11/16/2012 05:41 EST | Updated 01/16/2013 05:12 EST

Privacy Violation as a Weapon Against Veterans


The term privacy violation has been in the news so much that most of us tune it out. Really, who cares that some employee looked at someone's file somewhere? Even if it's wrong, isn't that simply human nature, to be curious? Even if it was malicious, why should everyone care? And aren't media reports just making the violation worse, anyway?

Privacy Violation -- Snooping in files one has no legitimate need to see

Which is the problem with the phrase; it only applies to the act of looking and doesn't adequately describe the crime. Privacy violation applies to a bored employee who browsed files looking for friends and relatives as a way to fill time between coffee breaks. But the term equally applies to digging up dirt for malicious purposes. In both cases, the crime is the same: illegally accessing information. But the intentions are very different. And yet, media uses the same phrase, over and over, and we have stopped paying attention.

Compare privacy violation with excessive speed. We hear about speeding on our roads all the time. Some times, excessive speed means driving a little over the limit because it is rush hour. Other times, excessive speed means driving a souped-up street machine at 250kmph through residential streets. We mostly ignore the first reports, but we are outraged at the second.

Which is how we should be with privacy violations in federal departments.

Two years ago, Sean Bruyea came forward with proof that staff at the Minister of Veterans Affairs had violated his privacy. This wasn't any minor bored-clerk stuff. His medical and financial details had been circulated after he criticized the New Veterans Charter. In the minutes of a VAC conference call, an had said "it's time to take the gloves off here" a senior veterans official said -- like a statement from a mob-movie. And they did: Bruyea's benefits were modified and cancelled. VAC even tried to get him committed to a mental hospital.

Privacy Violation -- Bureaucrats using your private information to attack you.

Then there's Harold Leduc. Leduc was a member of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board, which reviews benefits claims. Leduc is also a veteran. Fellow board members decided they didn't like the way Leduc was doing his job. So they pulled his VAC file and passed it around. Leduc got a regular barrage of snide comments about his service and injuries. He was told that everyone was waiting for his nervous breakdown. He was reminded of the events that gave him PTSD. Leduc is now asking the Attorney General to investigate.

Privacy Violation -- Co-workers using your private records to bully you.

There are many, many more cases at Veterans Affairs. Those that have gone public have two things in common: they have all spoken out about VAC policy and they are all veterans. Some can prove the Minister was given their information. Some can only prove that Ministerial staff was reading their files. Some allege their benefits were affected after they spoke out; some claim their medical histories were used to discredit them. Some can show they were personally attacked; some can prove their families were also targeted.

Privacy Violation - The use of private information to intimidate or threaten individuals.

When Bruyea came forward, the Privacy Commissioner investigated...sort of. Ms Stoddart was only able to report on the facts of the violations and not on the reasons behind them. Had senior bureaucrats breeched his privacy? Yes. Why? She couldn't tell us. What was the information used for? She couldn't tell us. What action should be taken against the offenders? It wasn't her decision to make.

The same would be true for Harold Leduc.

Amid much fanfare and hyperbole, then-Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn announced that the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman would get to the bottom of things, that heads would roll, that charges would be laid if warranted.

A few months later, the new Minister, Steven Blaney, quietly ordered the inquiry halted. And a few months after that, some of the people implicated received big, fat, performance bonuses. Heads rolled, alright. They rolled all the way to the bank, still attached to their bodies.

Privacy Violation - A great way to advance your career.

Should we be concerned? You bet. Look at the victims. These are people who swore to defend Canada. We trusted them with our country and our lives. They were trained to dedication and determination. They were awarded medals for their service to us -- they have honours. And honour. And irreproachable reputations to carry them past these attacks.

We don't know what happened at Veterans Affairs. We also don't know if this is just Veterans Affairs. If a government department was willing to attack decorated veterans for expressing their opinion, then what chance would you or I have?

Privacy Violation -- A weapon used by government to stifle dissent.