Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office was informed four years ago about “security breaches” of confidential information as well as harassment directed toward an Ottawa man critical of Veterans Affairs, government documents suggest.
But after looking into the matter, the PMO referred retired Capt. Sean Bruyea back to Veterans Affairs, the same department that the Gulf War veteran alleged was misusing his personal information and harassing his family.
Just weeks ago, Bruyea’s case hit the headlines, with Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart ruling that Veterans Affairs broke the law when it came to handling the retired officer’s personal information. She has since launched a wider investigation into how the department handles the files of former soldiers.
Harper has vowed he will take “strong sanctions” against future abuse of veterans’ personal files and says his government has “no tolerance” for what happened to Bruyea.
But Bruyea has questioned the sincerity of Harper’s response, pointing out that he went to the Prime Minister’s Office four years ago with his concerns about harassment and Veterans Affairs misuse of his personal information.
“Everyone is pretending now they’re shocked about this, but I informed the PMO this was going on,” Bruyea said.
It has since emerged that Veterans Affairs Canada, or VAC, had become fixated on Bruyea, an intelligence officer, who suffered from post traumatic stress disorder. Department employees circulated details of Bruyea’s psychiatric reports and other health issues to political staff members and former Conservative veterans affairs minister Greg Thompson as well as to Liberal veterans affairs minister Albina Guarnieri.
Bruyea has produced 2006 government documents obtained through the Access to Information law to back up his claim.
The documents include e-mails from the PMO and notes from a meeting between Danielle Shaw, a policy advisor with Harper’s office, and Veterans Affairs Canada representatives.
One e-mail from Shaw asks a member of then veterans affairs minister Greg Thompson’s staff for a response to “Sean’s allegation of a ‘security breach’.”
Bruyea said that is in reference to his complaint about the misuse of his personal information by VAC.
Bruyea also notes an Aug. 29, 2006, e-mail in which Shaw wrote to Thompson’s office, pointing out that Bruyea had originally been in contact with the PMO over proposed legislation about veteran’s benefits. “But in more recent weeks, he has shifted his focus to alleged harassment by VAC officials,” she wrote.
“Mr. Bruyea has written to your Minister on numerous occasions, and he has also recently written to the Prime Minister, Mark Cameron and me, pleading for an end to the alleged harassment.”
Shaw noted that the matter should be looked into to determine whether Bruyea’s claims had any validity.
On Sept. 25, 2006, Bruyea wrote Shaw to complain about his treatment by VAC officials and what he once again alleged was ongoing harassment and misuse of his information.
“Danielle, I think the handling of this situation through multiple breaches of confidentiality, refusal of the Minister’s staff to return my telephone calls, e-mails and refusal to have follow-up meetings as promised by the Minister is a consequence of the political side possibly swallowing what the bureaucrats have said about me hook, line and sinker,” he wrote.
Government records have show by that time, VAC viewed Bruyea as a major thorn in its side because he was advocating for improved benefits for veterans, holding press conferences, and making presentations to parliamentary committees. In March 2006, a senior VAC bureaucrat wrote to others in the department that it was time “to take the gloves off” in dealing with Bruyea.
On Sept. 26, 2006, Shaw wrote Bruyea to inform him that neither the PMO or veterans affairs minister’s office could get involved in the handling of his personal file in order to deal with his benefit entitlements. She referred Bruyea to a department official. The e-mail did not address Bruyea’s concerns about the mishandling of his private information.
Bruyea said he was also surprised to see the notes produced by VAC officials after their meeting with Shaw in September 2006 to discuss his situation.
The government documents characterize veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder as individuals who have had “bad experiences with the military,” distrust government and who believe in conspiracies.
“When we say no, there is a ‘conspiracy’ against them,” a VAC official wrote.
Bruyea said the records sum up how some in the department view those soldiers with PTSD. “They see it as a joke, as just a bunch of conspiracy theorists,” he said.
An official with the PMO noted Shaw is no longer with that office, but that she was involved in trying to help Bruyea by directing him to a single point of contact at VAC.
The PMO official reiterated that the prime minister is very concerned about how Bruyea’s files were handled. He pointed out that the full extent of the misuse of Bruyea’s personal information was not known at the time he approached the PMO.
The PMO official also noted that Bruyea’s personal information wasn’t shared with the PMO and that any information that was discussed in the September 2006 meeting had been provided by Bruyea himself. It was also pointed out that Shaw did not make any negative comments about veterans and was trying to address Bruyea’s concerns.
Bruyea’s confidential financial and medical files, held in Veterans Affairs computers, were looked at more than 4,000 times by 850 individuals over a nine-year-period. Most of those occurred in the last four years when he was most active in advocating veterans rights.
The department also produced some 28,000 pages of records on Bruyea, monitoring his media appearances and his advocacy activities before Parliament, in which he called for a better deal for the country’s retired and injured military personnel. Bruyea has obtained 14,000 pages of those records, but another 14,000 are still being withheld by the department.