Monday, August 25, 2008

Transport Canada whistleblower speaks-out on Agriculture Canada case

On the weekend I wrote about the ongoing war being waged in whistleblowers by the Stephen Harper Conservatives and how this flies in the face of their election promises, and I highlighted the recent case at Agriculture Canada where whistleblower Luc Pomerleau was fired for bringing serious concerns about the government's plans for our food inspection system to light. Particularly important, given the ongoing listeria situation with Maple Leaf Foods. The whistleblower was fired by the government, and the person who fingered him was praised by Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, who openly mused about “charges” for the whistleblower.

Shortly after this post I heard by e-mail from Ian Bron, himself a whistleblower. Bron, a former naval officer, was chief of marine security regulatory affairs at Transport Canada when he blew the whistle on systemic mismanagement that was undermining the safety of Canada's marine transportation system in a report he sent to the auditor general, Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon, the Public Service Integrity Office and the Senate committee on national security and defence.

I asked him if he would share his thoughts on the Agriculture Canada whistleblower case, and he agreed. I think he makes some very interesting points from the perspective of a former civil servant, and as a whistleblower that has faced government reprisial for his actions.

I know only what I’ve read in the papers, but my gut reaction is that ministers are sometimes misled by their senior executives. This happens because all too often self interest and the public interest get confused in the minds of these executives. This leads to a peculiar line of thinking which goes something like this: “If the public finds out about this, it will look bad. That will erode confidence. Eroded confidence will undermine the system.” Thus, what is bad for an individual (or worse, a group of individuals) ends up being depicted as bad for Canadians. And, once committed to the story, it becomes impossible for the executives to change direction. They dig in, circle the wagons and hope the attacks will peter out. And usually they do.

The problem is made worse if a minister is too accepting of the version of events fed to him. This may be the case here – for I seriously doubt the Minister Ritz has any first-hand about Mr. Pomerleau’s actions or motives, or those of the people who fired him.

As this matter is likely destined to end up in the courts, Bron also makes the point that Ritz's strident comments, which his staff later attempted to backtrack somewhat, could be even more damaging to the government.

What concerns me is that he has joined the attack. There in no mistaking this: he has publicly stated that Mr. Pomerleau is guilty and deserves the punishment he received. This is, in my opinion, shocking. First of all, this matter is far from over; the union will fight for Mr. Pomerleau and the matter may end up in the courts. The Minister may be forced to eat his words one day. Secondly, the breach as reported was so small (especially considering the regularity with which sensitive documents are found in Ottawa garbage cans), the circumstances so questionable and the punishment so harsh that ordinary caution should have tempered his reactions.

His suggestion that Mr. Pomerleau should face charges might also cause some discomfort to his colleague, Maxime Bernier, who left far, far more sensitive documents at his girlfriend’s house.

An excellent point about the Bernier case, something I'm sure Ritz wasn't thinking about when he made that comment. And it serves to remind us that the Bernier case remains unsettled, and is another one of the issues Stephen Harper hopes will just go away in his rush to an election.

Just as bad is the signal that these comments sends out to others in government who wish to either report wrongdoing or ensure proper consideration is made of issues before a decision is made. Based on what I’ve read, I believe that Mr. Pomerleau was acting without malice and with the intent to do good. To crush him under the heel like this looks like a nasty betrayal of past promises to protect whistleblowers. Even if this case had justified the firing of Mr. Pomerleau (which I doubt), it just sets a bad example to everyone – from managers to workers.

The timing was also particularly poor. The recent listeriosis deaths linked to Maple Leaf products, new leaked documents about planned cuts at Agriculture and Agri-foods Canada and the criticism of food labeling are all front-page news and all lend credence to Mr. Pomerleau’s concerns.

Bron also notes the parallels to the Allan Cutler case, a point I made in my initial post on the Agriculture Canada case.

Minister Ritz should take a look back into recent history to learn a lesson or two. When Allan Cutler first came forward, his concerns were swept under the rug and he was punished. When he blew the whistle, the effort to bury the problems got even more vigorous. The ultimate result was a major scandal that essentially led to the election of the Tories. Does he really want to use the same tactics used then? And is he really willing to trust his senior executives to the point that it may endanger his own career – and, more importantly, the lives of Canadians?

Finally, Minister Ritz needs to better acquaint himself with the concept of whistleblowing. I believe I can speak for Allan Cutler – who is a friend – and other whistleblowers in saying we are offended by Minister Ritz’s characterization of the person who reported Mr. Pomerleau. He/she is not a whistleblower. The individual may or may not have acted in good faith – it doesn’t matter. Whistleblowing was defined by Ralph Nader in 1972 as “an act of a man or a woman who believing in the public interest overrides the interest of the organization he serves, and publicly blows the whistle if the organization is involved in corrupt, illegal, fraudulent or harmful activity.” It is a good description that much better fits Mr. Pomerleau.

One wonders what the impact of the consistently hostile actions by this Harper Conservative government against civil servants that blow the whistle in the interests of Canadians will be. Will it have a chilling effect? I suspect that's what the government is hoping, and perhaps it will to a degree. I suspect, though, that it will only anger civil servants, and lead to more leaks and brown envelops to the opposition and the media.

More importantly though, I think this Harper war on whistleblowers will only serve to discourage our best and brightest from pursuing a career in the civil service. That would be unfortunate for all Canadians.

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900ft Jesus said...

excellent post. Thanks for this. This constant undermining of civil servants is extremely troubling and has far reaching effects.

Thanks to the gent who contacted you as well.

Dr.Dawg said...

Very nicely done. The CFIA brass must have been out of their minds. Did they throw Luc to the wolves to appease the Harpocrats?