Nfld. & Labrador

Targeting whistleblowers equals intimidation, says watchdog

The education minister had no business trying to out Service NL Minster Sherry Gambin-Walsh for complaining about harassment, says Democracy Watch co-founder.

Kirby seeking source of leak highlights need for better protection, says Democracy Watch

Education Minister Dale Kirby drew heat this week for seeking out the person who made a complaint against Eddie Joyce. (CBC)

Education Minister Dale Kirby had no business trying to out  Service NL Minister Sherry Gambin-Walsh for complaining about harassment, says an advocate for whistleblowing rights.

Kirby said he was just trying to ensure people followed the processes in place, but Duff Conacher sees it as intimidation.

"People should be allowed to blow the whistle anonymously," said the co-founder of Democracy Watch. "And they should be protected no matter how they blow the whistle."

Kirby's email came on the heels of a question period for the books on Tuesday — where Opposition leader Paul Davis asked Premier Dwight Ball if he knew of any harassment complaints against his cabinet ministers.

On Wednesday, CBC News broke the story that the accused was Eddie Joyce, the minister of Municipal Affairs.

And then, on Thursday afternoon, Gambin-Walsh spoke to media outside the House of Assembly and revealed she was the one who lodged an official complaint about Joyce's alleged bully tactics.

Sherry Gambin-Walsh came forward as the complainant after she says her name was made public by somebody else. Moments later, Eddie Joyce brought up Tracey Perry as someone else who did not like his behaviour. (CBC)

Seconds after she finished speaking, Joyce approached the media to deny the allegations. He then named Tracey Perry, an Opposition MHA, as another potential complainant.

She had not been previously named — something that an angered Davis brought up during question period, asking Ball what he was going to do about it.

"I'm going to make a decision," Ball responded.

By the end of the day, Joyce had been removed from his cabinet portfolio and then — within hours — removed from the Liberal caucus, to sit as an Independent.

Legislation misses the mark

In 2014, the province introduced a set of laws to protect people blowing the whistle within the public service.

"[It] allows public employees to disclose serious and significant wrongdoings without fear or threat of reprisal," the act's summary reads.

Duff Conacher is an adjunct professor of law at the University of Ottawa and co-founder of Democracy Watch. (Marc Robichaud/CBC)

However, the legislation falls short of including members of the House of Assembly and only offers protection once a written complaint has been filed.

Conacher said these systems are set up to protect elected officials — and thus, people are more inclined to leak stories to the media than report them through the processes laid out in their departments.

"Often [complainants] feel it's safer to go to the public and the media before filing anything directly because of the fear it won't be investigated in a fair way unless it is public."

Typical reaction

David Hutton spends his career advocating for whistleblower protection at Ryerson University's Centre For Free Expression.

David Hutton is an advocate for whistleblower protection. (Ryerson University)

When he heard about Kirby's email to fellow Liberal MHAs, Hutton was not surprised.

"The reaction is typical of what you also see in whistleblower situations, and that is of attacking the messenger rather than dealing with the issue. That is an absolutely standard fear and it happens all the time."

Retaliation takes on many forms, he said, and intimidation can change a person's work experience forever.

CBC News reported that at least one of the issues regarding Joyce reached the premier's chief of staff, Greg Mercer.

"That was obviously the right thing to do if the organization had any intent at all to deal with things like this appropriately, and it looks like they didn't," Hutton said.

The premier told reporters he was not aware of the complaints against Joyce until Gambin-Walsh told him on Wednesday morning.

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