Veterans minister halts privacy breach investigation by vets ombudsman

The Canadian Press
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Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney, left, talks with veterans Lloyd Graves, centre, and Owen Parkhouse at the Charlottetown cenotaph during a visit to the department's headquarters in this Guardian file photo.

An investigation by Canada’s veterans ombudsman into a controversial breach of privacy was quietly shut down last year on the instructions of Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney, newly released documents reveal.

Blaney asked the ombudsman to discontinue a probe that his predecessor had ordered in January 2011, after the confidential medical information of veterans advocate Sean Bruyea was spread around the department in an alleged smear campaign.

Information from a psychiatrist’s letter was stitched into a ministerial briefing note at the same time Bruyea, an outspoken critic, was publicly criticizing a controversial overhaul of veterans benefits in 2006.

Former veterans minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn asked the ombudsman to investigate Bruyea’s privacy breach, even though the office of the privacy commissioner was already looking in to what happened.

The hope was the ombudsman would get to the bottom of why the personal information of Bruyea and others was rifled through by bureaucrats — motives that were not the focus of the overarching privacy audit by commissioner Jennifer Stoddart.

But in July 2011, just two months after Blackburn went down to electoral defeat, Blaney — Blackburn’s replacement at the cabinet table — wrote to ombudsman Guy Parent to ask that the probe be halted.

“I have since been able to carefully review this case with my officials,” Blaney wrote in the letter, obtained by The Canadian Press.

“We have determined that the best course of action is a review by the office of the privacy commissioner. In this way, the commissioner can complete an assessment of the department’s actions and conclude on its compliance with the requirements of the Privacy Act.”

Lisa Monette, a spokeswoman for the ombudsman, said Parent agreed the privacy commissioner was best positioned to review the matter, but that the ombudsman “stood willing to assist as needed.”

A spokesman for Blaney, Niklaus Schwenker, said the minister acted swiftly to refer the matter to Stoddart, and reiterated that the Harper government has “brought forward sweeping privacy improvements within the department.”

The federal government settled a lawsuit with Bruyea out of court and has implemented a series of measures meant to tighten up the handling of personal information within the department.

Veterans Affairs is in the unusual position of holding a vast amount of personal data — including medical files — on ex-soldiers, some of whom turn into outspoken critics.

A number of advocates other than Bruyea have claimed their files were used to discredit them within the department and political circles.

One of the country’s most decorated veterans of the Bosnia war, retired sergeant Tom Hoppe, is one of those who says officials were snooping in his records in 2006.

Hoppe, who plans to protest by not wearing his medals on Remembrance Day, said no one has atoned for the violations of personal privacy.

In an audit released a few weeks ago, Stoddart gave the veterans department a thumbs-up, suggesting it had cleaned up its act.

Blaney’s letter startled New Democrat veterans critic Peter Stoffer, who said it calls into question the independence of the ombudsman.

“When he gets a request to look into something, that office should have the independence and the staff to do so,” Stoffer said. Precisely why the privacy breaches occurred remains an unresolved issue, he added.

“They had a change of heart — why? There’s no question the government suddenly changed its mind and didn’t want the ombudsman to look into it. Obviously they’re trying to hide something.”

Schwenker pointed out that Parent had the option of continuing with the investigation.

“The Office of Veterans Ombudsman does not follow our direction and is fully independent,” he said late Friday. “The independent ombudsman is free to pursue any case he wishes and MP Stoffer knows this full well.”

Organizations: Veterans Affairs, Canadian Press, Office of Veterans Ombudsman

Geographic location: Canada, Bosnia

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Recent comments

  • Proud Vet
    November 11, 2012 - 12:32

    Once again, bureaucracy wins and Vets lose.

  • Walt
    November 11, 2012 - 11:41

    While not defending the actions of a very few looky-loos at Veterans Affairs, it is unfortunate that due to privacy issues VAC was unable to defend itself from the allegations by Mr. Bruyea. But imagine if any Veteran constantly complained in writing to a Minister’s office about not receiving benefits he or she may not have been entitled to because of legislation, regulation or service requirements. Those complaints are directed to the department as Ministerial Inquires and take precedence over all other activity including processing other Veteran’s applications for Benefits. If the Inquiries were always handled by the same people that would not be considered fair. So many individuals legitimately review any Inquiries over many years. Also remember that although Mr. Bruyea is a Veteran who bravely served his country and is deserving all benefits to which he is entitled, Mr. Bruyea was a Military Intelligence Officer and is probably an expert in disinformation and media manipulation. He also received a lot of settlement money and not one word was released by VAC to the public, so what real privacy breach occurred?

    • Islandwoman
      November 11, 2012 - 18:28

      What real privacy breach occurred? Why on earth would that be any of your business? I can tell you the case had nothing to do with looky-loos or ministerial inquiries or anything else you mention in your rant. I continue to be amazed at what the Guardian will display and print.

    • huh
      November 12, 2012 - 09:09

      Then what was the case about, Islandwoman? Your post has lots of attitude but doesn't really say anything. And Walt, a privacy breach does not necessarily have to involve releasing info to the public.

  • snowbird
    November 11, 2012 - 10:42

    A day for reflection and remembrance for our fallen soldiers.....not party politics.

  • Gord
    November 11, 2012 - 10:31

    I was on duty with the Canadian Forces in 2009 when I received the H1N1 shot (AREPANRIX by GSK GlaxoSmithKline) and had a severe adverse reaction resulting in PERMANENT neurological, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and respiratory symptoms: dizziness, vertigo, irregular heart rhythms, shortness of breath, muscle weakness and pain, and numbness in hands and feet. My physical fitness changed from special forces fit to that of a 70 year old in a matter of days. I advised the military doctors that my change in health occurred following the H1N1 vaccination and although they noted my concerns on 8 different occasions, they did not investigate the link. Due to the severity of my symptoms I was unable to continue performing my duties and was released from the military. Following my release, the military determined I was disabled and altered my release record due to the severity of my symptoms. Two years later Alberta's health officer in charge of the Immunization program for Alberta reviewed my medical history and verified I had an adverse reaction to the H1N1 vaccine. I applied to Veterans Affairs for disability benefits and was denied on 3 separate occasions. Even though I was on duty training personnel when I received the vaccination, Veterans Affairs stated “There is no evidence that your barriers to reestablishment are related to your service time”. Regarding another application, a Veterans Affairs doctor reviewed my file and stated my condition was not related to service, ignored medical information from several of my doctors, altered the conclusion of one of my neurologists reports, and speculated that had the military determined my diagnosis was related to service there was no medical treatment that would relieve my symptoms. I forwarded this report to my neurologist who indicated the doctors conclusions were false and that he should have consulted a specialist who was familiar with my condition and symptoms. Veterans Affairs admitted the doctor had made errors, but refused to review the original application advising me to appeal the decision through an Administrative review which would take another 6 – 8 months. Since I left the Canadian Forces 19 months ago I have been hospitalized on numerous occasions totalling 30 days. Spent more than $10,000 paying for medication and therapy to manage my symptoms. I am now unable to afford the specialized physiotherapy which costs thousands of dollars each year and am unable to work due to my disability.

  • Harper team modelled on Ghiz team denials
    November 11, 2012 - 09:12

    Maybe it is something in the water in Charlottetown? The list shows how lawyers, accountants and elected MLA's in concert threw out the rule books, cooked the books, reaped millions and then collectively sang denial. Now its happenning at DVA too? Denial? The water is very murky in the big city professionals of backwater Charlottetown. Our Veterans do not deserve this meddling by elected who are such party lemming for Hopper. thanks eh

  • Island Vet
    November 11, 2012 - 09:05

    I find it unbelievable,,,the Charlotytetown Legion has a "Lest We Forget" sign and ABOVE it is a sign stating "BINGO SUN-MON"! No wonder membership is dropping but happy to know those who play BINGO will not be inconvienced.

    • relax
      November 12, 2012 - 08:59

      Relax. The Bingo sign has probably been there for ages and no one even thought about it. I imagine bingo pays a large chunk of their bills. As you say...membership is dwindling.

    November 11, 2012 - 09:01

    Blaney should pause this day; read Rudyard Kipling's poem "Tommy" and then take a look at how his Department and the Harper Government treats Veterans.