Deadly silence: Canada's government culture promotes loyalty at all costs and takes immediate and crushing action against employees who blow the whistle
Joanna Gualtieri and David Kilgour
The Ottawa Citizen
October 31, 2005
Canadians tend to think that it's only in countries like the former Yugoslavia or Sudan where government has bloody hands for its role in killing its own people. But that's only because it's easier to recognize when mass killing fields and machetes are involved as opposed to quieter, yet almost equally deadly, government collusion and neglect.
When hepatitis C killed Brian Baskin two years ago, leaving two teenage daughters fatherless (already motherless from breast cancer), the government became an unnamed beneficiary with one fewer blood victim around to challenge its complicity in Canada's tainted- blood scandal. Though as many as 60,000 Canadians had been infected, Brian's case seemed particularly tragic as he had contracted the virus not while receiving blood but during the selfless act of giving blood plasma, infected by dirty equipment.
On the day when Joanna met Brian, she was struck by his yellowed face. That day, the jaundice was tempered by optimism buoyed by the tireless work of two devoted activists -- Dr. Michele Brill-Edwards and Pam Forward. Refusing to go quietly while the government relentlessly and systematically covered up its role in maintaining a blood bank flowing with deadly viruses, Dr. Brill-Edwards and Ms. Forward were mounting a court challenge to the RCMP's refusal to charge high-ranking bureaucrats with deliberately destroying key documents.
Buried in the shredded debris was evidence of why Canada had failed to take precautionary measures for early blood screening along with Europe and the United States. With Canada's record of rarely holding public-office wrongdoers to account, it was a no-brainer for the bureaucrats and politicians to destroy the records.
The optimism was short-lived. In no time, Dr. Brill-Edwards and Ms. Forward, equipped only with truth and good consciences, were no match for the battalion of government lawyers anxious to brutalize anyone attempting to pursue justice and accountability. Within weeks, Brian's quest had been mowed down and two years later he was dead -- his body racked by hepatitis C and his soul scarred by a duplicitous and merciless government.
But the haunting question was why so many on the inside -- workers with the Red Cross and Health Canada -- stayed silent rather than speak out about the deadly risks that ultimately killed thousands of innocent and trusting Canadians.
The answer lies mostly in a culture that promotes loyalty at all costs and takes immediate and crushing action against employees whose consciences compel them to blow the whistle. One might think that with a national tragedy on the scale of the blood scandal, reform would have taken place. However, adrift in other scandals, the government has taken steps to promote greater government secrecy and tighten the noose around public servants who attempt to speak out.
The most notable intervention is Bill C-11 -- the government's whistleblower legislation. In fact, C-11 is a retrograde manoeuvre, masquerading as a good thing while in reality operating as an instrument of oppression. It is a national disgrace that both government and opposition members voted in favour of this legislation, forgivable only by the fact that committee members studying the bill were bereft of any real understanding of the whistle-blowing phenomenon. The committee did not have even independent legal advice despite the fact that the bill seeks to curtail fundamental human rights of individuals.
C-11 is nothing more than a government-designed, government- controlled and government-executed device to rein in those who attempt to disclose wrongdoing. Rather than promote occupational free speech -- a fundamental and constitutional right -- it closely prescribes what you can blow the whistle on and to whom, giving the government ample time to engage in cover-ups of various kinds.
Public servants are expressly denied the right to go to court to seek a remedy -- God forbid that this government's rot be aired in public court -- and the information that they disclose is put under lock and key. So much for the public's right to know. Moreover, the bill authorizes no one to take any corrective action on the wrongdoing and there is no provision to punish the culprit.
With the bill now off to the Senate, this is the time for the Senate to prove its worth and vote down this devious piece of legislation. Moreover, with all eyes on Justice John Gomery, it is incumbent upon him to see past government rhetoric and declare that whistleblowers must benefit from the rule of law with full due-process rights.
Any whistleblower law worth its weight on paper must also contain the provision that those who offend will be punished and that corrective action will be enforced.
It is cruel and unusual punishment that is visited upon those who dissent. For Judge Gomery to walk in their shoes he must sit down not with academics and policy advisors gathered in round-table discussions but with those who represent whistle-blowers.
There is a stench in Ottawa emanating from decades of government neglect and malfeasance. We need more than air freshener in the form of government pronouncements and rhetoric to clean up. We need an excavation from the bedrock up.
Joanna Gualtieri, a former whistleblower at the Department of Foreign Affairs is founder of Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform (FAIR)