Residential school survivors have been notified of a possible breach of privacy by the agency handling their compensation claims, says Justice Murray Sinclair, the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

"The survivors who are affected, or believe they have been affected by it because they have been notified of which files were on the computer — they have contacted us," Sinclair said in an interview with CBC News Network's Power & Politics on Friday.

In an email to CBC News after the interview aired, a spokesperson for the Indian Residential Schools Adjudication Secretariat, said the notification sent to 43 claimants in December was related to a privacy breach that occurred in Montreal the previous month, when a laptop belonging to an adjudicator was stolen.

The secretariat is the agency that manages claims made by residential school survivors through an independent assessment process for compensation due to abuse suffered in residential schools.

'That causes concern among survivors because they were promised confidentiality when they were interviewed.'—Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Sinclair told Power & Politics host Rosemary Barton that the claimant spoke to him "about their concerns and what we have committed to them to do is to follow up with the investigation officials as well as the IAP officials, just to determine what steps are going to be taken to protect the privacy issues that they're raising with us."

Sinclair said it was his understanding that the personal information included medical records and case summaries detailing the abuse the survivors endured.

"Medical records are inherently private. But in addition to that, it would probably include residential school experiences and other related matters to that."

"That causes concern among survivors because they were promised confidentiality when they were interviewed by the IAP staff," Sinclair said.

"And to now think that confidentiality may have been meaningless if the documents are in the hands of other people would be a grave concern to them emotionally."

Privacy watchdog asked to investigate 2014 incident

The November, 2013 incident is not related to a more recent concern over survivors' personal information, reported by CBC News on Thursday. In that case, Canada's privacy watchdog has been asked to look into a possible breach of privacy after an adjudicator handling compensation claims reported an alleged blackmail attempt earlier this month.

Michael Tansey, a spokesman for the secretariat, said the agency has not yet determined whether any information was stolen in the most recent case. "We continue to investigate the recent possible security breach, and we are working with the Office of these Privacy Commissioner to determine an appropriate course of action as we learn more about the matter.​"

NDP MP Charlie Angus, who represents a northern Ontario riding where a residential school once operated, asked the privacy watchdog to investigate a possible breach of privacy stemming from the incident earlier this month.

"I respectfully request that you undertake an investigation of this data breach, how and when it occurred, and the practices of both the IAP and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada in responding to this breach — and make recommendations as to how their practices can be improved," Angus said in a letter dated March 27 to the interim federal privacy commissioner Chantal Bernier.

Angus also wrote a second letter to Daniel Shapiro, the chief adjudicator at the Indian Residential Schools Adjudication Secretariat, asking him to make public the details of the incident.

'It is important to reassure the survivors and the public that every measure was taken and is taken to address this potentially damaging breach.'— Charlie Angus, NDP MP

"I have no desire to point the finger at any individual employee," Angus said in the letter to Shapiro.

"However, the larger issue of protocols for protecting personal data must be considered of paramount importance. It is important to reassure the survivors and the public that every measure was taken and is taken to address this potentially damaging breach."

A spokesperson for Shapiro told CBC News on Wednesday that "an individual contacted the secretariat earlier this month" claiming to have information relating to claims made by residential school survivors.

"The adjudicator has made a report to the police, and indicated that blackmail was involved," Tansey said in an email to CBC News.

He also said the agency had yet to determine whether the individual who contacted them actually possessed any confidential information or was bluffing.

Tansey said the secretariat informed the Department of Aboriginal Affairs "shortly after" the agency became aware of it, and that it referred the matter to the privacy watchdog "this week."

The office for the federal privacy commissioner confirmed to CBC News on Wednesday that the matter had been reported to it by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs on Monday.

It is unclear how much time elapsed between the time that the incident occurred "earlier this month," as Tansey said and last Monday, when the matter was referred to the privacy watchdog. 

Who is responsible?

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said on Tuesday that the secretariat is an independent organization for which his department "is not responsible."

But Angus, who believes the claims process does fall under the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, has asked the privacy watchdog to clarify who would be responsible for the data which may have been lost or stolen.

The secretariat is an independent, quasi-judicial tribunal established in 2007 under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.

Sinclair said he did not have any more information on the incident other than what the residential school survivors told him. "Even if we had an opportunity to ask questions about it, we would probably respect the investigation that is now ongoing and not pursue it at this point."

Sinclair was in Edmonton for the final hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The commission will have to submit a final report by June 30, 2015, when its mandate comes to an end.

Mobile users, read the Angus letters here and here.

Clarifications

  • This story has been updated from an earlier version to clarify that 43 residential school survivors were notified of a possible privacy breach relating to an incident that occurred in November, 2013. A separate, 2014 incident is currently under investigation and has not resulted in any claimants being notified about any security breach.
    Mar 31, 2014 12:04 PM ET