Whistleblowers simply tell the truth, which, strangely can be a high stakes endeavour. Hear from those in Canada and how whistleblowing led to huge consequences.
Whistle-blowers simply tell the truth, which, strangely, can be a high stakes endeavour.
In prison, people get dubbed ratters and snitches for the deed–and pay dearly. But should there be a similar price to pay for those brave and principled individuals in our midst who dare to step forward to tell it like it is?
Debate around the issue has taken on greater urgency as neoconservative trends in society tip the balance toward private sector interests and profit making. In their push to balance budgets, North American governments have gradually reduced spending and regulatory oversight.
The corporate sector has stepped in to fund hospitals and universities and their research activities. Which means the public interest often takes second place to the interests of those paying the piper.
The Vancouver-based Labour Environmental Alliance Society argues that the goings-on beyond the governmental garden gate are ever harder to come by, what with increased media concentration, freedom of information run-arounds, and restrictions on civil servants speaking out.
As a result, whistle-blowers have become a critical cog in the system, playing a pivotal role in safeguarding tax dollars, protecting public health and safety, and watching out for the environment.
The Watergate imbroglio that led to Richard Nixon’s impeachment in 1974 was all about a whistle getting blown. So was the tainted blood scandal in Canada. Ditto the Quebec sponsorship fiasco. In all these cases, if someone didn’t blab, the public might never have found out.
Altruism Becomes Masochism
But blowing a whistle can have consequences dramatic and dangerous enough to provide the plotline for a Hollywood thriller.
Indeed, All the President’s Men put the Watergate story on the silver screen. Erin Brockovich, released in 2000, related the real-life saga of a single mother taking on a California power company. In 2005 The Constant Gardener depicted a fictional yarn involving the wife of a British diplomat murdered in Kenya after exposing wrongdoing by a pharmaceutical company.
Examples abound of people who step forward to speak out and then become caught up in a melodrama of miseryand mayhem.
“Why blow the whistle if the reward for heroism is martyrdom?” asks Joanna Gualtieri, director of the Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform (FAIR), based in Ottawa. Gualtieri put that question to MPs at a May 2006 Commons hearing into the Harper government’s accountability legislation. The law features whistle-blower protection that is considered inadequate by her organization.
Gualtieri knows all about the martyrdom involved in wieldinga whistle.
She is suing her former bosses in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. The lawyer and former public servant, now 46, wound up first on stress leave and ultimately out of a job after she complained in 1992 about Canadian diplomats wasting millions of dollars on rented residences abroad when government-owned homes were available to them. She opted to take on the Department of Justice in a legal battle that has derailed her career and consumed her life.
Interestingly, Watergate deep throat W. Mark Felt–former FBI deputy director–working through two sworn-to-secrecy journalists at the Washington Post, was able to keep his identity secret for 30 years, and hence escape retribution. His experience is rare.
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
FAIR, on its website, warns would-be whistle-blowers: “This is a very dangerous thing to do, and few people have the courage required.”
Typically, whistle-blowers who express concerns to their superiors are jollied along for a while but soon receive poor performance reviews. They may be re-assigned to less meaningful work, become the object of smear campaigns, and be shunned by colleagues. Wrongdoers meanwhile retain the credibility and authority of their positions, with the resources of the organization fully behind them.
Those who mean to do good tend to wind up discredited, unemployed, broke, clinically depressed, and in some cases, suicidal. Often, they leave their home communities. The FAIR website further warns, “It is not unusual for whistle-blowers to receive death threats.”
“Looking back, it’s been a nightmare for me,” recounts John O’Connor, who last year moved from his home in Fort McMurray, Alberta, to rural Nova Scotia. He left after Alberta’s College of Physicians and Surgeons responded to a complaint from Health Canada by registering four professional misconduct charges against him.
O’Connor’s misdeed? He went public in 2006 about an unusual number of immune system disorders, skin rashes, rheumatoid arthritis, and cancer cases in the native community of Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, near the heavily polluting tar sands development.
O’Connor, who since has been cleared of most of the misconduct charges, asks from his new home at the other end of the country: “If you can’t basically advocate for your patients, then what the hell are we doing in this job?”
Profit Versus Patients
Harassment of medical whistle-blowers is particularly disconcerting because human health is often at stake.
Back in 1996 Toronto hematologist Nancy Olivieri, while carrying out clinical trials for Apotex Inc., went public with concerns about the risks of a drug being tested on patients with a blood disorder known as thalassemia.
Olivieri’s reputation was dragged through the mud. Her relationship with both the Hospital for Sick Children and the University of Toronto quickly deteriorated. Interestingly, the university at the time was negotiating with Apotex for a major donation.
The doctor was later vindicated through a series of independent probes and received compensation. The university and its affiliated teaching hospitals thereafter were forced to ensure their scientists had the freedom to disclose health risks emerging in clinical drug trials in a timely manner.
A subsequent exploration of Olivieri’s case by three prominent Canadian physicians observed that, increasingly, medical research is becoming dependent on corporate sponsorship, and to protect funding, universities have become more “industry friendly.” Their study speaks of “the importation into the health-care sector, without change, of successful business practices from more traditional sectors of the economy.”
All of which makes the work of whistle-blowers more vital, and our interest in protecting them all the greater.
Many developed countries have legislated meaningful protection for whistle-blowers, according to the Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform. “In contrast, Canada has performed little more than lip service,” says FAIR.
Federal accountability legislation passed in 2006 disappoints onseveral fronts:
- It fails to empower the Public Service Integrity Commissioner so that he can order corrective action to address problems exposed by whistle-blowers.
- It covers public servants but not other Canadians reporting government wrongdoing.
- It exempts Crown corporations.
- It fails to provide sufficient funds to ensure whistle-blowers have broad access to legal counsel.
- It fails to establish monetary rewards for whistle-blowers who save tax dollars
Allan Cutler, a Public Works procurement officer, lodged a complaint related to contract irregularities that fuelled the Quebec sponsorship scandal. Cutler got transferred to another division within Public Works and is no longer with the public service.
Constable Perry Dunlop uncovered evidence of a pedophile ring in Cornwall, Ontario, and alerted police, who didn’t take action. Dunlop then took his concerns to the Children’s Aid Society, after which he was charged with contravening the Police Act. To escape taunts and threats, he left Cornwall and now lives on the West Coast.
Bruce Brine was fired as chief of the Halifax Ports Police in 1995 after making allegations about kickbacks from the Hells Angels to senior ports officials. He has since received a cash settlement and an apology.