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Apathy undermines veteran support

In a few weeks, the great Remembrance Day charade will start. The most public among us - politicians, news anchors and tartan-sporting hockey commentators - will trip over themselves to be the first to wear poppies on their lapels.

In a few weeks, the great Remembrance Day charade will start.

The most public among us - politicians, news anchors and tartan-sporting hockey commentators - will trip over themselves to be the first to wear poppies on their lapels.

The red flowers will then sprout on the chests of everyone else - local mayors, store clerks and gas station attendants.

Finally, our national java provider, Tim Hortons, will air a sentimental commercial during a hockey game featuring a wrinkled old man in a dark uniform and a young boy, and we’ll know, deep down in our hearts, that we love our veterans.

Except, of course, those who Veterans Affairs officials designate whiners.

Take, for example, the case of Sean Bruyea, an intelligence officer with the Air Force for 14 years. He’s one of those soldiers who drew the ire of Veterans Affairs.

In 2005, the Paul Martin government unveiled the New Veterans’ Charter, a policy drawn up by bureaucrats. Bruyea was a vocal critic.

The charter would replace lifetime pensions for veterans with a lump-sum settlement and qualified monthly stipends. Bruyea felt it was unfair to soldiers who often deal with severe medical problems or difficult social lives after serving.

The next year, the military-loving Conservatives enacted the charter immediately after coming to power.

Bruyea kept criticizing the initiative, holding news conferences and speaking to reporters.

But the bureaucrats in Veterans Affairs weren’t going to take it lying down.

From their swanky new $53.8-million headquarters in downtown Charlottetown, which was built in 2008, the bureaucrats drafted a battle plan.

Public servants dug into Bruyea’s medical information stored on government computers. They discovered he suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome and had suicidal thoughts.

This invasion is deeply troubling.

Department officials did not just access the file once. The documents were accessed 614 times, according to a 14,000-page access to information request made by Bruyea and shared with The Canadian Press last week.

Then they shared the information with 243 other people in government. The personal information was sent to political staffers in Liberal and Conservative governments, and shared in briefing notes with minister Greg Thomson (he has since left cabinet) and a staffer in the Prime Minister’s Office.

The same happened to outgoing Veterans’ Ombudsman Pat Stogran (an office Bruyea lobbied for before it was created in 2007), who, until hearing about Bruyea’s case, thought the breaches he heard about were just routine curiosity.

“I never imagined it would be anything insidious,” Stogran told The Canadian Press. “I’m wondering now what was going on.”

The systemic breach of the nation’s laws is now being investigated by the Privacy Commissioner, who in fact can’t mete out any punishments on the public servants who betrayed Bruyea’s confidence.

The response from the government and the opposition has been muted.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has called for a wait-and-see approach until the Privacy Commissioner finishes her investigation, and the Liberals aren’t making this a front-burner issue. Only the New Democrats have called for a Commons committee investigation.

But Bruyea’s Orwellian treatment deserves major action immediately. The actions of Veterans Affairs bullies government critics, breaches privacy law and treats veterans like scum.

The problem is even more pressing because Canada is currently at war. There’s a generation of brave soldiers fighting for this country who may suffer at the hands of the bureaucracy, which values the bottom line over their sacrifice.

Parliamentarians could give the Privacy Act some teeth. The minister could fire some people. Or Canadians can call for a public inquiry, which is what Bruyea asked for in an editorial last Saturday in the Ottawa Citizen.

The one thing society shouldn’t do is give this issue a pass. Apathy not only mocks sacrifices of the past, it makes the House of Commons debates of the last year - an expression of the democracy soldiers fight for - a joke.

We heard from the Conservative government that investigating torture allegations in Afghanistan is an insult to solders serving there. We’ve heard that the long-form census is an invasion of our privacy. We were told by the Opposition Liberals they cared about government critics being thrown under the bus by the Tories.

Yet, amid the hoopla of last week’s long-gun registry vote, Bruyea’s real problems barely got any notice.

Bureaucrats don’t run the government. Citizens do. If we don’t hold up our end of the deal and reclaim policy from public servants, don’t be surprised if we run out of people willing to enlist.

They’re doing it for more than just the poppies we pin on our lapels.