OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau refused to commit Tuesday to updating the federal whistleblowing law — a law that makes it illegal for civil servants to flag wrongdoing to the public.
While Trudeau said it is “extremely important” that every Canadian has a safe and secure workplace free from harassment and inappropriate behaviour, he declined to state why his government won’t fix a law that has been criticized by whistleblowers, union leaders, and even its own Liberal MPs for failing to protect those who dare come forward.
The prime minister said he knows “whistleblowers play an extremely important role in flagging how government can do better.
“And indeed, the level of transparency and confidence a government can give Canadians in constantly improving and constantly doing better and sharing what we need to do to improve is something we have always been committed to,” he said in response to a question by HuffPost Canada.
Watch: Liberals trying for ‘balance’ on transparency, Trudeau says
Yet, the Liberal government has taken no action to broaden the law. This is despite a Liberal-dominated committee recommending more than 25 changes to the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act four years ago, and agreement from the minister at the time, Treasury Board president Scott Brison, that “improvements are required.”
Experts are now urging Ottawa to move quickly to enable and encourage more people to come forward if they perceive wrongdoing as governments spend billions of dollars on new programs during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Protecting whistleblowers ensures that wrongdoing can’t be swept under the carpet,” Ian Bron, a former government whistleblower and a member of the Canadian COVID-19 Accountability Group, told MPs on the House of Commons’ standing committee on government operations last week.
“Nobody is served by the current state of affairs — not whistleblowers, not the public, not organizations or the government,” he said.
There are numerous problems with the current law, which covers approximately 375,000 federal public servants, including government agencies and Crown corporations. They are severely limited in the type of wrongdoing they can disclose, to whom they can disclose their concerns, and what avenues they can appeal any reprisals against them.
The public — and even retired public servants — have no avenues to flag wrongdoing. And there is no specific protection for whistleblowers in the private sector.
“There are just too many loopholes in the law,” said Bron.
Allan Cutler, another government whistleblower, said the broken system has lost the trust of employees. Too many are afraid that they will lose their jobs if they speak out, he told HuffPost Canada.
“I have been handed documents literally proving the wrongdoing being done within government — as it happened,” Cutler said. “And I couldn’t do anything with it without exposing the person who gave it to me. So I’ve had to walk away and let that corruption go on inside the government.”
The Canadian COVID-19 Accountability Group is also urging the government to be more transparent with information about its handling of the pandemic — from the awarding of personal protective equipment contracts to the details surrounding the vaccine rollout.
The access to information “system has ground almost to a halt,” Cutler said. It’s understandably worse because public servants are not in their offices and it takes longer to get documents, he said. But the length of delay “is unacceptable. The fact that there is a delay is acceptable.”
Sean Holman, an associate professor of journalism at Mount Royal University and another member of the Canadian COVID-19 Accountability group, told MPs that transparency is particularly important in times of crisis.
Feds urged to be more transparent in light of emergency
“During an emergency, such as the one we’re living through right now, this need for information accelerates,” he said. People want to make the best decisions to keep themselves safe while ensuring that governments and corporations are doing the same, he said.
“If there’s an information gap, there is now a risk that it will be filled with misinformation and disinformation — and we can see that in the anti-masking protests that have happened across the country and in the conspiracy theories those protests are based on.
“That’s why it is imperative that the federal government be more open with Canadians during this emergency.”
Trudeau said his government would work with all parties and public servants to strengthen measures to ensure that his government is “always open about what is going wrong and how we can fix it.”
“We are always looking to do better,” he said. “And I thank you very much for bringing forward these concerns.”
This is part of a series on whistleblowing in Canada.
Have a tip or a story to share? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.