Canada's Privacy Commissioner says she's uncovered evidence of possible widespread privacy abuse at Veterans Affairs and decided on her own to launch a full-fledged audit into how the personal information of injured soldiers is handled.
A statement by Jennifer Stoddart's office, released to The Canadian Press, contradicts Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn who earlier in the day told a news conference that he asked for a wide-ranging probe.
"The Commissioner has advised Minister Blackburn's office that her investigation into a complaint about the handling of one veteran's personal information has raised concerns about the possibility of systemic privacy issues," Valerie Lawton, a spokeswoman for Ms. Stoddart, said in a prepared statement.
"As a result, she had already decided to initiate an audit of the department's privacy practices."
Ms. Lawton said Ms. Stoddart welcomed the minister's invitation.
Mr. Blackburn made it sound as if he initiated the more comprehensive probe during a news conference to announce improved support for the families of the most severely wounded soldiers.
"I'm very concerned about what's happening there," he said at Defence Department headquarters.
"This morning, we had a discussion with the Privacy Commissioner and I thought with all that news ... it would be appropriate for the Commissioner, the Privacy Commissioner, to look further in the department to see what's going on, to enlarge what she has done up to now."
The scope of her audit of Veterans Affairs practices has not been determined; but the review will be undertaken when the Commissioner finishes her investigation into a complaint launched by Sean Bruyea, a retired Forces captain and an outspoken critic of the department. His medical and psychiatric records found their way into a 2006 briefing note to former Veterans Affairs minister Greg Thompson.
NDP Leader Jack Layton was astounded at the contradiction and said it's time for the Prime Minister to fire Mr. Blackburn.
"It's reprehensible, it's disgraceful and this shows that this government has failed veterans very fundamentally," he said Tuesday. "This thing, by all appearances, is against the law. Heads ought to roll and they should be ministerial heads."
News of the audit comes less than a day after Veterans Ombudsman Pat Stogran, who suffers from an operational stress injury, revealed he wanted an investigation into the way bureaucrats may have used his medical records. He was responding to Mr. Bruyea's revelations.
Mr. Blackburn says Mr. Stogran never raised concerns about his confidential information with him and suggested the entire matter of privacy was something the ombudsman should have been examining in the first place.
Mr. Bruyea said he's yet to receive the Privacy Commissioner's report into his case, but he felt vindicated by Ms. Stoddart's sense that the vendetta against him was part of a wider problem with the department.
"This is exactly the reason I brought my case to her and exactly the reason why I went public on it," Mr. Bruyea said Tuesday. "I believe this is reflective of a systemic problem, a moral rot in a system that needs to be thoroughly investigated."
The Privacy Commissioner has only limited powers of enforcement if she finds evidence of wrongdoing. She will have to rely on Mr. Blackburn to implement whatever suggestions she makes.
Legal experts have suggested that the House of Commons information and privacy committee investigate the matter. Mr. Bruyea, however, said Parliament is far too divided and partisan for such a probe. He's pushing for a public inquiry.
Liberal veterans critic Kirsty Duncan said she's concerned about the added worry being placed on veterans, many of whom are elderly, sick and injured.
"There's been a real breach of trust," she said. "We have to reassure veterans that their information won't be shared and this doesn't happen again."
Since 2004, there have been 16 privacy complaints lodged against Veterans Affairs.