Shooting the Messenger

Why Canadians don’t often blow the whistle on wrongdoing.

When WikiLeaks funnelled endless secret documents to the press last year, there was only one possible reaction for all true Canadians: an immediate, obsessive hunt for evidence that we exist. Fortunately, we could breathe a sigh of relief after the first comb-through: not only did we show up in a lot of diplomatic cables, but Julian Assange’s outfit eventually released a list of our most important and sensitive infrastructure and resources in case anyone wanted to attack.

Still, it is lucky that our hunger for attention is modest, because our presence in the mountain of leaked documents was relatively meagre. Much of the commentary on us was uncomplimentary, but we are used to that; like some collective middle child, we just cannot stand to be ignored.

A few Canadians bestirred themselves to express outrage over the leaks themselves, especially that list of valuable terrorist targets: the historian J.L. Granatstein demanded that WikiLeaks be shut down immediately for criminal incitement. Tom Flanagan—a former advisor to Stephen Harper—told the CBC that the U.S. government should take out a contract on Assange, later explaining away the remark as a joke.

But here is an interesting feature that no one seems to have noticed: there is no solid evidence that Canadian officials provided any of this mountain of secret information. WikiLeaks did publish almost 2,000 messages from the Canadian embassy in Washington, but those may simply have been intercepted—quite possibly by some of our American friends.

Why didn’t any Canadians, as far as we know, funnel secrets to WikiLeaks? Where is our Bradley Manning?

It is not as if Canada has no homegrown whistleblowers. We boast our own honour roll; heroic Canadians have exposed corruption, protected veterans’ benefits, revealed major safety concerns and saved taxpayers millions of dollars. They even have their own website—fairwhistleblower.ca—where anyone can follow their activities and revelations.

Moreover, Canada has an explicit policy of openness—of encouraging whistleblowers in the public sector. That is why the federal government created the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner of Canada in 2007, to embolden civil servants to report on waste, mismanagement and corruption. As things have turned out, however, our practice is largely divorced from that policy. Our governments are increasingly fond of secrecy and most Canadians do not seem to mind much.

So few Canadians applauded Julian Assange’s release of thousands of government secrets. There was little discussion in this country of the central issues: whether complete transparency is desirable; whether some government activities, notably diplomacy, truly require secrecy; whether the public had a right to this sudden avalanche of information about their own elected governments. Most of the discussion centred either on that dratted list of targets or on more peripheral issues, such as Assange’s character.

We were not alone in our ambivalence; commentators almost everywhere worried about the revelations ruining sensitive negotiations and making the world less safe. But many Canadians radiated an aura of prissy disapproval. A lot of the people I have spoken with seem to feel that Assange’s exposés were not just dangerous; they were impolite and gauche. Somewhere in the Canadian psyche there seems rooted the belief that whistleblowing is not nice. But surely we have the right and the need to know if our money is being wasted, if our politicians are lying to us, if our allies despise us, if we are violating international law, if other nations are spying on us. Why don’t we stick up for whistleblowers? We have never needed them more.

To be fair, there were Canadians who praised Assange’s assault on secrecy, although not a great many of them. He led a list of last year’s heroes compiled by The Toronto Star’s Olivia Ward, for his “crusade to make government more transparent and accountable.” The left-wing magazine Canadian Dimension suggested that he receive the Nobel Peace Prize for similar reasons. He has proved popular with the people who phone in to chat on the CBC’s Cross Country Checkup.

The praise, you will notice, came exclusively from the left. There does seem to be a pattern here: Assange was booed or dismissed by the National Post, Maclean’s, Conrad Black and The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente, who compared him to Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, after calling him “an information terrorist” in an earlier column. Interestingly, Wente’s attack was based on the idea that Assange was masquerading as an advocate for the public’s right to know, when his actual aim was more revolutionary. She quoted him directly: “It is not our goal to achieve a more transparent society; it’s our goal to achieve a more just society.” So her underlying assumption appears to be that transparency is a good in itself, that the public does have a right to know. I have found, in general conversation, that you can usually count on journalists, political activists and lawyers to share that belief, even in Canada.

But why is there so little street-level support in Canada for the idea that governments enjoy entirely too much secrecy and too much power? Have we ceased to recognize the crucial role that whistleblowers play in keeping our governments honest?

It is comparatively easy to explain such an attitude in the United States. The September 11 attacks were so deeply traumatizing—and so cleverly exploited by the George W. Bush government—that the traditional American reverence for privacy and individual liberty came to seem close to treasonous. That Washington would have to come down hard and heavy seemed obvious, even in some sense comforting. Canada was not attacked, but our government’s passion for secrecy has burgeoned, as evidenced by closed trials with unnamed charges for suspected terrorists, the withdrawal of the compulsory census and, perhaps above all, the centralized control of contact with the media in institutions ranging from the federal government to your local hospital.

Exhibit A of this ominous Canadian trend comes, astonishingly, from the very office set up to protect government whistleblowers. Christiane Ouimet, Canada’s first-ever public sector integrity commissioner, resigned last October after her own staff blew the whistle on her to the auditor general. Charged with handling complaints from civil servants about wrongdoing in their workplaces, Ouimet had considered only seven of the 228 complaints she had received worth investigating and none of them proved conclusive. The auditor general, in a report released in December, also found patterns of intimidation and retaliation in Ouimet’s treatment of her own department’s employees.

Ouimet’s defence, by the way, was that she was in fact investigating 15 files, not seven, and that her staff were hostile and jealous. The Conservative government was apparently not wholly dissatisfied with her performance: she received a severance package worth $534,000 in addition to her pension. There are those who might say that she did exactly what she was expected to do—neglect the complaints until they withered away.

In such a climate, it is not surprising that it is hard to identify a Canadian whistleblower who would qualify as a hero/martyr on the scale of the American Karen Silkwood, Britain’s Dr. David Kelly or Israel’s Mordechai Vanunu.

To refresh your memory: Silkwood was a chemical technician and union activist at an Oklahoma nuclear plant. She died under suspicious circumstances after investigating irregularities—and worse—at the plant. Kelly apparently killed himself—although rumours of murder persist—after being unmasked as a major source for the BBC on the issue of Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

Vanunu leaked information about Israel’s nuclear program to the British press in 1986. A Mossad Mata Hari then lured him to Italy, from whence, heavily drugged, he was repatriated to Israel. After a trial, he served 18 years there and was released in 2004 on parole conditions so restrictive that he has twice returned to jail for violating them. They include a ban on talking with anyone who is not an Israeli—a limitation even more draconian than the parole conditions for some of Canada’s G20 protestors. Amnesty International has labelled Vanunu a prisoner of conscience.

But many Israelis regard Vanunu as a traitor rather than a whistleblower. And this is where things get tricky. There are traitors, there are whistleblowers, there are leakers, there are spies. To my mind Vanunu qualifies as a whistleblower because he took his information to the media for general distribution, not to another government for its own advantage as a spy would have done. And there is nothing heroic about a party functionary who leaks damaging revelations about the opposition to the press. Whistleblowers are not seeking personal gain. Their motives are altruistic. Although they may prefer to hide in the shadows, they are taking genuine risks.

And Canada has such people, committed to transparency and prepared to suffer for their good deeds. It is not our way to hound them to death; our country prefers to harass and neglect them into silence.

The most recent major example is diplomat Richard Colvin, who in 2009 testified to a parliamentary committee that Afghan authorities had tortured detainees handed over to them by Canadian troops. His lawyer alleged that Canadian authorities had tried to silence him. Colvin is still employed in intelligence at the Canadian embassy in Washington, but he will no doubt pay a price, no matter who is in power in Ottawa. The intelligence community does not look kindly on squealers.

Colvin is not alone. Linda Keen, the former head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, lost her job after refusing to permit the Atomic Energy of Canada Limited to reopen its Chalk River facility until the plant insured higher safety standards, and publicly accusing the government of trying to interfere with the commission, an independent body. She now has her own firm, which advises companies on enterprise risk management. In last month’s federal election, she endorsed the Green Party.

There are names familiar at least to readers who follow the news: Sean Bruyea, who revealed in 2005 that a proposed federal program for injured soldiers would actually greatly reduce their compensation. Dr. Nancy Olivieri, who released research findings in 1998 suggesting that a drug she was testing had dangerous, possibly fatal side effects. Corporal Robert Read, fired for investigating corruption at the Canadian High Commission in Hong Kong—a firing upheld in 2005 by the Federal Court, which rebuked Read for “a lack of loyalty to the government.” Brian McAdam, who also exposed corruption at the Canadian Consulate in Hong Kong and the infiltration of Chinese organized criminals and spies into this country. That good deed ended his 30-year career in the foreign service.

Allan Cutler has proved more resilient. He is the civil servant who was almost fired in 1996 for documenting and later filing a formal complaint about the financial transactions at the Department of Public Works that came to be known as the sponsorship scandal. Cutler managed to hold on to his job until 2004; an official inquiry into the scandal began the following year. He also ran for the Conservatives in the 2006 election (he was defeated by David McGuinty) and founded a website, Canadians for Accountability (canadians4
accountability.org).

And then there is Joanna Gualtieri. She exposed a pattern of outrageously excessive purchases by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade for embassies and diplomatic residences abroad, and felt victimized and harassed thereafter, even though the inspector general and auditor general upheld her accusations. When she left her job and tried to sue the government, the Department of Justice argued that she had no right to do so, that her proper avenue for recourse was to submit a grievance—to the same people she was accusing. The Ontario Court of Appeal agreed with her unanimously, so she won her suit twelve years after launching it. The government’s response was to pass, in 2003, the Public Service Modernization Act, which bars civil servants from suing their employers.

But Gualtieri is a fighter. She founded the Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform—FAIR—and served as its director for ten years. FAIR’s website remains the best resource on whistleblowing in Canada.

These are worthy people, even heroic. But none has come close to achieving the iconic status of Daniel Ellsberg—the man who gave the New York Times and other media the Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam War—or Jeffrey Wigand, the former executive who first told the world that tobacco companies were manipulating the ingredients of cigarettes to make them more addictive.

Why? In part because none of our media has the same impact as the New York Times or 60 Minutes. More crucially, there are no blockbuster movies about our whistleblowers. Russell Crowe (who played Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider) is unlikely ever to be cast as Richard Colvin. Meryl Streep, who starred in Silkwood, was not tapped to impersonate Nancy Olivieri.

But which is the chicken and which is the egg? We do make movies—even if they do not achieve the same profile as American star vehicles. But we do not make movies about Canadian officials or executives who tell tales out of school. Our whistleblowers do not become popular heroes. Why not?

One normal Canadian answer would be self-abasement: we are cowardly and mediocre and we cut down tall, outspoken poppies every chance we get. Another equally normal response in this country would be to quietly display our superiority: our discretion, our loyalty, our unwillingness to seek attention or betray a confidence.

There is, I think, some truth in both visions. But they leave out some important factors.

For one thing, information does filter out regularly in Canada through at least apparently unofficial channels. The alert citizen eventually acquires a great deal of information that governments and corporations would like to keep hidden. Damning reports from the auditor general hit the papers early. Discreet tips led opposition members and the press to Shawinigate or, in Ontario, to eHealth’s untendered contracts and dubious expense claims.

These stories do not appear by magic; someone is quietly handing over confidential documents or pointing out likely places to look and reminding reporters and opposition members of Parliament, in the words of Deep Throat, to follow the money.

In recent years, the leakers of information and documents have been joined by an even more valuable resource: the amateur videographers. Their footage has had an incalculable impact on our understanding of police conduct during the G20 protests.

And they are not all anonymous. Without one of them, the public might never have learned what actually happened to Robert Dziekanski, the Pole who died after the RCMP Tasered him at Vancouver International Airport. I wonder how many Canadians recall the name of the public-spirited soul who not only filmed the incident, but also went to court to force the police (who had confiscated the video) to return it and then released it to the media. It is Paul Pritchard, a man who deserves to be remembered, but probably will not be.

As a nation, we do not have much long-term memory for whistleblowers—never mind systems for protecting and rewarding them. To find the last time our country really celebrated revelations of wrongdoing, you have to go all the way back to Igor Gouzenko. And he was not a Canadian or even a real whistleblower; he was a cipher clerk at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa who defected in 1945, bringing with him 109 documents on Soviet espionage. He was spilling someone else’s secrets.

I mention him because Canada rewarded his courage—or treachery, if you choose to side with Joseph Stalin. He and his wife were fitted out with new identities and lived into the 1980s in a Toronto suburb. Canada expressed its gratitude in other ways: the government generously bestowed the Governor General’s Award for fiction on Gouzenko’s The Fall of a Titan in 1954.

Today’s homegrown whistleblowers are not so lucky. Their moment in the spotlight will be fleeting. Federal legislation or no, they are likely to find their jobs intolerable, even if they manage to hold on to them. The best they can hope for is a favourable editorial or column or two—and then, good luck.

The issue does not engage our legal system deeply. The Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act (the legislation Ouimet was charged with carrying out) extends only to the civil service, not to private corporations. It does not link an investigation that finds wrongdoing to any sanctions for the guilty. It lacks effective mechanisms for shielding employees who come forward. FAIR, the organization devoted to promoting honesty in government and the protection of whistleblowers, italicizes this warning in its critique of the act:

You need to understand that expressing truths that are inconvenient to those in power is inherently dangerous and can cause serious harm to your career, to you and your family’s wellbeing, even to your physical and mental health.

And that is the message from the organization that works to encourage whistleblowing in Canada.

This is not a new problem. I am a reformed gossip columnist: Almost 20 years ago, I regularly received phone calls from terrified whistleblowers who had just grasped what was going to happen to their careers if I published their stories. But I think there is some evidence of a cultural shift that is making things worse.

Here is the emblematic quotation from FAIR’s document on Canada’s attitude to governance and the release of information:

From 2004 to 2007 Canada Public Service Agency reported annual statistics on the implementation of the Treasury Board Policy on the Prevention and Resolution of Harassment in the Workplace. [Note: This is the kind of treatment faced by whistleblowers like Joanna Gualtieri, Brian McAdam and Robert Read, the petty tactics that make a workplace as unpleasant as possible and ensure that careers are stalled.] These reveal a gradually worsening situation, until in 2008 the agency simply stopped issuing these reports.

This is not a unique instance of closing off access to unwelcome news. Nor is the problem restricted to the federal government. At all levels, our governments seem to be running on the motto “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Could it be that potential whistleblowers are genuinely afraid of physical repercussions? That seems unlikely in Canada. The RCMP has been accused of a great many things in recent years—thanks in part to a small host of leakers and whistleblowers—but I do not believe that anyone, even Randy Quaid, suspects them or CSIS of carrying out political assassinations. A whistleblower certainly faces dismissal here. Lawsuits are always possible. Life can become very unpleasant indeed. But it is unlikely that anyone will be waterboarded or executed for speaking up.

The larger question is: why do we, the public, allow this culture of silence and intimidation to thrive? Why has official Ottawa been able to keep the vast majority of its employees quiescent and obedient in the face of an ever-more-muffling fog of obfuscation and ignorance?

They could not get away with this if the public seemed to care. But it does not. Perhaps terminal cynicism has set in, a sense that dirty laundry aired is just business as usual. Whatever the reason or reasons, only a minority of voters appear to focus on the issues of transparency and honesty. Just a few months ago, Canada’s minister of international cooperation admitted that she had fibbed to the House of Commons—that she was the one who changed a document to justify cutting funding for the charity KAIROS. That used to be called contempt of Parliament, a pretty serious charge. Last month, the voters of Durham returned Bev Oda to office with a whopping majority.

So for this issue, it may not matter all that much which party is in power in Ottawa. Once governments have acquired new powers, they are notoriously reluctant to relinquish them, which is why Homeland Security in the United States has not withered away during the presidency of Barack Obama.

Moreover, while Americans take umbrage over nasty revelations about their friends, Canadians seem to disapprove of blowing the whistle against anyone. South of the border, Republicans can be very protective of their allies’ personal and financial history; some Democrats seemed to feel that Bill Clinton’s shenanigans were nobody’s business. But Canadians are more likely to feel discomfort with revelations about any party, any company, any person. Our recent political history suggests that a surprising number of us do not mind straightforward abuse—especially in a political ad or debate—but we instinctively cringe at hearing a secret.

Perhaps this should not be a surprise. The citizens of many other countries are rioting in the streets for the right to free elections; over the past few months, untold numbers of Canadians whined about having to vote yet again—after only three years of freedom from the burden of casting a ballot. Since marking an X does not really tax anyone’s strength, presumably they resented the hard work of having to absorb information and think about how to cast that vote.

It is really no wonder, in such an environment, that most Canadians hesitate to come forward and sound the alarm about corruption, lying or waste. More information is likely to provoke not just indifference, but outright hostility. Where so much of the population despises the privilege of staying informed, there will always be the temptation to shoot the messenger.