OTTAWA — Prime Minister Stephen Harper acknowledged an outspoken veterans critic was likely the target of character assassination after private medical information about him was widely circulated within the federal bureaucracy.
But the prime minister blamed the privacy breach on the previous Liberal government.
Documents obtained under the Privacy Act by veterans’ advocate Sean Bruyea suggest he was the subject of a smear campaign after a falling out with bureaucrats as they pushed through a major overhaul of veterans benefits in 2005-06.
Harper called the actions “completely unacceptable” but turned aside calls for further investigation, saying the government will co-operate with an existing probe by the federal privacy watchdog.
“The privacy commissioner will receive nothing but the full co-operation of this government to ensure these kinds of things do not happen again,” Harper told the House of Commons on Wednesday.
The New Veterans Charter was an initiative that straddled the transition between Paul Martin’s Liberal government in 2005-2006 and Harper’s Conservatives, who assumed power in late January 2006.
A briefing note prepared for former veterans affairs minister Greg Thompson in March 2006 was laced with private medical and financial information about Bruyea, including a quote from a psychiatrist’s letter.
Privacy experts called it a flagrant breach of the country’s privacy laws and an attempt to destroy the former military intelligence officer’s credibility.
The note was prepared for Thompson in advance of a meeting he had with Bruyea on March 28, 2006.
Bruyea, who provided the documents to The Canadian Press and gave permission to cite them, requested information about himself from Veterans Affairs as part of a battle with the department over his treatment.
The largely uncensored records, more than 14,000 in total, included information not only about his request for more services but comments about his advocacy work on behalf of other injured vets.
The documents suggest his private data was shared among hundreds of federal bureaucrats, including policy-makers who were drafting the new charter in 2005.
The briefing note, in various updated forms, circulated through the department for at least six months following the March 2006 meeting, where Bruyea urged Thompson to delay the implementation of the Veterans Charter.
Bruyea filed complaints with Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddard and the Public Service Integrity Commissioner, a watchdog over the bureaucracy. The integrity commissioner found “no wrongdoing,” but Bruyea claims the agency never looked at Bruyea’s documents — or interviewed him.
Opposition parties called on Harper to launch an independent investigation.
“What action will the government take to punish those responsible?” NDP Leader Jack Layton said Wednesday.
He demanded to know how such a breach could have happened and whether other veterans who’ve criticized the government have reason to fear their files are being passed around.
“We know this is a government that doesn’t like those who complain about its behaviour,” Layton said. “They get demoted, they get fired.
“We’ve seen this before. But to have such a thing happen to someone who has served our country is totally unacceptable.”
Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn said his department takes privacy seriously, but did not commit to taking any further action beyond what may be recommended by the privacy commissioner. Thompson has since left politics.
Ralph Goodale, the deputy Liberal leader, accused the Conservatives, accused of trying to silence a critic.
“There is apparently no tactic to which they will not stoop to try to advance their political position,” Goodale said.
“It’s a dangerous thing for the privacy and integrity of Canadians.”
A spokeswoman for Stoddard would not comment Wednesday about the office’s investigation into Bruyea’s file, nor say when the probe will be completed.
Groups representing former soldiers reacted with outrage Wednesday and called for a full public inquiry into their treatment.
The controversy follows complaints last summer from outgoing veterans ombudsman Pat Stogran, who said bureaucrats obstructed his efforts and were more intent on saving money rather than helping those who’d served the country.