OTTAWA — MPs attempted Wednesday to stop the Liberal government’s foot-dragging on reforming the whistleblower law, demanding changes that could make public servants more comfortable coming forward with allegations of wrongdoing.
Conservative MP Kelly McCauley introduced a motion at the House of Commons’ government operations committee to retable a 2017 report that recommended more than 25 changes to the law. At the time, the Treasury Board president, Scott Brison, had agreed with the committee that improvements were needed to the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act. But advocates say nothing was done.
The Edmonton MP’s motion called on the government to “immediately implement or undertake to implement” the report’s recommendations and asked Jean-Yves Duclos, Brison’s replacement as minister responsible for the public service, to appear before the committee to provide an update on progress made since the initial tabling of the report.
“We’ve seen ample evidence of failures to protect whistleblowers, but also failures within the ATIP [Access to Information Program] act. I think it is a good time to retable a very, very valuable report that all parties supported last time around,” McCauley said.
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Retabling the report will force the government to once again respond to it. Back in 2017, the report had been adopted unanimously — with a majority of Liberals MPs sitting on the committee.
Over the past week, HuffPost Canada has outlined the many weaknesses in the current law — which discourages public servants from coming forward — and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s non-committal response toward fixing the changes. The Liberals ran on a promise to improve the law during the 2019 election.
Wednesday evening, some Grit MPs sought to drag out the process.
Ontario MP Francis Drouin argued the motion shouldn’t be discussed because the committee is currently hearing from the information commissioner, not the public sector integrity commissioner — another agent of Parliament charged with investigating allegations of wrongdoing as well as reprisals against whistleblowers.
Windsor MP Irek Kusmierczyk tried to get the motion thrown out by arguing it wasn’t related to the issue at hand. But the committee chair, Conservative Saskatchewan MP Robert Kitchen, noted that two whistleblowers had appeared before the committee last week in the course of its study of the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Drouin then argued the motion should be put aside because it had only been orally introduced and no written copy in French had been circulated to MPs.
McCauley insisted the rules allowed for it and proper procedure was being followed.
Liberal Gatineau MP Steven MacKinnon chimed in, saying he was struggling to find a link between Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard’s appearance that day and the whistleblower legislation.
Kitchen responded that he’d already ruled on the issue and Maynard had mentioned whistleblowers.
Under questioning from Bloc Québécois MP Julie Vignola, Maynard said that during her 2½ years in her position, she had been approached only once by someone — anonymously — who wanted to know how they could flag information about a person’s acting unethically and illegally by trying to prevent information from coming out.
“Right now, you could be accused of a criminal act if you destroy information, if you attempt to hide information, or try to protect the information doesn’t exist, or using codes to prevent the information from coming out — these types of allegations can be brought to our attention by those working in the area,” the information commissioner told MPs.
Maynard earlier also commented that whistleblowers — who may struggle to find a paper trail confirming their allegations of wrongdoing or actions of reprisal — “need to be able to access the information, and people need to be able to know what is going on. So that is where the link is,” she said of how her office can support those who come forward.
During her testimony, Maynard had tough words for both the Liberal government and the bureaucracy.
Watchdog says government transparency ‘never been more important’
She noted that the public has a right to information. “The right of access — a quasi-constitutional right — cannot be suspended because of the pandemic,” she said.
“Government transparency is the foundation of a strong democracy,” she added, “and has never been more important than during this crisis.”
Some access to information coordinators were going out of their way — and thinking creatively, she said — to try to respond to requests for information. But they were hitting a wall with public servants who hold the requested information but who don’t see it as an important part of their job to respond to requests, to search their files for the information, even, in some cases, declining to go into the office to retrieve documents.
Maynard said she’s been raising the alarm since last April but last week wrote to several cabinet ministers asking to meet with them to discuss the extreme backlog and years-long delays for access to information.
“My goal is to talk to most of them and to also talk to the prime minister if I can, at one point, because I think that’s the top, you know? When I am saying leadership, we need the ministers, we need our prime minister to all say the same thing and to show it through actions.”
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Maynard said she believes many ministers may not know what is going on in their departments.
“I really think … the leaders of these institutions are kept often in the dark or they don’t want to know what is happening.”
She suggested the civil service needs to embrace risk, update computer software, and tell employees they are responsible for responding to requests for information.
“They need to put it maybe in their performance evaluations, and that’s going to be leading to the performance pay at the end,” she said, suggesting senior public servants’ bonus pay should be tied to access to information results. “Managers need to know that that is part of their job and they need to motivate their people to respond.”
While Conservative MP Rachael Harder sought to place the onus on political actors — Trudeau and his ministers — Maynard suggested a culture change is required in the bureaucracy.
A culture change that many say is also required within the public service so that whistleblowers feel safe coming forward.
The committee gave any MP who may not be in agreement with the 2017 committee report — or in the case of some Liberal MPs, who may no longer be — until next Wednesday to submit a dissenting opinion that can also be tabled in the House.
Hamilton NDP MP Matthew Green, who suggested retabling the report last week as a pressure tactic on the government, said he was pleased the Grits had allowed a vote to take place.
“I’m just deeply grateful this wasn’t a filibuster,” he said.
This is part of a series on whistleblowing in Canada.
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