OTTAWA—For the past few months the media have been making revelation after revelation about the management of the Department of Veterans Affairs. The first issue to hit the headlines dealt with the misrepresentation of the New Veterans Charter. It was claimed that this program was an improvement for wounded veterans, even when independent analysis showed that it was much worse.
The second issue was the treatment of Sean Bruyea, whose criticism of the New Veterans Charter made him a target of harassment and a nasty covert effort to destroy his credibility. His personal medical files were circulated to hundreds of people with no right to see them with the aim of depicting him as dishonest and unstable.
The fact that the story has been covered so long is a good measure of its resonance with Canadians. The acts were so concrete, personal and vindictive that we couldn’t help but be appalled.
Being a whistleblower, I can relate to Bruyea’s experience—as can all whistleblowers facing reprisal. Of special significance to me, though, was the revelation that he attempted suicide at a particularly low point in his struggle.
Admitting this took a lot of courage. There is a stigma to mental health problems in general and to suicide in particular. For the uninformed, suicide attempts can seem at best like a sign that the person is too unstable to be right about anything. At worst, they’re viewed as manipulative.
It’s hard to explain to most Canadians how hopeless things can seem, how years of abuse and isolation from any moral support can wear a person down—and how being treated as the villain by people who should know better, people who have the power to make life a daily hell, can push a whistleblower or dissenter beyond their limits
There comes a point at which even being conscious is painful, where ending it all seems the best way to end the misery and relieve families of a burden. Most people simply never have to face such circumstances.
If it seems like I have an intimate knowledge of this state of mind, it’s because I do. After years of fighting for some kind of redress in my case—and failing, because redress is currently impossible—I went down the same dark path as Bruyea. I’ve kept the secret until now, out of shame and to protect my children. I think, though, that the time has come to step forward. I hope others will do the same. Feeling suicidal, you see, is not an uncommon result for whistleblowers.
Bruyea’s case is important, and hopefully his coming forward will be a watershed moment. Canadians can now better understand how hard it really is to speak out, and how much dissenters and whistleblowers continue to suffer at the hands of our federal government.
Two other events in the past week reinforce the point. Last Wednesday, I observed a panel discussion hosted by Public Sector Integrity Commissioner Christiane Ouimet. The panel included Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch, David Hutton of the Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform, and Allan Cutler of Canadians for Accountability. The panel was held for the benefit of senior government department officials responsible for receiving “disclosures of wrongdoing” (whistleblowing).
It was clear from what I saw and heard that many of these officials simply don’t understand what is wrong with the culture and processes they are working within. Some seem to genuinely believe that there is a level playing field and that whistleblowers need to be restrained to prevent whistleblowing becoming rampant and harming the work of government.
The second event was the release of the commissioner’s third annual report, which has the ominous heading “Balancing the duty of loyalty to the employer and the right to freedom of expression” on its cover. This is a frightening line to lead with because it suggests that reporting wrongdoing may breach the duty of loyalty—which is precisely what every whistleblower is accused of and precisely the opposite of what every whistleblower is trying to do. To make matters worse, nowhere in her report or on her website does she explain the concepts or the line between acceptable and unacceptable “freedom of expression.”
Much more damning, of course, is the fact that for the third year in a row, Ouimet apparently found no wrongdoing and protected no whistleblowers. This beggars belief and—based on Bruyea’s experience and a number of other cases we are aware of at Canadians for Accountability—makes it clear that she is not fulfilling her mandate. Her explicit mandate, that is—I have no doubt that she is doing excellently in the eyes of the government.
Canadians need to understand that the environment for whistleblowers and dissenters in the federal government is as bad—or worse—than it was five years ago. Those who do dare to speak out learn quickly that reprisal will be swift and unrestrained and that there is no recourse. Unions don’t recognize anything short of a firing as worth a grievance, the Public Service Labour Relations Board won’t hear cases pertaining to harassment, the commissioner is rejecting even clear-cut cases like Bruyea’s and public service employees have no right to sue abusive bosses.
Still have trouble believing that dissenters have a way out or that they might be protected? At the RCMP, senior executives complaining about alleged heavy-handed management by RCMP Commissioner William Elliott are all getting pushed out as he consolidates his power. Richard Colvin was pilloried in Parliament. Luc Pomerleau, an inspector and scientist at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, was fired when he notified his union of the risks in reducing the number of food inspectors—just before the 2008 listeriosis outbreak that killed 22 Canadians. Scientists Shiv Chopra, Margaret Haydon and Gerard Lambert of Health Canada are still fighting to get their jobs back six years after opposing the use of the bovine growth hormone in Canada.
And, as if admitting that something went wrong might set a dangerous precedent, the government fights every lawsuit, appeal and grievance tooth and nail. It doesn’t matter what the moral issue is or how improperly officials acted. And, of course, this costs the taxpayer millions (not to mention lost productivity by not addressing the root problems).
We must do something about this appalling state of affairs. Because, as things stand, even the publicity of Bruyea’s case won’t change anything. Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart, who found wrongdoing in his case, has no power to punish. Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn refuses even to apologize.
Indeed, the outcome in every case of federal government whistleblowing and dissent—from Bernard Payeur in the 1980s to the present day—makes it clear that the payoff for a bureaucrat or politician making a reprisal, even if they might be found to be breaking the law, is higher than the costs.
Consider Chuck Guité. While he spent two years in prison for his role in the Liberals’ sponsorship scandal, he still received his full generous pension for his years in the civil service based on his rapid promotion without competition at the EX level. Nobody who helped him was penalized in any way. Many were promoted.
Faced with such an obviously dangerous environment, only the most idealistic (and perhaps naïve) public servants ever come forward to report wrongdoing or mismanagement.
This cost-benefit equation must be changed, and in a very public way. Culpable bureaucrats at Veteran Affairs, Treasury Board and elsewhere, should be fired, removed or suspended, depending on their roles in Bruyea’s case right up to the deputy minister level. Ouimet should be replaced. Perhaps they could make her a “special adviser” somewhere.
As for politicians, Blackburn should resign, as the principle of ministerial accountability demands.
These are only the most immediate steps needed. There are also changes in attitude and culture that must be fostered through changes in law, policy and management. If the process isn’t begun now, then senior bureaucrats will continue to see cover-up and reprisal as the best option for their careers instead of working for the benefits of all Canadians.
Ian Bron is secretary of Canadians for Accountability based in Ottawa and a whistleblower.
The Hill Times