North·Exclusive

Yukon gov't workers terrified to disclose wrongdoing, say whistleblowers

Government officials have assured workers of confidentiality and security if they come forward. But some workers tell the CBC there's no trust in their department, and they describe 'toxic' and 'dysfunctional' working conditions.

'The supervisors and director want the heads of these whistleblowers,' said one government worker

The Yukon government administration building in Whitehorse. Some government workers in the child protection system have recently been suspended or released from employment after raising concerns or disclosing wrongdoing to their supervisors. (Paul Tukker/CBC)

Workers with Yukon's Department of Health and Social Services say they are terrified of speaking out about wrongdoing within the territory's child protection system.

Four workers describe a "toxic" and "dysfunctional" environment within the Family and Children's Services branch, where workers do not feel safe coming forward with their concerns.

Several whistleblowers and youth have spoken to CBC in recent months, describing mistreatment of youth within government-run group homes, and also alleging failures and neglect when it comes to the territory's child protection system overall.

Some government workers have also been suspended or released from employment, after raising concerns or disclosing wrongdoing to their supervisors — though former manager Jarrett Parker's wrongful dismissal suit has now been temporarily set aside, while a reprisal investigation under the Public Interest Disclosure of Wrongdoing Act is underway.

Several whistleblowers — who spoke to CBC on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal — have described their working environment as one where there's little support or trust from supervisors.

"You don't know who you can talk to — co-workers, supervisors, management. You're looking over your shoulder a lot," said one worker. "It's really difficult to do the work that we do, to the best of our ability."

Other workers have said that when concerns are raised, they are minimized or simply ignored.

"Every avenue where people have attempted to raise a concern ... the response hasn't been favourable. People have had some pretty dire consequences as a result of that, so the trust isn't there," said one.

The minister responsible for the Public Service Commission, Richard Mostyn, has assured workers that they can step forward to their deputy minister without fear of reprisal, but some workers scoff at the idea.

Richard Mostyn, minister responsible for Yukon's Public Service Commission, said earlier this year that government workers should not be afraid to speak out. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

"That's ridiculous ... how can he guarantee it's gonna be fine?" Asked a worker. "I don't think that anybody fully trusts [that]."

"I feel there will be retaliatory action, and it can be very subtle. But it can happen," said another. 

"Because this has been going on for so long, workers are not in a position to take Mostyn at his word or trust what he has to say."

Taking a toll

The unhealthy working environment is also taking a toll on the mental health of staff, some say.

"There's been a mass exodus over the past 10 years. People are leaving because they're burned out, they're traumatized, because it's such a toxic work environment," one worker told CBC.

"Numerous people, when they ... report things that concern them, ethical challenges and dilemmas, it's taken out of their hands and told, 'it's not your problem, you're not meant to look at that.'"

Some workers in the Family and Children's Services branch describe the work environment there as 'dysfunctional.' (CBC)

"It's so dysfunctional. We're working with families where there's dysfunction, and there's so much dysfunction in our workplace — how can we possibly do what's in the best interests of these families?" a worker asked.

Another worker wonders why the department doesn't focus on the actual problems that have been disclosed, instead of intimidating workers.

"It's like a Pandora's box. People don't really want to look at the heart of the matter, but it'd take a lot less energy if we did look at the heart of the matter," one worker said. "Look at all the effort to cover up and skirt the issue."

"Meetings consist of fingers being pointed [at staff] and threats that speaking out can 'see you fined and fired.' Workers are being asked, 'is that you? Was that you [who spoke to CBC] — tread carefully.'" 

'Delete my number from your phone'

Some workers have been so frightened they have started crying after speaking with the CBC, even after being assured of anonymity. Others have worried the government would somehow confiscate a CBC cell phone.

"Please delete my number from your phone," one worker asked a CBC reporter. "The supervisors and director want the heads of these whistleblowers." 

The accounts contradict what Deputy Minister Stephen Samis said during a media briefing in April, when he reassured workers that they would be protected.

'I am open, ready. I guarantee the confidentiality and the security of that employee,' said Stephen Samis, deputy minister of Health and Social Services, at a news conference in April. (Nancy Thomson/CBC)

"If you see anything, and if your hear anything ... you think needs to come to my attention, I am open, ready. I guarantee the confidentiality and the security of that employee," Samis said.

"The ministers have been very clear to the staff ... that they will be respected and their rights will be respected. I commit to that."

The fact that Jane Bates, a manager in the department, was suspended just weeks after disclosing wrongdoing is not lost on other workers.

One whistleblower texted a CBC reporter after Bates was sent home.

"Stephen Samis was very clear there would not be any repercussions. And now Jane [Bates] is being threatened. Absolutely no more trust now," the worker texted.

The government has refused to comment on Bates' suspension.

Mostyn did, however, repeat his promise that "civil servants who wish to disclose a wrongdoing ... will be protected from reprisal."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Raised in Ross River, Yukon, Nancy Thomson is a graduate of Ryerson University's journalism program. Her first job with CBC Yukon was in 1980, when she spun vinyl on Saturday afternoons. She rejoined CBC Yukon in 1993, and focuses on First Nations issues and politics. You can reach her at nancy.thomson@cbc.ca.

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