Culture and Whistleblowing

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Q&A with Pamela Forward

 

Pamela Forward is President of Whistleblowing Canada Research Society, a nonprofit registered charity whose purpose is to advance education and understanding of the whistleblowing phenomenon through research. The knowledge gained will be shared publicly and inform public policy dialogue and development. Whistleblowing Canada’s mission is to improve the practice of whistleblowing, the lives of whistleblowers and Canadians at large, and to increase accountability in Canadian organizations.

 

Question: Why did you start Whistleblowing Canada, and why do you focus on organizational culture related to whistleblowing?

Forward: We were propelled and motivated to do so because of a study that I did related to a 1990's whistleblowing case at Health Canada that revealed weak laws and policies, a dysfunctional organizational culture, a dysfunctional political culture and attitudes in the courts that didn't seem impartial. My overall findings were shocking, not only because of the self-protective conduct, putting many lives at risk, but also because of the overall negative implications for workplaces and accountable systems in governments. 

And there was a surprising finding: if you introduce laws into an unwelcoming, resistant culture, the laws won't be upheld. That happens in many organizations. We believe that's what's been happening in Canada since our whistleblower protection law was implemented in 2007. The government disobeyed its own statute in 2012, when it was supposed to review the law. It refused to do so. They just didn't review the law. For ordinary Canadians, it's a criminal offence to disobey a statute, and punishable by up to two years in jail.

In 2017, there was a review of the law, but it wasn't an independent review, as the law stipulated; it was a parliamentary committee. But I'm sure that the government, in 2017, was shocked when the parliamentarians on that committee unanimously recommended approximately 20 amendments. The government didn't make them; it ignored the review in that nothing was amended. Back then, we were in despair at the huge resistance to improvement. Canada is known for having the worst whistleblowing law in the world.

Q: Were you involved with the whistleblowing law currently going through Parliament and the Senate in Canada?

Forward: In 2022, we noticed a private member's bill, C-290, An Act to amend the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act (PSDPA) put forward by Member of Parliament Jean-Denis Garon, and we contacted him. We worked very closely with him. He's an amazingly candid and sincere man. He was a new MP and acted based on calls he got in his office from public servants who had told him stories about what they were forced to go through when they were doing their jobs ethically and upholding the rule of law. He told us he was shocked when he looked at the inadequate 2007 law. We rolled up our sleeves and worked with him to improve it.

 

Luc_Sabourin.jpgIn January 2024, Parliament voted on the C-290 law to amend the PSDPA -- and they all voted yes. I was there. There were three of us sitting there, in Parliament, in the bleachers I call them, watching the proceedings. Parliamentarians started waving at us. Jean-Denis was waving. The law passed unanimously on third reading, and everyone started clapping. I think what moved the Parliamentarians the most was hearing from whistleblowers firsthand. There were two that we'd mentioned, including a whistleblower, Luc Sabourin, a retired  Officer with the Canadian Border Services Agency, who told his story, which was appalling and apparently put national security at risk. It was about passports being destroyed, false information being put into databases, and his managers and colleagues harassing and threatening him for years after he disclosed, internally, wrongdoing and potentially criminal acts in his CBSA workplace.


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The second whistleblower disclosure was related to Chinese criminal activity in Canada in the early1990s. Brian McAdam, a senior immigration official at Foreign Affairs, had noticed irregular behaviors, such as criminal records disappearing from his computer at the Canadian High Commission in Hong Kong, where he was posted. He reported the hacking, and the RCMP discovered bribery, forgery of visas, and profiteering at the high commission facilitating members of Chinese Triads entering Canada. Instead of anything being done, McAdam was ostracized, his career ended and his health harmed.

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Cpl. Robert Read, the RCMP member who had conducted the investigation was fired when he went public with allegations of coverup. A report sparked by McAdam’s disclosures called “Project Sidewinder,” done by CSIS and the RCMP, was discredited and watered down by senior officials. Not only were these whistleblowers not listened to then and now, but they were targeted, harassed and harmed -- and the government ignored them when they asked for something to be done. With C-290, now in the Senate, while it’s not enough and more legislative improvements are needed, we hope it’s a signal that things will get better. In spite of declines in government oversight, access to justice, media coverage and whistleblower protection overall, momentum for reform now seems to be building in Parliament and among Canadian academics.

 

 
WCRS President, Pamela Forward talks leadership. 
Click to view the video.

Q: Given bill C-290, how can we do better in Canada in terms of corruption, fraud and regulatory failure?

Forward: First, we need to fix our laws. Bill C-290 has to get through three readings in the Senate. The name of the bill is "An Act to amend the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act and to make a consequential amendment to the Conflict of Interest Act." The bill has already made it through three readings in Parliament. There's concern the government will block it in the Senate; blocking it would be in keeping with the defensive tendency by governments to deny mistakes, protect reputations, promote the myth of administrations being error free, and so on. I hope this bill becomes law, which, frankly, because it’s a private members bill is limited in the scope of reform it can enact. It's a beginning, but it’s not enough. It contains only eight of the 20 best practices needed for effective whistleblowing-protection legislation. Only a government bill can fix that.

Another thing we can do better: pay attention to culture change simultaneously with implementing new legislation. Leaders should show leadership. Their behavior and decisions impact workplace cultures, both political and organizational. We need sincere commitment and action. We need Parliamentary scrutiny and oversight of whistleblowing rules and laws. For example, internal disclosure officers, whose job it is to receive, investigate and report on disclosures are also being targeted within the public service. I know, because they contact me. Ministers and leaders need to lead the change, and deputy ministers need to actively reassure employees it’s safe to speak up if they witness wrongdoing. Change and protections within the bureaucracy can happen in many ways.

Q: Is there anything else that can be done, other than legal and political initiatives?

Forward: Workplaces in both the public and private sectors need training and communication regarding rights, laws, conflicts of interest, ethics, criminal activity in the workplace, whistleblowing processes in the workplace, reprisals, how to resist unwanted influences, protection of whistleblowers, and so on. Quite often, whistleblowing is interpreted as a criticism of management or the employer. In reality, what’s required in such situations is listening, reflecting and investigating, not coverups and whistleblower harassment, which often backfires anyway.

Along with training, we need to clarify how ‘loyalty’ is interpreted in the courts and in organizations, especially in government organizations. Understanding of loyalty is often outdated and wrong, meaning coverups of wrongdoing or ‘covering the minister's back.’ That's not loyalty. Some organizations are beginning to acknowledge that whistleblowing is the highest example of loyalty to an organization, the best example of the traditional role of a public servant – as guardians of the rule of law and preserving the public trust. That sort of loyalty prevents failure, harassment, abuse, corruption or criminal activity. Most whistleblowers use internal processes first, not publicity, to expose wrongdoing, and that kind of internal loyalty prevents public exposure if they’re listened to.

Another huge area of focus is penalties. Reprisals against whistleblowers are illegal, so why don't we see perpetrators fined, charged or even jailed, depending on the severity of the reprisal? Fines or charges would send a message along the lines of, "We're serious. We want to know when things are going wrong in our organization. Reprisals won’t be tolerated."

Canada also needs a standing committee of parliamentarians to whom whistleblowers could go directly. Members of the public and receivers of government services have explained this to me; they’re aware of wrongdoing, and they need somewhere to go, some authority whose job it is to receive and ensure such reports are investigated and appropriate action taken.

Pamela speaks to Parliamentarians. Click to view her speech.

Q: What about whistleblowers in the private sector?

Forward: In Canada, approximately 90% of workers are in the private sector, and whistleblowers there don't have any real protections. As citizens, why and how can we watch as our country implodes during serious incidents of wrongdoing? Why do we have that kind of culture in Canada? Many of our citizens are in denial about the coverups and attacks on whistleblowers in the public and private sectors. We need to aspire to higher ideals.

Individuals need to be aware of what happens inside of themselves when they feel pressures or threats. If we're going to change workplaces in the private sector or public sector, individuals need to learn how to resist the downward spirals into wrongdoing, harassment and violent behavior.

Q: What inspires you and your team to continue working on whistleblowing issues?

Forward: What inspires me most is the whistleblowers themselves. They are the best that our country has to offer. I'm honored to be in their company. Many are professionals, and many are just people doing their jobs in accordance with the missions of their organizations and governing legislation. The professionals are lawyers, doctors, accountants, nurses, engineers and others. Without all of them and their tremendous courage, our country's political system and bureaucracy would be declining faster than it is.

According to Transparency International, which just came out with its 2023 Corruption Perceptions Index, Canada has lost seven points since 2015 in terms of corruption in the public sector. Corruption is increasing around the world, including in the public sector here. Also, according to the Rule of Law Index, the world is experiencing a decline in the functioning of justice systems. That includes justice systems in Canada. So, you see, in a public sector that's increasingly corrupt, whistleblowers are not only targeted, they're also among the most underserved citizens in our legal systems. Lawyers are reluctant to represent whistleblowers. For decades, whistleblowers have had little access to justice in Canada, which, remember, has the worst whistleblowing laws federally and provincially in the world. Without whistleblower protections and access to justice, the increasing impunity for corruption in our public sector and political systems will continue to rise and accountability won’t exist.

Personally, I understand what it takes to be a whistleblower, as I was an internal whistleblower in organizations all my life. It’s part of my nature to critically analyze and suggest new ways of doing things in an organization, and this made me a target -- and led to where I am today, working with whistleblowers for change, and that's my second inspiration: working for change, working to improve things. Whistleblowers are usually just doing their jobs. Targeting them is cruel and unusual punishment, causing physical and psychological damage to honest, conscientious employees and colleagues -- and we need to correct things as quickly as possible.

Q: Are there other organizations working on whistleblowing issues that stand out as exemplary?

Forward: I don't know of any organization that has adopted exemplary mechanisms related to whistleblowing. However, there is an exemplary organization working to improve things for whistleblowers: the Government Accountability Project  in the U.S. They're working very closely with us. Their legal director is Tom Devine, and he's on our Advisory Board. He and Samantha Feinstein, his colleague, studied approximately 60 countries, asking if whistleblowing laws really work. Their report listed Canada as tied for last place, because Canada’s law has no best practices needed for effective legislation. He’s been advising Canada on how to fix its laws for years. He volunteers his time here and around the world, and has done so for some forty years.

Another organization is the US-based Centre for Public Impact, which works with governments around the world to adopt approaches to governance that are collaborative and work closely with stakeholders at the local level. This approach to governance is driven by bottom-up listening and learning, rather than top-down command and control.

 
WCRS President on the future. Click to watch the video.

Q: What are some future plans of Whistleblowing Canada Research Society?

Forward: We'll continue our research and continue to share the findings with the public, academics, lawyers and political leaders. The four findings from our foundational research that will guide our future directions are:

  • Weak legislation. We’ll continue to work on that.
  • Dysfunctional organizational cultures in both the public and private sectors.
  • Dysfunctional political cultures. We haven’t been shy in making public the kind of political culture that exists, one that allows law breaking before whistleblower protection, which shocks many people.
  • The courts and our legal system, where it's been noted that there's deferment to government and sometimes employer-friendly standards when judging whistleblowing cases.

We welcome people who have similar concerns to contact us, to sign up for updates, to support our campaigns on social media, or by contacting elected officials.

Also, while we don't have lawyers now, or the funding to hire lawyers, one of the things we're working on is a public fund that will pay for legal support for whistleblowers. Canada is a country of laws, and we should support whistleblowers who are upholding the rule of law. We recently received a grant from The Law Foundation of Ontario to produce a lawyers’ directory for whistleblower cases and educational materials for the general public on whistleblower rights under the law.

We hope that other provinces and territories see this, and that philanthropists understand the need for grants for lawyers, psychiatrists, counsellors and other people to support whistleblowers who are physically, psychologically, financially and professionally harmed while doing their jobs with integrity. We welcome anyone who wants to join us in improving people's lives and helping to maintain accountability and our democratic institutions.

Pamela Forward explains more during a panel discussion, at 1:24 of "Organizational Culture(s) and Whistleblowing."

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  • Stephanie MacGregor
    published this page in Experts Speak 2024-05-04 11:52:13 -0400

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