Privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian files legal motion against Toronto police

Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian has taken her fight against the Toronto police's disclosure of attempted suicide information to the province's Superior Court of Justice.

Legal motion to stop the sharing of information around Ontarians' mental health history

Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian stepped up her fight against the Toronto Police Service's information-sharing practices. (Colin Perkel/Canadian Press)

Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian has taken her fight against the Toronto police's disclosure of attempted suicide information to the province's Superior Court of Justice.

Cavoukian filed a Notice of Application for Judicial Review asking for an order that the Toronto Police Service stop the practice of indiscriminately disclosing attempted suicide information via the Canadian Police Information Centre database. She calls it privacy-invasive, and says it contravenes Ontario privacy law.

Cavoukian looked into the issue when a woman was turned away at Toronto's Pearson airport by U.S. customs agents because she was hospitalized years earlier for clinical depression.

"I found it so unnerving to think about the embarrassment and humiliation a person would feel," Cavoukian said about the incident. "I needed to find out exactly how such sensitive and personal info was ending up in the hands of U.S. border officials."

She released a report called "Crossing the Line: The Indiscriminate Disclosure of Attempted Suicide Information to U.S. Border Officials via CPIC" in April. She says the majority of the police services she spoke with adopted her recommendation to immediately cease the routine disclosure of suicide-related information. Toronto police, she says, disregarded her report.

"I am both disappointed and surprised by the Toronto Police Service's refusal to reconsider its practice of blanket disclosure, given the positive relationship we have enjoyed over the years," says Cavoukian.

She has spent months negotiating with Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair to absolutely no avail, she says.

She is asking the court to direct Toronto police to "immediately cease its sweeping disclosure practices relating to cases of attempted suicide."

She calls the sharing a "direct violation of Ontario privacy legislation" and says it has the potential to damage lives.

'Total about face,' police say

Toronto police spokesman Mark Pugash told CBC News Thursday that the privacy commissioner’s “total about face” had left him baffled.

Pugash said that last June a lawyer representing Cavoukian wrote a letter on her behalf to John Sewell, the former mayor of Toronto now with the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, to which was described the privacy commissioner’s position and stance on these matters.

Pugash said the letter held exactly the same position as the police association's, which was that "it’s important to collect this information, there’s a direct relation between that information and protecting private safety, that the law allowed it and that to not collect that information would endanger public safety,” he said.

“That was also the privacy commission’s position on June 7. 2013. All of a sudden their position over a fairly short period of time has changed 180 degrees and we have no understanding of why.”

CBC News has obtained the letter. 

Pugash has previously told CBC that Toronto police do not indiscriminately share the information. He claims officers do use discretion about which cases are uploaded to the database.

Pugash also said the force feels the information is important for officers to have, and if Cavoukian doesn't want it shared, then it becomes a decision for the RCMP to change who has access to the data.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association stands behind Cavoukian's move.

"Mental health information, including information about a past suicide attempt, is personal and sensitive information that should not be shared absent compelling circumstances," says Sukanya Pillay, Executive Director and General Counsel for the civil liberties group. "There is serious harm being done to an individual's right to privacy while there is arguably no gain to public safety."