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Trudeau’s Words On Federal Whistleblower Law An ‘Illusion,’ Warns Former Whistleblower

After three decades, and four prime ministers, stronger whistleblowing legislation remains a pipe dream.
Photo of former government whistleblower Joanna Gualtieri that accompanied news articles when she raised flags about government spending in 1998.
Photo courtesy of Joanna Gualtieri
Photo of former government whistleblower Joanna Gualtieri that accompanied news articles when she raised flags about government spending in 1998.

Rather than being disappointed, former government whistleblower Joanna Gualtieri says she resents Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s non-committal response as to why he won’t beef up protections for public servants brave enough to flag what they believe to be wrongdoing.

“It’s even more dangerous than keeping his mouth shut,” she said of Trudeau’s response to HuffPost Canada’s queries last week about the much-criticized whistleblower law.

“I resent tremendously, because it just gives the illusion of a commitment. But that’s all it is, an illusion — because nothing changes,” she said.

Despite promising in the Liberals’ 2019 election platform to enhance existing whistleblower programs “based on the best practices in other countries, including the United States,” the Trudeau government has failed to deliver.

Last Tuesday, the prime minister told reporters gathered outside his Ottawa residence for his biweekly press conference that he knows “whistleblowers play an extremely important role in flagging how government can do better” but that the government had “taken significant measures to strengthen processes and procedures in supporting anyone who comes forward with concerns.”

But those involved with whistleblower advocacy in Canada say that just hasn’t happened.

***

Gualtieri was 31 when she took a job as a property manager with the Department of Foreign Affairs (now called Global Affairs Canada) in February of 1992.

A lawyer, she had spent the previous decade buying and renovating properties with her master-builder husband, overseeing construction sites, doing legal work and at times acting as a landlord. She joined the physical resources branch overseeing what was then estimated to be the federal government’s $3-billion portfolio of diplomatic residences abroad. Five months into her job, she later told a Commons committee, her life changed forever.

Clipping of a profile of Joanna Gualtieri published in the Ottawa Citizen in March 2004.
Photo courtesy of Joanna Gualtieri
Clipping of a profile of Joanna Gualtieri published in the Ottawa Citizen in March 2004.

Under a court settlement, Gualtieri is prevented from speaking about the wrongdoing she sought to expose. But newspaper reports and court documents note that she tried to raise the alarm on what she viewed to be breaches of internal Treasury Board rules and gross excesses of spending on government residences abroad. In Japan, for example, according Greg Weston, then a columnist for the Sun chain, Gualtieri discovered a trade official’s Tokyo home was costing taxpayers more than $350,000 a year in rent — even though an $18-million mansion owned by the Canadian government sat empty in the Japanese capital for almost four years.

In Guatemala, according to a 1999 report by then Ottawa Citizen reporter Norma Greenaway, Gualtieri learned that Canadian diplomats there wanted to purchase three luxury apartments in the Premier Club condo tower — a skyscraper with three swimming pools, two tennis courts, two squash courts, a gym and a clubhouse. Gualtieri wrote a memo in 1995 to her bosses in Ottawa saying the apartments were too large and extravagant and more suitable and less costly but still secure housing was available. The Premier Club purchases were placed on hold, but 26 months later, Greenaway wrote, the government bought the three apartments for almost $1.1 million.

After six years of raising such matters internally, Gualtieri and a colleague John Guenette, who worked in the same branch as her since 1982, filed a $36-million lawsuit in 1998 alleging “rampant” abuse of government policy. They alleged that the government had spent at least $2 billion in unnecessary and unacceptable spending at luxurious diplomatic facilities abroad over a 10-year period, and that the “culture and environment” at the department did not allow them to do their jobs with integrity, according to a report by Jim Bronskill, from the Canadian Press. “In fact, it promotes loyalty to the department over and above all else,” he stated, based on their statement of claim.

The two, who were by then on unpaid leave from the department, described trying to work in an “efficient, ethical and accountable fashion” but being met with “hostility, resistance and ridicule,” all of which contributed to clinical depression. They said they suffered relentless harassment from their superiors when they tried to flag issues.

Gualtieri told HuffPost she took to heart the then Liberal government’s efforts to fix the country’s finances and she sought to find savings where she could, describing it as a “calling.”

“I used to say I am not going to tolerate seeing programs that feed children, [that] put battered women in shelters, close because they don’t have a $50,000 budget. And then we just waste billions of dollars? Like, no, I’m not going to turn a blind eye to that.”

Photo of Joanna Gualtieri.
Photo courtesy of Joanna Gualtieri
Photo of Joanna Gualtieri.

In her younger days, Gualtieri had travelled to North Africa, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, even living a few months in India with her parents. She was marked by the suffering she’d seen and moved by social justice causes.

Her parents, Antonio Roberto Gualtieri and Peggy Nixon, were both engaged in the anti-Vietnam war and civil rights movements in the United States. Her father had heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak in Detroit. A United Church minister, he served for a time as the chaplain at Vassar, a liberal arts college in New York state, where he also taught comparative religion. In 1967, the family returned to Canada, where he taught religious studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, later chairing the university’s research ethics board.

“It’s just the way that I was inculcated from a child,” she said.

“I tried to tell what I thought were such fundamental truths. And I was too naive... to understand how difficult it would all be. It all seemed so elemental to me, like I’m here to do my job. I’m here to be a steward of taxpayer money. That’s what I’m doing. I know what I’m doing. I’m trained for this job.

“Why is this so difficult?”

When her calls fell on deaf ears, she thought that if she just tried a bit harder, her voice would be heard.

“One of the things that really, enslaved and tormented me, is that I was a true believer.”

Gualtieri worked her way up the ladder. She wrote to foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy, informing him of the department’s spending, believing it would be a turning point.

Instead, the government threatened to sue her.

General view of the Peace Tower over Centre Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada September 17, 2020. REUTERS/Blair Gable
Blair Gable / Reuters
General view of the Peace Tower over Centre Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada September 17, 2020. REUTERS/Blair Gable

The next year, Gualtieri and Guenette brought their lawsuit forward — naming Axworthy, along with several senior mandarins, all of whom had been informed about the lavish spending.

“I had written [to] all these people.”

The pair sought a total of $6 million in damages for themselves and $30 million in punitive damages to be used to establish an advocacy organization to represent and protect the rights of government employees, according to a report by Allan Thompson in the Toronto Star.

Gualtieri felt that the individuals named needed to be held personally accountable for how they had responded and that they shouldn’t just be able to “hide behind the shield of the institution.”

She had raised the alarm internally for years — often feeling deeply alone amid the gaslighting from her colleagues and in constant fear of making any tiny mistake that could be seized upon to discredit her.

“Did I know how tormenting it would be? No, I didn’t know. I never — that’s the one thing that I completely underestimated.”

- Joanna Gualtieri

Instead of thanking her for her efforts, Gualtieri alleged being ostracized and emotionally abused, according to reporting by Jon Waddell in the Ottawa Citizen in 1999.

Gualtieri wasn’t looking to be an agitator. But after she was shuffled out of her position to a dead-end job with no description, she felt she needed to fight for what she believed to be right. (She was eventually reinstated in her position but no substantive work came her way. She felt her reputation was tarnished, and took an unpaid leave of absence a few months later.)

“You can’t just squish somebody like an insect who’s doing the right thing,” she told HuffPost.

Still, she had no idea how vicious things would get.

“Did I know how tormenting it would be? No, I didn’t know. I never — that’s the one thing that I completely underestimated.”

***

After a legal setback, Gualtieri said she never heard from Guenette again. She took her case to the court of appeal alone and eventually formally separated her case from his.

After 13 years of legal proceedings, an undisclosed sum in legal bills, and working insane hours to marshal her case from court setbacks to vindication, Gualtieri settled with the government in 2010.

She agreed to sign a confidentiality agreement — something she now regrets. It is an ironic and difficult punishment for someone who fought for years to have her voice heard.

Gualtieri said she signed the deal because the prospect of more years of litigation weighed heavily on her. Her husband had selflessly nurtured their two boys. She had already lost her brother, Mark, who died of heart failure, in 2007, and her mother to metastatic cancer, while she focused on litigating her case.

“My mother died, while I was still in the lawsuit,” Gualtieri recounted one night last week on the phone with HuffPost. Her mother was 84. “She used to say, what is my precious Joanna going to do? Like, they’re just crushing her,” Gualtieri said, crying. “And as soon as I settled. It’s the first thing I thought of was my mother... I wanted her to know that mom I’ve come out [of this ordeal].”

The personal toil is not something most whistleblowers discuss, Gualtieri said.

Joanna Gualtieri pictured with her mother and father after giving birth to son Sebastien.
Photo courtesy of Joanna Gualtieri
Joanna Gualtieri pictured with her mother and father after giving birth to son Sebastien.

But not a week goes by, she later wrote HuffPost in an email, where she doesn’t agonize over the fact that when her brother needed her most, she abandoned him to wage war against Ottawa.

“Each and every day took every ounce out of me to keep going,” she wrote in an email. “To survive the battle, I needed to be on the frontline with the government.”

While Gualtieri can’t share the details of her settlement, the justice department won’t. It also declined to tell HuffPost how much her case cost taxpayers.

Her fight with the federal government cost Gualtieri more than a decade of life, and sent her on an entirely different course than the one she’d envisioned.

“It was like at the stroke of midnight, everything changed. It was not easy.”

***

Like many public servants who have attempted to blow the whistle, Gualtieri has become an advocate for whistleblowers. She founded the charity FAIR ( Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform) in 1998 (which later ceased daily operations). She chaired the board of the U.S.-based Government Accountability Project (GAP), worked on private members’ bills, and testified in front of numerous parliamentary committees. She was even featured in the Conservative Party’s 2006 campaign literature, as Harper’s team pledged more support for government whistleblowers. (One well-known public-sector whistleblower, Allan Cutler, even ran as a candidate.)

“They spoke a good game,” Gualtieri said of the Conservatives. When the party was still in opposition, and her case was proceeding, she described herself as “their golden girl.”

“There was often such courtesy and even adulation… . But, you know, once [they were] in power, I then was in litigation for years after that. So what happened?”

Gualtieri qualifies the law that was passed under the Conservatives — the whistleblower legislation currently on the books — as “shit,” “really retrograde,” legislation that “dissuades whistleblowers rather than empowers them.”

“They spoke a good game.”

- Joanna Gualtieri on Conservatives' position on whistleblower protections

“They say that one person can make a difference,” Gualtieri told HuffPost. “We needed political champions. And, instead we had political betrayers in a very serious way.”

Simply, she said, what the government did was put in place a regime that governs whistleblowers and locks them in. “It’s very, very clever,” she said.

“They tell you how you’re going to exercise your voice, and where you’re going to exercise your voice, and to whom you’re going to exercise it, and for what reason.”

“It served a lot of purposes for the government,” she added, “because it gave the illusion to the public that they were actually doing something on the whistleblowing front.”

The law not only forbids public servants from blowing the whistle publicly — only in rare cases can they speak out without losing their right to be protected from reprisals — it even prevents them disclosing wrongdoing to most other employees in government departments. Public servants wishing to report serious wrongdoing may disclose their concerns only to their immediate supervisor, a designated officer within their home department, or the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner.

Government of Canada coronavirus information sign after a during a Government of Canada briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 25, 2020.
CP/Lars Hagberg
Government of Canada coronavirus information sign after a during a Government of Canada briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 25, 2020.

The law also places limits on the ability of whistleblowers to contest reprisals against them, and it places the burden of proof on the whistleblower to prove actions taken against them are in retaliation for their disclosure of possible wrongdoing. The deck is stacked against them.

Since the law came into force in 2007, only two cases have gone to the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Tribunal for a decision on reprisals — and in both cases the tribunal found against the complainants.

“It really is a regime that is very restrictive,” Gualtieri said. “I mean, I would not have been protected by it.”

A 2003 change in the law, through the Public Service Modernization Act, now prohibits employees from suing the government over disputes involving the terms and conditions of their employment.

“This is so serious, and nobody [at the time] got it,” said Gualtieri. “If you can’t have access to our courts, how the hell are you ever going to hold the government to account? I mean, are you going to do it with some quasi-judicial board with some bureaucrat on it? I mean it sort of sounds so wildering but it’s ridiculous… .

“I just feel so sorry that that’s the legacy of my case, that you have this law now that doesn’t give people any chance of beating the bureaucracy.”

***

Gualtieri said she now feels she has a moral duty to caution people. “Do you really know what you’re getting into by going down this path?”

Whistleblowers should inspire people to blow the whistle, to be a voice of encouragement, to extol the public interest that they will serve, she said. “But … how can I encourage anybody to basically martyr themselves? Look at what happened to me.”

Gualtieri, who is currently involved with a new project called The Integrity Principle — working with her 17-year-old son to inspire courage among young people, said she finds all the political talk tiresome and dispiriting.

Last week, the prime minister thanked HuffPost for “bringing forward these concerns” about the whistleblowing law. Trudeau said he looked “forward to continuing to work with all parties and members of the public service on strengthening measures to make sure that [his] government is always open about what’s going wrong and how we can fix it.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers opening remarks before taking questions from the media outside Rideau Cottage Ottawa on Feb. 9, 2021.
CP/Adrian Wyld
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers opening remarks before taking questions from the media outside Rideau Cottage Ottawa on Feb. 9, 2021.

Some MPs want the government to fix the law so that whistleblowers can feel protected if they raise issues relating to the COVID-19 pandemic response.

Gualtieri wishes them well but believes that only a crisis — possibly a life-threatening one — will cause the government to act.

After three decades, and through four prime ministers, legitimate, fair, effective whistleblowing legislation remains a pipe dream.

It isn’t a complex issue to fix, she said, but embracing the change must be terrifying for politicians and senior public servants.

“I think they’ve figured out ‘why do we really want to give full embrace to this? If we do, it’s something that we have to live with, and it is going to be an existential challenge to our power,’” she said.

“I used to think that it was more innocent, the reluctance to embrace it. And now I say to myself, no, it’s intentional.”

This is part of a series on whistleblowing in Canada.

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