Government officials tried to discredit Bruyea and his critique of government veterans policies by circulating his private medical information without his permission and then suggesting that his opinions were unreasonable because he was “clearly unwell.”
Sean Bruyea graduated from the Royal Military College in 1986 and served as an Intelligence Officer in the Canadian Air Force. In December 1990, he was deployed to Qatar during the first Gulf War. There, he was diagnosed with combat stress reaction, the short-term version of “post trauma stress disorder (PTSD).” Upon return to Canada in 1991, Bruyea’s medical condition worsened and in 1996 he was medically released from the Canadian Forces.
At his release, the Canadian Forces did little to inform Bruyea about his right to the military’s long-term disability insurance program and possible compensation. Upon learning about these rights Bruyea spent two-and-a-half years, and $30,000 in medical bills, to win a modest monthly pension from Veteran Affairs Canada (VAC). Along the way, Bruyea had become aware of, and frustrated by, the way the federal bureaucracy treats veterans. In 1999, he began to advocate for the rights of disabled veterans, soldiers and their families.
In 2005, when the then Liberal government introduced a new Veterans Charter, Bruyea was one of the few voices of dissent. The Charter replaced a monthly tax-free pension with a one-time lump-sum payment of no more than $250,000 for injured soldiers. “Disabled soldiers, under the current system, will receive anywhere from 80 to 150 per cent more than they will after April 1,” Bruyea noted. He described the move as a “callous, bureaucratic move to save money on the backs of disabled veterans.”
Bruyea’s opposition to the Charter – and his support for a veterans’ ombudsman - initiated a campaign to discredit him within the government. But he would only learn about this five years later when he obtained more than 14,000 pages of government memos, minutes and communications about himself through the Privacy Act.
As a veteran receiving a medical pension and disability-related services from the Department of Veterans Affairs, Bruyea had authorized the disclosure of his personal medical information to the service delivery branch of the department—but only to them.
Beginning in May, 2005, under the previous Liberal government, VAC officials who were in charge of delivering services to Sean Bruyea began providing personal information about his medical condition and the financial services to which he was entitled, to members of the department who dealt with policy issues such as introducing and selling the new Charter. These policy officials had no role in service delivery to Mr. Bruyea and therefore had no right to information from his medical file.
These policy officials in turn prepared and circulated a series of briefing notes for other members of the department, including the Minister, and for the Prime Minister’s Office. They were prepared each time Bruyea conducted his advocacy work through press conferences, media interviews and meetings with Ministers. Many of these briefing notes were prepared for the Liberal government in 2005, and they continued into 2006 after the Stephen Harper minority government came into office. Bruyea calculates his personal medical information has been seen by at least 857 officials. And the content of the briefing notes, Bruyea contended in his 2010 testimony to Parliament, was designed to discredit him and his opinions:
“The notes … included the most intimate details of my pharmacological drug use, my financial benefits, my bladder functions, my mental health state, and excerpts from psychiatric and other medical reports. The briefing notes concluded that the only reason that I advocated was because I was mentally unwell, in the sense that in their opinion one would have to be crazy to advocate for change.”
On March 21, 2006, a mid-level staffer in the Prime Minister Harper’s Office called Bruyea and urged him to call off a news conference slated for that day where he would publicly urge the Conservatives to hold off enacting the Veterans’ Charter. Bruyea found that call very unnerving – veterans on disability are financially dependent on VAC and he said it was very scary to be challenging the department.
The internal government documents Bruyea obtained also detailed a September, 2006, meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office, involving senior political aides, where there was a discussion about him and the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. Again, Bruyea alleges that aides to the Prime Minister deliberately exaggerated his post-traumatic stress condition in an attempt to discredit his public criticism of the Veterans Charter. There was also pressure from VAC officials to have Bruyea commit himself to a mental hospital. “Manipulation of psychiatric files has been typically associated with Stalinist regimes,” Bruyea lamented.
Retired colonel Michel Drapeau, a lawyer, expressed shock on viewing the documents. Drapeau said it was the worst breach of privacy he had ever seen, calling it “totally, totally illegal” under the federal Privacy Act.
Upon discovering the massive paper trail of his personal information, Sean Bruyea filed a complaint to Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart. Her year-long investigation resulted in a blunt condemnation of wrong-doing.
"What we found in this case was alarming … The veteran's sensitive medical and personal information was shared -- seemingly with no controls -- among departmental officials who had no legitimate need to see it. This personal information subsequently made its way into a ministerial briefing note about the veteran's advocacy activities. This was entirely inappropriate."
Bruyea’s case is also notable for the involvement, or lack thereof, of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner. The Commissioner, Christiane Ouimet, was the key person who was supposed to protect federal whistleblowers. But Auditor General Sheila Fraser found that in three-and-a-half years Ouimet’s office investigated a mere five complaints out of 228 filed to her office. Among those complaints was that of Sean Bruyea. Ms. Ouimet ruled that no wrongdoing had occurred in his case – without interviewing him, seeing his documentation or conducting any investigation; she ruled that there was no evidence of wrongdoing and besides, it was ‘not in the public interest’ for her to investigate. Fraser found instead that Ouimet wasn’t doing her job:
“…the Commissioner’s behaviour and actions do not pass the test of public scrutiny and are inappropriate and unacceptable for a public servant—most notably for the Agent of Parliament specifically charged with the responsibility of upholding integrity in the public sector and of protecting public servants from reprisal.”
Bruyea launched a legal action in September, 2010, against the government of Canada and individual officials of VAC. The government settled with Bruyea in November of the same year, and also issued an apology—a rarity, considering Bruyea was one of a mere two individuals who were issued government apologies in 20 years of political wrongdoing.
In late February 2011, the government claimed that its investigations had found 54 Veterans Affairs bureaucrats had improperly snooped through Sean Bruyea's personal files. "These employees have been disciplined and department officials consider this matter has been successfully addressed and closed," a letter to Sean Bruyea stated. The most severe forms of discipline reportedly were written reprimands and three-day suspensions. Three of the senior bureaucrats named in Bruyea’s lawsuit have received promotions. Bruyea says he will continue his advocacy work on behalf of disabled vets.
- 1990-1991: Sean Bruyea contacts PTSD when assigned to the Gulf War.
- 1996: Bruyea medically released from the CF.
- 1999: Bruyea starts work as an advocate for disabled vets and their families.
- 2005: Bruyea criticizes the new Veterans Charter introduced by the Liberal government. VAC policy officials obtain private medical information on Bruyea for use in a series of briefing notes for officials and Ministers who have no right to that information.
- 2006: Briefing notes on Bruyea, containing personal medical information, continue to be prepared under the Harper Conservative government.
- 2007: Bruyea seeks internal documents about himself under the Privacy Act.
- 2010: (September) Bruyea reveals to the media the contents of internal government documents, evidence of a smear campaign. He launches a law suit against the government and specific officials. (October) The Privacy Commissioner finds an “alarming” contravention of the Privacy Act in the Bruyea case. (November) The government settles the legal claim with Bruyea.
Role or Position
Retired Captain (Air Force), decorated Gulf War intelligence officer, journalist and a prominent advocate on behalf of disabled veterans and their families.
Implications and Consequences
- Democracy: It is revealed that both Liberal and Conservative governments will countenance the unlawful use of privacy information to discredit the reputation of those who disagree with their policies.
- Democracy: Despite its many failings, the Privacy Act can, on occasion, function in the service of democracy.
- Free Speech: Whistleblowers still lack adequate legal protections and a strong voice in their corner.
- Transparency: The government meted out very light discipline on the wrongdoers in this case. "It doesn't even come close to making government wrongdoing accountable," says Bruyea.
- Democracy: Bruyea's case has encouraged others to come foward with similar stories. Former military nurse Louise Richard, who suffers from Gulf War syndrome, obtained an internal memo that revealed how her private medical information was shown to a deputy minister of Veterans Affairs. Veterans ombudsman Pat Stogran reported that his veterans file had been accessed more than 400 times he wondered if his post-traumatic stress diagnosis had been used to discredit him. Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn admitted he was aware of other veterans with concerns that their privacy had been violated