files appears aimed at discrediting and intimidating an outspoken critic of the bureaucracy. The question now is how far the bureaucracy's misuse of personal files goes. Louise Richard, a second well-known advocate for veterans, also has a credible complaint of similar abuse. A deputy minister was briefed extensively on her medical information before a meeting with Ms. Richard, a nurse, who suffers from post-traumatic stress. And Canada's Veterans Affairs Ombudsman, Pat Stogran, says more than 400 officials have looked into his personal files, most of whom had no right to do so.

Some veterans who are not in the public eye like Ms. Bruyea, Ms. Richard and Mr. Stogran have also come forward with complaints. In one case, a Veterans Affairs employee allegedly leaked sensitive medical information to an outside employer. That allegation is being investigated internally.

Ms. Stoddart says she will do a wider audit to determine if there is a systemic privacy issue. If she does find one, she will have the power to recommend policy changes to protect privacy. But she does not and will not impute motives to anyone. The problem is that policy tweaks are not enough to address the loss of public confidence in Veterans Affairs.

Only this country's political leaders can restore that confidence. Leadership at the highest level is required. All Canadians, not just veterans, need to know the government is willing to get to the bottom of the misuse of veterans' personal files. Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn needs to explain why this happened and how long it went on. Prime Minister Stephen Harper needs to ensure that unprofessional and probably illegal intrusions on veterans' privacy has stopped.

Canada needs to make a commitment to treat its veterans fairly and with respect. Ms. Stoddart's report calls that commitment into question.

Editor's note: The Privacy Commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, found that two briefing notes to a Conservative minister of veterans affairs included an excessive amount of personal information. She did not make such a finding about earlier briefing notes that were also the subject of the complaint concerned. Incorrect information appeared in print on Friday and in an earlier online version of this story.

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