Throughout the past year, we continued to be tested in our ability to develop and persevere in the face of change and uncertainty, inflicted by a brutal and unrelenting pandemic.
Our 2021 annual report, due out next spring, will lay out all the facts and figures of the year — numbers of cases, categories, and ultimate outcomes — but numbers alone won’t capture the full picture. At their core, many of the complaints and appeals we receive are essentially human stories — stories about people looking for truth, trying to resolve conflict, wanting accountability or just seeking closure. Privacy and access to information are often just a first step on people’s quest for justice.
As I reflect back on what has been a challenging year, I am truly inspired by the strength and courage of individuals who come forward to exercise their rights, even in the most difficult and heartbreaking circumstances. As a tribute to them, I have decided to dedicate my end-of-year blog to a few of their remarkable stories.
Dealing with death of a loved one is a traumatic experience, particularly when grieving family members lack the information they need to process their emotions and get a sense of closure. One case involved a sibling seeking access to video footage of his brother’s final moments while carrying out an outdoor recreational activity. At first, the parks commission denied access to the video on grounds that it contained personal information of the deceased brother. Our mediators worked with park officials to persuade them to invoke the compassionate grounds exception, which they ultimately did. The family was able to see the video accompanied by the chief of police, who spent two hours with them to answer their questions and help them better understand what happened.
In another case, an individual sought access to video footage capturing moments before and after her brother was shot and killed by a police officer. The death was investigated by the special investigations unit but no charges were laid against the officer. The ministry denied access to the video claiming the personal information exemption and concerns that releasing it would cause undue stress to the family. The case proceeded to the adjudication stage at the IPC, and our adjudicator ultimately ordered release of the video on compassionate grounds. She found that, in this case, the family was best placed to determine for themselves what was in their best interests and that these outweighed the privacy interests of the deceased brother and the police officer captured on video.
Other impactful stories this year arose in the health care setting. One example involved a patient requesting access to video footage showing him crawling out of a hospital, unable to walk on his own, after being discharged from the emergency room. The hospital refused to provide access to the video, claiming that even if they could technically blur the faces of other people who were captured on the video, there was no guarantee the patient wouldn’t try to reverse engineer the images and further share them with others. Ultimately, the IPC adjudicator rejected these concerns and ordered the hospital to release the video to the patient with the faces of the other individuals obscured.
More troubling facts about the incident came to light in a follow-up news story. The patient reported that after he told hospital staff he was taking medication for bipolar disorder, his leg pain was not taken seriously and he was discharged without proper treatment. In fact, he was later diagnosed at another health care institution with a serious physical condition that required months of rehabilitation. Through his bravery and persistence, the patient was able to hold the hospital to account for its treatment of his mental health condition, prompting a public apology and remedial actions by the hospital.
Accountability is often at the core of peoples’ health privacy complaints to our office. In one case, a patient complained to a hospital believing that someone was snooping in her records. A series of audits at the hospital revealed that a registered nurse had inappropriately accessed 876 patient records. At first, the hospital refused to tell the patient the name of the nurse and what, if any, disciplinary measures were imposed. With urging from IPC staff, the hospital eventually released these details, restoring the patient’s confidence in the health system knowing that steps had been taken to remedy the situation. In fact, this case was so egregious that the nurse was eventually prosecuted, and convicted, under the Personal Health Information Protection Act (PHIPA).
These and so many other inspiring stories remind us every day of the “why” of our work. While I am proud of our efforts to resolve the complaints and appeals that come to us, I am mindful of the need to do so more quickly and efficiently. My new year’s resolution for 2022 is to work towards modernizing our processes so we can respond to Ontarians’ needs in a more timely way. Together with our new Assistant Commissioner of Tribunal and Dispute Resolution Services, Warren Mar, and our highly dedicated tribunal staff, I am confident that we will make great strides in this direction in the new year.
Until then, I wish you all a happy, healthy and peaceful holiday season with your loved ones, and may 2022 bring us all better and brighter days ahead.
This post is also available in: French