by Sue Kralik, Secretary of ORK
June 3, 2016
The muzzling of public scientists during the Harper years should serve as a cautionary tale against assuming that scientists will be free to enable public science to serve the public good. Canadian public scientists are at the mercy of the government in any efforts to ensure that society is well served by science. International interests have a social and political agenda when it comes to science and standing up to their agenda is a daunting task few are willing or able to undertake. Whistleblowers are aware that revealing malfeasance or injurious tactics on the part of their employers can have catastrophic consequences frequently involving loss of employment, family and home. Deterioration of mental and physical health often results. Their reputations can be irredeemably besmirched by a savvy employer who is thereby able to cast doubt on the validity of their claims. Even if whistleblower legislation is in effect, the employee can be isolated, moved to a distant and smaller office, shunned by their colleagues, assigned tasks for which they are unqualified and eventually fired after receiving negative reviews.
Technically, therefore, they are not fired for whistleblowing and they have no recourse for restitution.
It follows that very few revelations will occur and, in the case of civil servants, public science may well suffer as a result.
The stories of whistleblowers who have plunged into the murky world of attempting to right wrongs have a common focus: in very few cases does the whistleblower survive the experience intact. One could question why anyone would risk such a venture. In most cases, the explanation is the same. The whistleblowers could not remain silent when they saw the damage that was occurring. After experiencing the consequences of revelation, many admit they would not have proceeded had they known how they would be treated. Some maintain they would do so again if faced with that choice. Heroic they are but it begs the question as to why they need to face the situation unsupported and unprotected.
It was to serve this need in the United States that PEER (Public Employees for Environment Responsibility), an NGO, was formed in 1996. It operates primarily to investigate claims from public employees about environmental misconduct on the part of the government. Because employees who blow the whistle on offending agencies are often faced with retaliation, PEER encourages them to work through its organization in reporting government misdeeds. PEER investigates claims once they are made, often using the Freedom of Information Act, and then determines what actions it should take. These can include press releases or lawsuits and providing legal services to whistleblowers who have become targets of retaliation.
According to a Wikipedia report, PEER has conducted a number of campaigns including EPA library closings, Arctic drilling debate, and genetically engineered crops. In 2006, PEER learned of the dismantling of the Environmental Protection Agency’s network of technical libraries, an important resource for research, without Congressional approval. However, even after bringing this to the attention of Congress followed by Congress’ recent order to reopen the libraries, the EPA continues to limit and remove library resources. In its campaign on Arctic drilling, PEER has used emails and documents from current and former Interior scientists challenging the integrity of the environmental assessments of Arctic offshore oil development to fuel lawsuits.
The strength of PEER’s support lies in the fact that the whistleblower is encouraged to act through the organization, a procedure that greatly reduces the vulnerability associated with individual claims. The organization determines the course of action to take, and as a result, much of the fear of alienation that can occur when an employee is shunned by his/her colleagues is removed. Nevertheless, even with the efforts of an organization, the success rate is limited. How much more unlikely it seems, therefore, that an individual, working is isolation, will be able to achieve positive results.
According to the article, The Neglected State of Whistleblower Laws in Canada, posted in Civil Litigation on Friday, November 13, 2015, Canada lags far behind the United States in whistleblower protection laws. Since the adoption of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, protections have expanded for U.S. federal public sector employees and most U.S. states now have legislation intended to protect public employees. By contrast, Canadian courts “have done little to protect whistleblowers.” The article refers to Fraser v. P.S.S.R.B. 1985 in exposing how increased loyalty to the government in power by public servants was expected and made it obligatory to exhaust all internal mechanisms of pointing out the wrongdoing, a provision that would seem to make the whistleblower vulnerable to retaliation. In addition, according to the article, the Canada Revenue Agency is the only Canadian organization that has provisions to reward whistleblowers and so far, no payment has been made. Another shortcoming includes the lack of guarantee of confidentiality and no offer of leniency.
With such fragile supports in place, it seems unlikely that whistleblowers in the Canadian public service will feel empowered to expose harmful policies adopted by the government. For the sake of our health, now and in the future, we need to press this issue with our political representatives. Public science for the public good requires our support.