GO PUBLIC

'Process is torturous': Federal whistleblower says Canada doesn't protect people who speak out

A former EI fraud investigator is blowing the whistle on Canada's whistleblower protection laws, saying she has paid a high price for speaking out about wrongdoing and the government is not doing enough to protect people like her.

Integrity commissioner declines interview request to explain delays in whistleblower cases

Sylvie Therrien was fired as a federal fraud investigator after leaking information to the media about aggressive government targets to cut people from the Employment Insurance program. (Richard Grundy/CBC)

This Labour Day, former Employment Insurance fraud investigator Sylvie Therrien wishes she was still employed instead of being caught in a "bureaucratic nightmare" trying to get her job back.

The Vancouver woman says she's been trying for five years, and it's left her financially devastated and emotionally drained.

Therrien is just one of "hundreds of people" who have paid a high price for speaking out, while the federal government does "absolutely nothing" to safeguard them, says David Hutton, a longtime whistleblower protection advocate.

"The process is torturous," says Therrien, referring to her experience with Canada's whistleblower protection system. "I wouldn't wish it on anybody."

Therrien sits behind a stack of paperwork generated from a five-year battle with the federal government after being fired for speaking out about perceived wrongdoing. (Richard Grundy/CBC)

'Find loopholes'

When she worked as an EI fraud investigator in 2013, Therrien says, she and about 15 other people in her department were tasked with finding ways to disqualify people from coverage to save federal dollars.

Each investigator had to find $485,000 in annual savings by denying people EI claims, she says.

"I was told to find a way to not give them benefits, or find loopholes so I could disqualify them. It wasn't right, and my managers didn't listen to my concerns," she says.

She described the pressure to find people to force off assistance as being intense, describing how one supervisor wouldn't say "good morning," but rather would ask how much money Therrien had been able to save.

Therrien says very few of the EI recipients she dealt with were actually cheating, estimating around three per cent.

Becomes a whistleblower

Therrien sent documents to Montreal's Le Devoir newspaper showing that fraud investigators had to save money by denying people EI claims.

The newspaper printed the story on its front page in February 2013.

The information published caused an uproar on Parliament Hill, with both the NDP and Liberals accusing the then-Conservative government of being on a witch hunt against EI recipients.

Former NDP leader Thomas Mulcair blasts the Conservative government in 2013 for setting quotas to kick people off EI. (CBC)

Initially, the government denied the claims, but then said EI fraud investigators had "targets," not firm quotas.

In October 2013, Therrien was fired for breaching the government's communications policy by speaking to the media.  

That's when she turned to Canada's whistleblower protection system, which she now calls "a very sad joke."

'System's completely ineffective'

The Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act came into effect in April 2007, designed to give protection to federal public servants who speak out about wrongdoing that has been committed, or is about to be committed.

Public servants can submit complaints to the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, an independent office created to protect those who blow the whistle. Therrien submitted a complaint after she was fired.

"The system is completely ineffective in protecting whistleblowers," says David Hutton, a senior fellow with the Centre for Free Expression at Toronto's Ryerson University.

"Canada has the reputation internationally of being the Titanic of whistleblower legislation."

Tune in to CBC Radio's Labour Day special, Workplace Whistleblowers.

Erica talks to some of the people who've fought for change on Go Public.

What drives them to speak out? What happened afterwards?

CBC Radio One, Sept. 3 at 12 p.m.

He points to the statistics around those who've sought protection after speaking out. Since 2007, 306 people have submitted a complaint to the integrity commissioner, saying they suffered a reprisal for blowing the whistle.

Of those complaints, 14 people settled through conciliation. Only one person has completed the tribunal process, and that woman lost her case.

Suggestions for change 'ignored'

"The system was recently reviewed by a parliamentary committee [whose members] were absolutely shocked by what they found out," says Hutton.

Their report made sweeping recommendations to change the system.

"Unfortunately, that report was ignored by the government and none of those recommendations have been implemented," Hutton says.

Some of the key concerns involve the length of time it takes for a case to be handled, the lack of obligation for any action to be taken, and the financial cost for complainants, often resulting in intense pressure on them to cut their losses and agree to a "voluntary" settlement.

David Hutton says 'good, honest people who are doing the right thing' get severely mistreated as whistleblowers. (Guillaume Lafrenière/CBC)

The Ottawa-based advocacy group Democracy Watch has created a petition, urging Canadians to call on the federal government to implement some of the key changes recommended in the parliamentary committee's report.

So far, more than 22,000 Canadians have signed it.

'They lose everything'

"Look at the lives ruined," Hutton says.

"Whistleblowers nearly always suffer career-ending reprisals. They're blacklisted. They can't find work again. They suffer from depression. They lose their home. They often lose their families.

"These are good honest people who are doing the right thing to protect us, to protect the public and they lose everything."

As a federal fraud investigator, Therrien earned more than $60,000 a year. She has since struggled to find work, even claiming EI herself for a short period after a temporary job ended.

She recently declared bankruptcy.

Unable to pay rent on her two-bedroom Vancouver apartment, she is currently staying with a friend and desperately trying to find affordable accommodation.  

"My life is in chaos," says Therrien, who now suffers from depression and anxiety.

Integrity commissioner won't talk

Go Public requested an interview with Public Sector Integrity Commissioner Joe Friday to discuss why it has been five years since Therrien submitted a complaint and she is still waiting for it to be addressed.  

Our request was declined.

In an email, spokesperson Parham Kahjeh-Naini wrote, "The commissioner is sympathetic to the impact that extended delays can have on individuals taking part in a grievance or complaint process. However, we are not able to comment on the merits of an ongoing case."

Kahjeh-Naini said that because Therrien's case is also before the Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board, the integrity commissioner is waiting to see whether it will be resolved there.

When Therrien learned the integrity commissioner wouldn't investigate her case because it was before the labour board, she appealed.

In January 2017, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled the commissioner had the discretion to deal with her case, but he has chosen not to.

'I feel buried'

The lack of movement is frustrating for Therrien, as her case has been before the labour relations board for five years.

Submissions were completed over a year ago, but no decision has been issued. The board declined to tell Go Public the reason for delay.

"I feel buried under a complex quasi-judicial manoeuvring of the system," Therrien says.

"I'm being ignored by all those people who have the power to make a decision. They have the power."

'We owe them better treatment'

Workplace whistleblower expert David Hutton says it's "infuriating" to see federal bodies pointing fingers over who should take responsibility for protecting public servants who speak out.  

"We live in a society where every time we step on an airplane, or take a prescription drug, or go to an emergency room — in all of these situations, our health, our livelihood, our lives sometimes — we're dependent on other people doing their job properly to make sure that those things are safe for us," Hutton says.

"So we owe them better treatment, even if it's just for our own protection."

The Phoenix project

An ongoing example of why proper whistleblower protection is so desperately needed in Canada, says Hutton, is the Phoenix public service pay system debacle.

"The fact that it was doomed was common knowledge in Ottawa," he says. "But public servants were afraid to tell their political masters."

At Ryerson's Centre for Free Expression, Hutton is spearheading an investigation into who may have tried to blow the whistle on the Phoenix system and what happened.

"We're going to write a report about their experiences and explain why none of them was able to stop this train wreck from happening."

Changes to EI investigations

While Therrien waits for justice, she may have prompted a change to operations in the Employment Insurance department.

Go Public asked the federal government whether employees were still expected to disqualify a certain number of EI claimants per year.

In an email, media spokesperson Christopher Simard wrote that there are no quotas.

"Individual employees are not monitored for the quantity of savings they recover," he wrote, but would not clarify when the change was made.

It's a small comfort to Therrien, who says she had no idea how her life would change after she spoke out, adding that she would do it again, if reluctantly.

"It's important. If we all follow the highway and say nothing, it's certainly easier. But I don't think it's the right way. We're all in this together."

With files from Enza Uda

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About the Author

Erica Johnson

Investigative reporter

Erica Johnson is an award-winning investigative journalist. She hosted CBC's consumer program Marketplace for 15 years, investigating everything from dirty hospitals to fraudulent financial advisors. As co-host of the CBC news segment Go Public, Erica continues to expose wrongdoing and hold corporations and governments to account.