Letter from Canada: a progress report

David Hutton of the Centre for Free Expression’s Whistleblowing Initiative (CFEWI) offers an expert insight into the current state of affairs of whistleblowing in Canada. The good news? Civil society is taking action. The bad news? The Canadian government has failed to reform a broken system leaving the country and its people vulnerable to unnecessary damage and harm by failing to protect those who speak up about wrongdoing.

This time last year Canadian whistleblowing advocates were celebrating a breakthrough: the long-delayed review of our deeply-flawed federal whistleblowing system had just been completed by a Parliamentary committee, whose unanimous report recommended sweeping reforms. This event was indeed worth celebrating, since there had been no progress in 11 years. For more than a decade the doors of Parliament were closed to us: we were not even permitted to testify when successive Integrity Commissioners submitted their annual reports to committee. Suddenly these doors opened briefly and we were able to explain to parliamentarians the dire plight of whistleblowers under this system, and arrange for colleagues from the UK, Ireland and the USA to provide their perspectives. We were thrilled with the committee’s report.

Predictably, the government gave the committee’s report the brush-off – none of the recommendations have been adopted. So we still have a non-functioning whistleblowing system for our federal public servants. On the bright side, the committee’s report – is an invaluable body of evidence that demonstrates the problem as well as offering workable solutions. From the experience of other countries, we understand that it often takes public outrage at a disaster – or several of them – to force those in power to protect whistleblowers. And we have such a disaster in Canada, unfolding like a slow-motion train wreck over the past two years. Following the launch of a new payroll system called Phoenix, the government cannot reliably pay its 290,000 unionized employees.

About half of all payments are in error, and the backlog of pay requests surpassed 630,000 at one point. About 20% of employees affected by errors say they have suffered serious hardship, such as exhausting their life savings or risking losing their homes. Our Auditor General’s most recent report calls this an ‘incomprehensible failure’ of project management and governance – and makes it clear that this was a manufactured disaster, caused by executives slashing function from the system in order to meet a completely unrealistic budget and schedule. The problems are so pervasive and deep-rooted that the new system will have to be replaced completely, which will take years, and in the meantime we are stuck with this costly, dysfunctional mess. The total cost to the taxpayer could be 3.6 billion dollars.

We believe that this tragedy could have been avoided completely if our whistleblowing system had worked as intended, so we have launched our own investigation into Phoenix, with the aim of finding out what happened to those who tried to raise the alarm. We are asking such individuals to approach us and we have set up secure methods for them to contact us safely. We hope to produce a report later this year.

Meanwhile, from the start we have been preparing for the long term. In March 2017 a small group of whistleblowing advocates got together at Ryerson University, under the auspices of the Centre for Free Expression (CFE), to develop a vision and a plan for what we are calling the CFE Whistleblowing Initiative (CFEWI). We are setting out to do many of the things that advocacy groups have done in other countries – and which the charity FAIR previously attempted – but from a much stronger base than before. CFE is part of a respected university (Ryerson), while the whistleblowing initiative brings together a very capable and experienced team with a range of valuable skills: WIN members will surely recognize some of the participants.

Besides the Phoenix investigation, we are working towards establishing a whistleblowing assistance program, and engaging in some of A.J. Brown’s international research. CFEWI is also a committed supporter of WIN and our efforts have benefited greatly from the support of certain WIN members, to whom we are very grateful.

Finally, a recent media breakthrough. With our assistance, our national public broadcaster, CBC, provided some excellent coverage of whistleblowing at the beginning of this month. This included a piece on our national TV news, an in-depth special on CBC Radio One, and two substantive articles on their website. CBC tells us that this story was their most popular that day. As James L. Turk, Director of CFE observed “…this is perhaps the most intelligent, in-depth and sympathetic coverage of whistleblowing by Canadian media that we have seen in the past decade”. Links to all of this material on are available here.

Given what we’ve achieved thus far and our ambitious plans, we have high hopes for the future. Perhaps soon we will be able to report progress that’s not just morale-boosting for us, but which makes a real difference to the lives of Canadians who put themselves at risk to protect the public interest.

David Hutton is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Free Expression, Ryerson.

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