Minister defends decision to halt vets privacy breach probe

12/31/1969 07:00 EST | Updated 01/10/2013 05:12 EST
Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney is defending his decision to halt an investigation by Canada's veterans ombudsman into a controversial breach of privacy, saying that the Office of the Privacy Commissioner was best suited to handle the matter.

Blaney asked Guy Parent, the federal veterans ombudsman, in July 2011 to discontinue a probe his predecessor had ordered seven months earlier, according to documents obtained by The Canadian Press.

In an interview with CBC Radio's The House, Steven Blaney, the minister of Veterans Affairs, told host Evan Solomon "any privacy breach of a veterans file is totally unacceptable."

Blaney said as soon as he was informed there could be a potential breach of privacy he asked federal privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart to investigate and instructed officials in the Department of Veterans Affairs to "fully cooperate."

But in January 2011, Blaney's predecessor, former Veterans Affairs minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn, felt it necessary to order the veterans ombudsman to investigate the matter even though he knew the privacy commissioner was already looking into what had happened separately.

The focus of Stoddart's audit was different from that of the veterans ombudsman.

Blackburn ordered the probe after hundreds of senior bureaucrats accessed the confidential medical information of Gulf War veteran Sean Bruyea in an alleged smear campaign. The federal government later settled a lawsuit with Bruyea out of court but other veterans have since made similar complaints.

When asked why he cancelled an investigaton his predecessor thought was relevant, Blaney said, "for me, it's clear. In this country, the privacy commissioner is the best one to investigate in any potential breach of privacy.

"We as parliamentarians have dedicated a privacy commissioner and given her full power to do a thorough investigation, that's why this is the best person and the best office," the Veterans Affairs minister said.

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

Veterans' complaints mount

After settling with Bruyea, the federal government implemented a series of measures intended to ensure that the personal information of veterans is better handled within the department. But news that Blaney halted a controversial investigation did not sit well with the veterans advocate.

In an interview airing on The House, Bruyea told Solomon "the minister interfered in an independent investigation."

"If the minister and the department had nothing to fear from the ombudsman's investigation... why didn't the minister let it go forward?" Bruyea asked.

Blaney rejected the assertion by opposition critics that his decision to shut down the investigation called into question the independence of the veterans ombudsman.

The ombudsman "is free to study" what he feels is important, Blaney said.

Bruyea doesn't blame the veterans ombudsman. Instead, Bruyea said what this shows is the veterans ombudsman job should be legislated by Parliament, as is the case with independent officers of Parliament like the federal privacy commissioner or the auditor general.

Blaney was in Trenton on Saturday to attend the unveiling of a new Afghanistan Repatriation Memorial. He spent the better part of Veterans' Week defending the federal government's record and treatment of veterans — including news that soldiers' families are raising serious concerns over the care their loved ones are receiving at the largest veterans care facility in the country.

Retired sergeant Tom Hoppe, one of Canada's most decorated veterans of the Bosnia war, has said he will not be wearing his medals on Remembrance Day Sunday in protest of the federal government's treatment of vets. Hoppe has previously said publicly that his personal privacy was violated when federal officials snooped in his records in 2006.

Meanwhile Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is on a trade mission in Manila, was asked by reporters why a federal burial fund for poor veterans was rejecting two-thirds of applicants.

"Let me just say that government of Canada puts, as you know, a very high priority on care for our veterans. This government has made enormous, billions of dollars worth of investments in programs, particularly for the most needy veterans," Harper told reporters at a news conference with the Philippine President Benigno Aquino.

"Obviously those programs are under constant review and we will continue to assess their suitability going forward," Harper said.

The federal government has ended its legal fight to maintain tax clawbacks on disability payments for soldiers. It has also put money into "helmets-to-hardhats" programs to help former servicemen and women enter the workforce.

Last week, a group of Afghanistan war veterans filed a class-action lawsuit against the federal government, saying the disability payment regime under the New Veterans Charter violates their human rights.