Allegations that hundreds of confidential medical records had been found in Fort Simpson's dump would be "devastating for client trust" if true, an expert working in the community told Cabin Radio.
A resident shared files recovered at the dump with CBC News, which could not verify the documents' authenticity but said they appeared to contain detailed information about patients' mental health and drug use.
The NWT's health authority was understood to be working to access the documents and verify their contents.
"We understand the importance of protecting personal health information in our custody and as health information custodians," the health authority said in a statement.
"Our first priority is to recover these records. Once the records have been recovered, we will assess who has been impacted."
Shane Thompson, the MLA who represents Fort Simpson, said he had been approached by the same resident with the files several weeks ago – but the resident refused to hand over the documents.
Raymond Pidzamecky is a social worker and mental health consultant who has spent the past 18 months working with Fort Simpson residents.
"[The privacy breach] raises a level of concern for everybody in varying degrees, whether you live in Fort Simpson or not," said Pidzamecky.
"Imagine how vulnerable people are feeling right now, not knowing if their name is in those files. And then vulnerable in the sense that, 'Can we trust that this won't happen again?'"
Pidzamecky said even before the exact nature of the documents could be determined, reports of the apparent breach would be "devastating for client trust."
Sean Whelly, the newly elected mayor of Fort Simpson, said: "It is kind-of disconcerting to see that those sensitive documents ended up at the dump, however they got there. I would like to see them back in the hands of Health and Social Services as soon as possible."
The documents were reported to date mostly from the late 1990s, though some were said to be dated as late as 2010. Cabin Radio has not had access to their contents.
'Are there others?'
How the documents came to be discarded at the dump before being retrieved by a resident is unclear.
"I think right now it's better not to blame anybody," said Whelly. "Let's just get the documents back, because it's going to be something that's going to trouble people. They'll be wondering if their documents are out there or not.
"The health department has to determine whether these are the only boxes and the only breach of privacy that has happened. One box appears at the dump, are there any others that were there?"
Pidzamecky said: "We don't know whose files those are yet, and that's important. So we have to be careful not to finger-point.
"We don't know who had the files last. Sometimes organizations hire disposal companies so again, we're not sure who those files belong to – but if, in fact, those are citizens' names it's a pretty serious breach of confidentiality and trust.
"This might complicate things and exacerbate some of those fears and apprehensions [to access services]."
Files 'not verified'
The health authority said it was investigating "where these records came from and how they came to be in the possession of an individual."
The authority added it would also examine "root causes, accountability, [and] any processes or procedures that need improvement."
Sarah Day, the local manager of mental health and addictions, can be contacted by Fort Simpson residents who have questions about their records – though the health authority stressed it has not yet seen the documents, and will have very little information to share until it does.
Thompson, the MLA for Nahendeh, said the resident – named as Randal Sibbeston by the CBC – had contacted him with the files in November, but had refused to let Thompson inspect them.
"I couldn't verify that they were real files," Thompson told Cabin Radio. Asked if he had alerted the health authority at the time, Thompson said he had told Sibbeston to take the files to the health authority's regional management, but added the evidence suggests Sibbeston did not comply.
The health authority's wording of its statements on Friday suggested it had yet to receive Sibbeston's cooperation in sharing the files.
"Even if they’re not GNWT records, it’s very disappointing that these records are out there and not properly stored," said Thompson.
"It’s very sad that we see these at the dump, and I apologize to the residents of Nahendeh for that."
Thompson, who moved a motion calling for the removal of Glen Abernethy as health minister in October, said he "gave credit" to the Department of Health and Social Services for quickly following its protocol once it had been contacted by the CBC.
Sibbeston could not be immediately reached for comment on Friday afternoon.
Securing the dump
Pidzamecky called for Fort Simpson's dump to be quarantined in the meantime, and a public meeting be set up.
"With regard to securing the dump, there is still work that is going on," said Ben Coffie, the village's finance manager and acting senior administrative officer.
Coffie said the town was already working to put a fence around the dump and, afterward, will look at putting a policy in place to govern how people access the dump.
As to what measures the town is taking to secure the landfill immediately?
"I can't comment on that because we haven't had any official complaints and we haven't had any decision on it yet," he said.
As of Friday morning, neither the mayor nor the acting senior administrative officer of Fort Simpson had been contacted by the health authority.