Veteran calls for public inquiry into privacy breach

A Gulf War veteran wants a full public inquiry after the privacy commissioner found Veterans Affairs officials shared his sensitive personal and medical information.

Commissioner finds Veterans Affairs 'seriously mishandled' personal info

A Canadian Gulf War veteran is calling for a full public inquiry after the federal privacy commissioner found Veterans Affairs officials broke the law by sharing his sensitive personal and medical information.

Veteran Sean Bruyea wants an inquiry into how his confidential medical and personal information ended up in the hands of numerous government officials. ((CBC))

An emotional Sean Bruyea said the officials in the department deliberately "crossed the line" in an attempt to discredit him as an outspoken opponent to the 2006 Veteran's Charter by including detailed information about his medical and psychological diagnosis and treatment in minister's briefing notes.

Bruyea, who has brought a $400,000 court action against the federal government, said he felt vindicated by the commissioner's findings but called on the federal government to apologize to all veterans.

"An apology would let us live in peace and start to rebuild the shattered trust between the government of Canada and the disabled soldiers," Bruyea said during an interview on CBC's Power & Politics with Evan Solomon.

He said the actions of department officials left him and his wife in a "humiliating state of powerlessness and vulnerability" and in "constant terror" of what the department, which controlled 100 per cent of his income at the time, would do next.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper placed the blame squarely on the department's bureaucrats, saying "the fact that some in the bureaucracy have been abusing these files and not following appropriate processes is completely unacceptable.

"We will ensure that rules are followed, that the recommendations of the privacy commission are implemented [and] that if this behaviour continues, there will be strong sanctions against it," the prime minister told reporters Thursday at an aerospace announcement in Winnipeg.

But Bruyea said the Prime Minister's Office "completely ignored" hundreds of pages of requests he sent about his case.

Privacy breaches 'alarming': commissioner

Bruyea's personal information ended up in March 2006 briefing notes of the former minister in charge, Greg Thompson, while his medical information, including diagnosis, symptoms and prognosis, were also found in a second ministerial briefing note dating back to 2005 under the former Liberal government and then-minister.

In her report, Stoddart said she found it "alarming" that Bruyea's information was shared "seemingly with no controls" among departmental officials "who had no legitimate need to see it."

Stoddart's office also found that documents containing Bruyea's medical information were sent to a veterans' hospital without his consent. While there were other briefing notes containing personal information, Stoddart found those were prepared for the "purpose of a ministerial response to particular issues raised by the complainant and therefore the content appeared appropriate."

The commissioner added she was also deeply concerned that officials from numerous branches of Veterans Affairs, including program policy, communications and media relations, were involved in discussing and contributing to the briefing notes and also had full access to them.

No apology from Blackburn

Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn says he will immediately start implementing the privacy commissioner's recommendations and 'correct this situation.' ((CBC))
Stoddart recommended the department immediately revise its protocols for handling personal information to ensure it is shared only on a need-to-know basis, and provide training to employees about appropriate personal information-handling practices.

Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn, who took over the portfolio eight months ago after Thompson left politics, says he's now looking at increasing penalties for bureaucrats who break the rules.

Blackburn called what happened in Bruyea's case "grave and unacceptable" and said the department is immediately taking steps to implement her recommendations.

"It's very embarrassing for our department to have that kind of documentation saying we were wrong," Blackburn said. "And I'm telling you, we will implement all those recommendations and it won't be the end of that. We'll go further."

But the minister stopped short of apologizing personally to Bruyea or saying if anyone in Veterans Affairs would be fired as a result of the commissioner's findings.

"This case is before the court," Blackburn told the CBC's Solomon.  "It’s for this that I cannot speak on this specific case."

Bruyea said Blackburn spoke with him shortly before his CBC interview and told him he was legally bound not to apologize. He said he told the minister he understood he "has a frustrating job."

"I understand that the bureaucracy in Veterans Affairs doesn't like him," Bruyea said. "I told him that means he's doing a good job if he's actually disagreeing with them."

NDP veterans affairs critic Peter Stoffer said the commissioner's findings show the need for a full public inquiry into the matter.

"These members of the military serve their country, they deserve respect and if their information is being used like confetti through the department, then what these people need is a full inquiry to ascertain exactly who, what, when, where and why," he told CBC News. "Why would they do this?"

With files from The Canadian Press