An email titled "LGBT Refugees from Iran" that was sent from Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's MP office has raised concerns about whether the private information of Canadians may be used for partisan purposes.
But although she finds reports of the email "troubling", the federal privacy commissioner's office says she doesn't have jurisdiction over what politicians do. People who make their political views public using online petitions or other forums run the risk that information may be used in ways they don't expect.
Last Friday, members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community were sent an email from Kenney extolling the government's handling of cases of lesbian and gay refugees from Iran.
Some of the recipients are wondering how Kenney knew to target them based on their sexual orientation or interest in LGBT issues.
"I just thought, 'My God, this is complete propaganda, how did he get my email? What the heck is going on here?'" said Datejie Green, who is from Toronto.
The email touted what Kenney called his government's strong record of defending gay and lesbian rights around the world.
"This is scary. This is actually really scary," Green said. "I wasn't just disturbed, I was frightened, because they're clearly stockpiling lists of particular constituencies of Canadians, for their propaganda."
Green, who is a health researcher, is also upset that the government is trying to "pinkwash" its activities — making them sound more gay and lesbian friendly than they really are.
She points to Kenney's recent cuts to refugee health programs, which she says have taken a direct toll on LGBT refugees who often need trauma counselling and basic medical care.
Several other Canadians also expressed anger about Kenney's missive on social media sites like Facebook.
Privacy concerns over personal data collection
Randall Garrison, the NDP critic for LGBT issues, told reporters after Monday's question period that if a clear explanation doesn't come from Kenney's office, his party may make a formal complaint with federal Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart.
"I think there's a serious privacy question here when the minister is obviously touching on a subject that's very sensitive to many people and connecting up sexual orientation with individual names and addresses," Garrison said. "I think we need a full explanation of how he put together that list."
Political parties fall outside the privacy laws, yet they amass huge amounts of highly personal information about citizens, including how they vote, their age, religious and ethnic backgrounds, and other details.
Stoddart has warned that Canadians have no legal rights when it comes to personal information collected by parties and held in databases for partisan use.
A spokesperson for the privacy commissioner's office calls the case "troubling," but added there is little they can do.
"Please note that, from the information we have available on this at this time (including your email), our office does not appear to have jurisdiction in this matter," wrote Stoddart's communication director, Anne Marie Hayden, in an email to CBC News. "Our office does not have jurisdiction over political parties under either the Privacy Act or the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA)."
Green has lodged a complaint with the privacy commissioner.
Email addresses may originate with online petition
Kenney's spokesperson said Monday the email was a "response to individuals who have communicated with our office about gay refugee issues."
Green says she never communicated with Kenney's office but she did sign an online petition at Change.org which generated an automatic email from her email account addressed to "Jason Kenney and the Department of Citizenship & Immigration Canada."
A senior source in Kenney's office said Tuesday the government did not mine petitions or other forms of mass communication to get the emails of LGBT Canadians.
The source said everyone on the email list had written to the immigration minister in an email to his MP's office: the same address from which Friday's message was sent. The source said it's possible some people signed an online letter campaign that automatically generates an email from the recipient's email address.
"If you wrote to us on an issue we wrote you back," the source said. "We didn't go out proactively looking for people's email addresses."
Green insists the petition was directed at Kenney in his role as minister because it was about a deportation, and she says Kenney's office never wrote her back about her deportation concern.
Treasury Board guidelines for information sharing in the federal government stipulate that a minister cannot use personal information that is sent to him in his capacity as minister for MP or party purposes.