Whistleblowers in our federal public service have become caught in a bureaucratic and political propaganda meat grinder.
OTTAWA—Canada’s public service integrity commissioner, the clerk of the Privy Council, the president of Treasury Board and Democratic Reform Minister of State Pierre Poilievre all need some serious schooling from the University of Saskatchewan’s recent uproar over the unjust firing of a whistleblowing professor. Maybe then public servant whistleblowers who truly care about the public will be protected and not persecuted by an insular and out-of-touch senior bureaucracy.
Robert Buckingham, a tenured professor, was fired May 14, 2014 from the University of Saskatchewan. His crime: speaking out against a money-saving plan to restructure and reduce faculties and staff. Buckingham reported the usual litany of whistleblower reprisals, including attacks to his credibility, management isolating him, intimidation and even an escort off campus after his dismissal.
What was unusual for Canada was the reaction. Students held mass demonstrations, politicians waded in, and academics worldwide pressured both the university and the provincial government to defend a whistleblower. Buckingham had his tenure restored the next day. The following week, the university provost, author of the letter firing Buckingham, resigned. The university president was fired from her post but offered another position and a hefty severance.
“It is so rare to have this kind of happy ending for a whistleblower in Canada,” David Hutton of FAIR Whistleblower told me on the telephone, “where the whistleblower comes out relatively unharmed, the wrongdoing is stopped and the sanctions against wrongdoers are strong enough to be a deterrent. This almost never occurs.”
Although sanctions were minimal, resolution was extremely quick, minimizing harm to Buckingham.
Now to reality in Ottawa. Whistleblowers in our federal public service have become caught in a bureaucratic and political propaganda meat grinder. The government claims it cares about whistleblowers but does everything possible to make their lives a protracted living hell.
The Public Service Integrity Commissioner’s Office and its accompanying tribunal were created in 2007 purportedly to defend whistleblowers. Since that time, the two commissioners, Christiane Ouimet and Mario Dion both lifelong bureaucrats, have been harshly criticized by the auditor general. It is difficult to find a whistleblower who has emerged without suffering serious harm. No wrongdoer or perpetrator of reprisals against a whistleblower has been meaningfully punished.
In fact, Ouimet was the first case of wrongdoing reported under the law, which she was appointed to administer. After not finding a single case of wrongdoing during her three-year stint, Ouimet was rewarded with a half-million dollar package, pension, and a gag order.
In seven years, the office has tabled just eight cases of wrongdoing before Parliament and referred a mere six cases of reprisal to the tribunal. Only the tribunal can punish the aggressor or order remedies for the whistleblower who has suffered reprisals. Investigations into reprisals by the Integrity Commissioner’s Office have taken a year or more. We have no idea how long the tribunal will take as it has never ruled on a case. One case ended in what Dion calls a “successful conciliation” in 2012-13. In his last annual report, Dion indicated he is “very proud of our achievements.”
Pierre Poilievre championed this legislation and the Commissioner’s Office, promising “ironclad protections” for “all whistleblowers regardless of the approach they take to expose the corruption,” including to the media.
This is clearly not happening. Sylvie Therien worked as an Employment Insurance (EI) fraud investigator when she reported that each investigator was tasked to identify targets of $485,000 in fraud per year. After her supervisors dismissed her concerns, Therien went to the media.
Her reward: she was fired with cause, therefore making her ineligible to receive EI. The government’s vicious streak did not stop there. Assistant Deputy Minister James Gilbert wrote on the Departmental website, “If Ms. Therrien or any other government employee feels compelled to disclose serious wrongdoing in the workplace, they have the ability to do so under the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act, which gives federal public sector and other employees a safe and confidential disclosure process and protects them from retaliation. She instead went directly to the media.”
How much clearer can government be in admitting they sought reprisals against Therrien? Didn’t Poilievre promise to protect whistleblowers “regardless of the approach they take”? Whether or not Therrien knew of the Integrity Commissioner’s Office, one clearly understands that her chances of success there are about as good as winning a national lottery.
The problem here is simple: bureaucrats idolize self-serving policies, whether or not these policies serve the public. Without such smug certainty, compassion would otherwise abound in government. Tragically, compassion bleeds away in a rigidly-insensitive technocracy.
Just prior to being appointed integrity commissioner in December 2010, Mario Dion wrote a report on Correctional Service Canada’s treatment of Ashley Smith. He found that CSC did nothing wrong in injecting drugs into the incarcerated teenager while she was forcibly restrained despite her “unequivocal refusal.” In an interview last year, Dion defended his findings on Smith: “She was already dead when I did the review so it would not have changed the outcome.”
Dion’s director of communications, Edith Lachapelle, indicated in a telephone interview with me that she was unaware of Buckingham’s case, in spite of international headlines. When asked if Dion feels responsible to expedite decisions that might protect a whistleblower from reprisals, Lachapelle responded that Dion feels “responsible for the act.”
Curiously, Dion does not appear to push Treasury Board to review an “act” which has been resoundingly condemned, a review that was legally mandated to begin two years ago.
Sadly, Buckingham’s happy ending is a fairy tale in Canada. Why would we expect Canada’s senior bureaucracy to protect whistleblowers and punish wrongdoers?
Privy Council bureaucrats effectively choose fellow bureaucrats to oversee their buddies. The Integrity Commissioner’s staff consists largely of bureaucrats who transfer in and out of the bureaucracy they are supposed to be policing. Under Treasury Board guidance, departments write up codes of conduct, which criminalize whistleblowing. Treasury Board is then given responsibility to review the shoddy law that the Treasury Board wrote.
Meanwhile, politicians selfishly think of the next election, encouraging an increasingly authoritarian, byzantine and nasty senior bureaucratic sandbox.
The public service is ‘hived off’ from government as shown by the recent report tabled by Ottawa’s top mandarin, Wayne Wouters. His senior bureaucrats live in a world increasingly distant from the reality, input and wishes of the rest of Canada not to mention their own frontline public servants. The resolution at the University of Saskatchewan has much to teach Ottawa. We can only hope our senior mandarins are schooled before the remaining integrity is bullied and squeezed out of a once more proud and more innovative federal public service.
Sean Bruyea, vice-president of Canadians for Accountability, is a retired Air Force intelligence officer and a frequent commentator on government, military, and veterans’ issues.
The Hill Times