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Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

Ottawa Sun: Protection of whistleblowers 'an afterthought' in Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act

March 22, 2017
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Whistleblowers need real protection laws, not paper shields, says a former Foreign Affairs property manager and lawyer who made headlines for exposing billions in excessive luxury expenses in Canadian diplomatic missions around the world.

In 1998, Joanna Gualtieri filed a lawsuit alleging she was emotionally abused and ostracized by the Department of Foreign Affairs for blowing the whistle on her employer. Speaking to a parliamentary committee reviewing the 2007 federal Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act on Tuesday, she said she spent five years looking for corrective action in the department and another 13 years in legal proceedings, but can’t share the details of what she discovered and endured because of a gag order that came with a 2010 settlement in the lawsuit. 

The 2007 act, which created the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner (PSIC) doesn’t need fine-tuning, it needs real cultural change and laws to protect whistleblowers, she said. That includes full free speech rights allowing whistleblowers to decide how to blow the whistle and to whom, said Gualtieri, who argues that the law should be repealed and replaced with one that protects public servants who are doing their duty. 

“Without real protection, it is not only presumptuous but immoral to ask whistleblowers to step forward.” 

The current law is focused almost entirely on imposing a strict regime, dictating and controlling how public servants are to blow the whistle, said Gualtieri. “Protection of the whistleblower is almost an afterthought.”

Gualtieri founded Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform (FAIR) and has served on the board of the Government Accountability Project (GAP) in Washington, D.C. An independent office like PSIC is a sound idea in theory, but it’s naive to believe that such an office has the power, independence and resources to take on cases of systemic wrongdoing with the potential to embarrass the government, she said.

“To highlight the absurdity of a law which imposes exclusive domain in the PSIC, consider the following: In Canada, a Justice Department official in a Trump government with information about Russian interference would be compelled to blow the whistle to PSIC,” she told the committee.

Gualtieri argued that disclosures of all wrongdoing, including illegality, unethical behaviour, abuses of power, and violations of codes of conduct, rules, and policies should be protected. Whistleblowers deserve access to the courts and those who suffer reprisals should be entitled to remedies including compensation for lost wages, mental pain and suffering as well as legal fees. There should also be personal accountability for wrongdoers, including such measures as fines, termination and loss of pension rights, she urged. 

Tom Devine, legal director of GAP, also spoke to the committee via video link.

“No matter what the culture, the magic word for any society is ‘consequences’ — the tragic consequences that can be avoided if it were not for secrecy,” he said. “Whistleblowers have gone from being pariahs to being on a pedestal in the U.S. because they have made a difference.”

In an interview after her appearance at the committee, Gualtieri said she has paid dearly for her actions.

“I come here today gagged. I don’t fully know the limits of my gag. Today, I deny myself the right to speak about what I gave 20 years of my life for. A whistleblower has no choice,” she says. 

“I tell people, ‘Do not blow the whistle until you fully understand what will come to you and your family.’ You will be professionally destroyed. You will become a tourist to your family. You will suffer from depression. You will not be able to participate in anything pleasurable. You’ll become a shadow of your formerly healthy self.”

Still, the government and the committee have taken a courageous first step by reviewing the act, she said. “Success, however, will be marked by getting rid of the autocratic, secretive and second-class disclosure regime currently in place, and instituting meaningful and true legal rights worthy of a first class public service.”

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