As N.W.T.'s 1st privacy commissioner retires, she says public must hold gov't accountable

After two decades serving as Nunavut and the Northwest Territories’ information and privacy commissioner, Elaine Keenan Bengts will be hanging up her hat and trading in her day job for retirement.

Elaine Keenan Bengts has held role in N.W.T. since 1997, since 2000 in Nunavut

Elaine Keenan Bengts, the information and privacy commissioner for the Northwest Territories and for Nunavut, is retiring this year after two decades in the role. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

After two decades serving as Nunavut and the Northwest Territories' information and privacy commissioner, Elaine Keenan Bengts is preparing to hang up her hat and trade in her day job for retirement.

But before she goes, she has a message for the public.

"Democracy is fragile. And as COVID[-19] has [shown] us, it's even more fragile when we're in the middle of a crisis," she said. "It's so important for every individual not only to protect their own privacy, but to hold governments accountable for what they do."

As commissioner, Keenan Bengts's job is to investigate privacy complaints, independently review the government's responses to access to information requests, and give advice on how to improve policies and legislation. 

Keenan Bengts expects to retire in October. She became the first person appointed to the position in the N.W.T. in 1997 and has held the role in Nunavut since 2000.

Since then, she's investigated everything from misdirected medical faxes to a stolen health department laptop, to the discovery of private medical files at the dump in Fort Simpson, N.W.T.

"It's really interesting work. It's become a passion," said Keenan Bengts. 

What's kept her coming back to the job for so many years is the fact that she's always learning something new.

When she started in her role as commissioner, the internet was something mostly used by universities, she recalled. Email was hardly a main method of communication.

"We live today in a completely, entirely different world," she said.

A discarded box of medical records was found here, at the Fort Simpson, N.W.T., dump in 2018. It was the subject of a privacy breach investigation during Keenan Bengts's tenure as information and privacy commissioner. (Hilary Bird/CBC)

However, Keenan Bengts predicts privacy breaches will remain a constant.

"They're going to continue to happen, too, because human error is usually the nexus of most privacy breaches," she said. "You're never going to fix human error a hundred per cent."

That's where the information and privacy commissioner comes in. 

Keenan Bengts's hope is to see those breaches happen less often, by making suggestions to improve government policies, and educating government employees on how to prevent them from happening in the first place.

"My recommendations on the privacy side are almost always about making things better," she said. "Because you can't fix a privacy breach. You can't put it back in the bag once it's out."

'It's part of democracy'

The COVID-19 pandemic has also presented the government with new challenges around privacy and access to information, as employees are accessing government files while working from home, Keenan Bengts said.

"Some stuff [the N.W.T. government is] proactively disclosing, and that's fine," she said. 

"They're not doing a great job on doing privacy impact assessments on all of these new programs that are being rolled out, and all these new technologies that are being used."

There are also fewer employees working in information and privacy, she said, something that concerns her.

But the general public can do its part to keep the government accountable, she said.

"And one of the ways of doing that is to make use of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act and ask the government to provide the information that's behind all of their decisions," said Keenan Bengts. 

"It's part of democracy, and if you hold democracy dear, I think this legislation is vital."

With files from Alex Brockman and Joanne Stassen


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