04/16/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 07/01/2015 03:59 EDT

Whistleblower groups cry foul over appointment to tribunal

Spokesmen for federal whistleblowers are crying foul after the Harper government appointed a judge with a Conservative background to a key panel.

Peter Annis, a Federal Court judge, was appointed in late February to the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Tribunal, effective March 3 for a four-year term, serving part-time.

The tribunal was created in 2007 by the Conservative government in the wake of the Liberal sponsorship scandal, as a forum in which whistleblowers could argue they were punished by their bosses for speaking up about corruption and fraud.

Before becoming a judge in 2010, Annis was a Progressive Conservative candidate in the Ottawa Centre riding during the 2007 federal election, coming in third against Liberal Mac Harb.

Elections Canada records also show he donated $3,817 between 2004 and 2010 to the Conservatives and party candidates, including John Baird, the late Jim Flaherty, Lawrence Cannon and Peter Van Loan, all of whom have served as ministers in Stephen Harper's cabinet.

Completely unacceptable

Sean Bruyea, a former soldier and whistleblower, called the appointment by the federal cabinet "completely unacceptable."

"Most Canadians, if not all Canadians, believe that all tribunals and judges should be completely independent," he said in an interview with CBC News.

"For me, this selection is completely unacceptable. I mean, it is clearly a partisan selection and is not what Canadians expect of an independent judiciary or tribunal."

A Federal Court spokesperson for Annis said the judge had no comment about the controversy.

​Bruyea was an early critic of Veterans Affairs' treatment of disabled soldiers, and found himself the target of a campaign to punish and discredit him. Officials tried to cut off treatment for his post-traumatic stress disorder and other benefits while distributing briefing notes that falsely suggested he was mentally unstable.

He has since joined Canadians for Accountability, an Ottawa-based group that defends whistleblowers and encourages public servants to speak up about government misdeeds.

"What we're going to see is a complete discouragement of any credible and meaningful whistleblowers coming forward," he warned.

David Hutton, another advocate for federal whistleblowers, echoed Bruyea's criticisms.

"It's very concerning that the government would be putting forward, or appointing someone, with such evident ties to itself," he said in an interview.

Called 'worrisome'

"It's worrisome that if people in that process are allies of the government, then these people will not get a fair deal."

In 2012, Hutton was dumped from an advisory committee created by former integrity commissioner Mario Dion after he publicly criticized the commissioner.

He said the tribunal is the last hope for public servants who face reprisals after speaking up about fraud and other misuse of taxpayers' money.

"It's really the last resort to get some kind of remedy if they're blowing a whistle and suffer some kind of reprisal," he said.

"It's the last and probably only place where they can go to get a remedy. And if unsuccessful there, their lives are essentially over. They've lost their career, they've lost their livelihoods, they've often lost their family, their health is damaged."

Marisa Monin, spokeswoman for Heritage Minister Shelly Glover, said the government respects the confidential process for vetting judicial nominations and declined comment on the Annis appointment.

There are wide consultations with eminent members of the legal community before deciding each appointment, Monin added.

The tribunal is part of the Canadian Heritage portfolio.

Follow @brigittebureau and @DeanBeeby on Twitter