Canada's Privacy Commissioner is launching a wide-ranging audit of Veterans Affairs after an investigation by her office found an alarming breach of a Gulf War veteran's privacy rights.
But Jennifer Stoddart says she will never be able to point fingers, nor can she say whether the department's top bureaucrats are deliberately using private mental-health records to discredit vets who speak out against the government.
That's because her mandate does not allow her to consider the motive of public servants who break privacy laws. Further, the rules allow fines only against people in the private sector, not government officials.
Ms. Stoddart said she has urged the government to update Canada's Privacy Act for years, to no avail.
"There's no Privacy Act reform on the books at the moment," she told The Globe and Mail. "I really have no position on the motives. I just note that it is highly inappropriate to have somebody's sensitive medical information in a briefing note to a minister on a policy issue that that person is putting to the minister."
Ms. Stoddart made the comments after releasing the findings of her office's investigation of a complaint made by Gulf War veteran Sean Bruyea. Using privacy laws, Mr. Bruyea obtained nearly 14,000 pages of government documents that related to him.
The documents show that shortly after Mr. Bruyea started criticizing the department in 2005 over a new Veterans Charter that changed the compensation package for wounded vets, bureaucrats began widely sharing his mental-health records. Mr. Bruyea expressed concern with the content of notes to Liberal Veterans Affairs minister Albina Guarnieri written in 2005 and then notes to Conservative Veterans Affairs minister Greg Thompson in 2006. Both were being lobbied by Mr. Bruyea. The Commissioner's report, however, only expresses concern with the notes to Mr. Thompson.
In one 2006 e-mail, an executive director at Veterans Affairs wrote to his colleagues to claim Mr. Bruyea was spreading misinformation to the public. "Folks, it's time to take the gloves off here," Darragh Mogan said. Now retired, Mr. Mogan insists his e-mail was meant to urge a public defence of the department's policies, not an attack on Mr. Bruyea's privacy.
The commissioner's report concluded that Mr. Bruyea's complaint was well-founded and that officials did in fact breach the Privacy Act. She is recommending that Veterans Affairs immediately improve its privacy policies and provide training to employees about how to handle private information.
"It is completely unacceptable that rules are being broken in this manner," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Thursday in Winnipeg, pledging to tackle the issue. Documents obtained by Mr. Bruyea show he raised his concerns with Mr. Harper's office, and senior political staff hosted a meeting in September, 2006 to discuss Mr. Bruyea's allegations of harassment.
Retired colonel Michel Drapeau - who now manages access and privacy requests for private clients - appeared at a news conference Thursday with Mr. Bruyea to say the government is not taking this issue seriously enough.
He also said he was underwhelmed by the commissioner's report. He called the commissioner's recommendations - which the government accepted - "facile" and "banal." Having read Mr. Bruyea's documents, Mr. Drapeau said the situation is far more serious.
"I've never seen anything like this," he said. "It's outrageous. It's scandalous. It's over the top."
Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn said the commissioner's findings are "embarrassing" for the government. His department plans to bring a privacy expert from inside the government's Treasury Board to offer advice. Yet Mr. Blackburn's office said the expert's name won't be released until later.
Mr. Bruyea is suing the federal government over the handing of his files. Mr. Blackburn cited the court case in refusing to say whether the government will apologize.