Whistleblower laws too weak: watchdog groups

An alliance of accountability watchdogs calls on the federal government to overhaul Canada's whistleblower-protection laws, and implement a new Integrity Commissioner who's willing to enforce them.

An alliance of accountability watchdogs called on the federal government Wednesday to overhaul Canada's whistleblower-protection laws and implement a new integrity commissioner who's willing to enforce them.

The government has apologized to Canadian Forces veteran Sean Bruyea for having his personal information shared with members of the bureaucracy. ((CBC))

"The situation for whistleblowers in Canada continues to be dire," said Allan Cutler, the president of Canadians For Accountability. "There's few laws to protect them and little interest in doing so."

Cutler is a former public servant who is well known for his role in exposing the sponsorship scandal that brought down Paul Martin's Liberal government. At a news conference in Ottawa on Wednesday, he was joined by officials of other groups sympathetic to the cause in lobbying government to do more to improve government accountability.

"The bureaucracy is an impenetrable and ruthless adversary … how did we get to a situation with a bureaucracy and oversight agency that is so dysfunctional?" said Sean Bruyea, a Canadian Forces veteran whose sensitive personal and medical information was illegally shared by officials in the department.

The decorated former intelligence officer fought for years for a modest monthly disability pension from Veterans Affairs after being medically released from the military in 1996 with symptoms of Gulf War syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder.

He became an outspoken critic of the 2006 Veterans Charter and its replacement of lifetime guaranteed pensions for veterans with a one-time, lump-sum payment.

Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart found that Bruyea's personal information ended up in March 2006 briefing notes of the former minister in charge, Greg Thompson, while his medical information, including diagnosis, symptoms and prognosis, were also found in a second ministerial briefing note dating back to 2005 under the former Liberal government and then minister.

Bruyea had also complained about the breach to Integrity Commissioner Christiane Ouimet, whose office determined there was no wrongdoing in his case. Ouimet abruptly retired on Oct. 18 amid an auditor general probe into her office.

Apology offered

"We have to question a system that allows bureaucrats to oversee themselves and take seven months to determine there was no wrongdoing," Bruyea said at the news conference on Wednesday.

The federal government apologized to Bruyea this week and vowed to launch an investigation into his case. Along with the apology, the Conservatives added a settlement offer of $400,000 — a figure Bruyea pledges to refuse if it forbids him from speaking publicly.

Bruyea joined Cutler and David Hutton, the executive director of the Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform in calling for a new commissioner to be installed as quickly as possible — one who uses the office to investigate claims more vigorously.

The alliance also called for an independent review of 170 past claims of wrongdoing and 58 claims of reprisal, most of which — like Bruyea’s — were never investigated.

"The Integrity Commissioner's office has served to cover up these problems, not address them," Cutler said.

"Corruption and conflicts of interest are like a cancer in a healthy government, eating away," Hutton added.

Beyond tougher enforcement, they want the existing Accountability Act overhauled.

"When the current legislation was passed we predicted it would fail but we couldn't imagine how [badly]," Hutton said. "Our experience is that no one who's actually in power wants this legislation. The only way to explain the complete failure of the law we have is that there wasn't the will to make a law that would work."

"A party in opposition will make promises and when they get into power, you'll find things change very very fast," Cutler added.

Toothless law

Ian Bron tried to blow the whistle on gaps in Transport Canada's marine security regulations and expose what he alleges was low-level corruption in his division.

He wrote a report that was circulated in his department and to others in the government, including the auditor general. He said Wednesday he was naive to think it would lead to positive changes, because his bosses retaliated against him with harassment complaints and threats of lawsuits.

None of the people he implicated in his report has lost their job. Many, in fact, have been promoted, he said.

"I was shocked. I don't know if you've ever had that feeling where you realize something has gone horribly wrong," he said.

The experience so soured him that he now says he would discourage others from being whistleblowers.

"It's not a safe environment. The only circumstance I can see you doing it is if you know someone is going to die if you don't speak out," he said.