Create Strong Protection for Whistleblowers, Watchdog Tells Alberta

May 16, 2012 Updated: April 6, 2013

A whistleblower watchdog is vowing to keep an eye on Alberta premier Alison Redford’s promise to introduce whistleblower legislation, and says success depends on the premier setting the right “tone” for her government.

After winning the provincial election and swearing in her new cabinet, Redford promised a sweeping review of laws—“taking the best examples from the world, including whistleblower legislation”—that would help Albertans access information about their government.

This week, the Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform (FAIR), an Ottawa-based charity that works to protect whistleblowers, wrote an open letter to the premier urging her to create strong laws to protect those who speak out about corruption or wrongdoing.

“The ultimate success of this initiative will lie mainly in your own hands, by setting the ‘tone from the top.’ Little will change unless your own actions as premier demonstrate that employees in Alberta are encouraged to report wrongdoing that threatens the public interest, and that your government will not tolerate any reprisals against them,” reads the letter.

David Hutton, executive director of FAIR, said in an interview that Alberta’s concentration of corporate power in the oil economy makes legislation to support whistleblowers even more important.

“I think it’s very appropriate, very valuable that Alberta would do this,” he said.

“We know that corporations don’t always act in the public interest. If there’s a choice between the public interest and making a buck, it’s pre-determined which way a corporation will go. In that kind of setting it’s doubly important that you have effective ways of ensuring that the corporations and the government that’s overseeing them are at least obeying their own laws and not engaging in misconduct or criminal acts.”

Canada Behind on Protection

Hutton said whistleblower protection across Canada has suffered “a history of decline” and is now decades behind other developed countries such as the U.S, the U.K., and Australia.

“Ten to fifteen years ago whistleblowers were in better shape than they are now because they had common law rights. They could go to court and sue their bosses if they were harassed. That’s not possible anymore. Those rights are being stripped away and the protection and immunity of higher-ups has been strengthened,” he said.

“It’s now virtually impossible to have any consequences against a politician or senior bureaucrat who’s done something wrong.”

Whistleblower protection began to decline after the tainted blood scandal of the mid-1980s—Canada’s worst-ever preventable public health disaster that led to 2,000 recipients of blood products contracting HIV, and another 30,000 transfusion recipients infected with hepatitis C.

Hutton said that after the scandal, laws were pushed through to protect politicians and bureaucrats from liability.

This, as well as a costly federal whistleblower protection system that has produced virtually no results since it was initiated in 2007, has contributed to Canada’s reputation internationally as the “Enron” of whistleblower protection, he said.

Alberta Controversies

Alberta has had its own share of whistleblower-related controversies, such as the case of northern Alberta physician John O’Connor.

O’Connor sounded the alarm in 2003 after finding increased cancer rates in the First Nations town of Fort Chipewyan, which he linked to environmental contamination from the nearby oil sands.

After speaking up, a complaint was lodged against O’Connor by Health Canada, which threatened to take away his medical license for “causing undue alarm,” and he became a victim of political persecution for the next five years.

After increasing public and media protests, O’Connor was eventually cleared of any misconduct and independent studies revealed his concerns were accurate—pollutants in the area were measured to be 50 times higher than normal.

Redford herself has come under fire for failing to carry through on a promise to complete a public investigation into Health Quality Council reports of a “culture of intimidation” and muzzling of doctors in the provincial health care system.

Accountability Tool

Hutton said Canada’s leaders need to understand the value of whistleblowers, not just to the public but to politicians and industry as well.

 “If Alison Redford is a smart politician as she appears to be, she’ll recognize the value to herself and her party of putting in place effective whistleblower protection.”

He said politicians can use whistleblowers to dig out problems in their departments and deal with them before a full-scale media scandal breaks. Or corporations can stop corruption and greed from destroying their companies from the inside, with possible repercussions for the public.

“If you don’t provide an avenue for whistleblowers to blow the whistle, then two things happen. One is that the wrongdoing goes on and builds up into something massive, which will eventually bring a government down when it’s exposed. The other thing is that the whistleblowers themselves, because of being crushed in silence, have no choice but to leak to the media,” he said.

“It’s an accountability tool,” he added. “If whistleblowers are dealt with properly, you can get these things nipped in the bud.”

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