LAST week an adjudicator at the Public Service Labour Relations Board handed down rulings related to three Health Canada scientists that confirm what many Canadians – and international observers – had already concluded: that Canada is not a safe place for honest employees, especially if they work for the federal government. After four-and-a-half years of proceedings, it took a further year for the adjudicator to deliver his 208-page decision, which dismissed seven out of eight grievances and ordered one whistleblower reinstated – but not the others. Having followed this case closely from the start, the end result seems absurd to me – as do the reasons given for treating one scientist differently from the others.
The scientists – Dr. Shiv Chopra, Margaret Haydon and Gerard Lambert – had for years valiantly resisted repeated efforts by Health Canada management to pressure them into approving the release of antibiotics, hormones and chemicals into the food supply without the legally required evidence of human safety. They asserted that this pressure came from the highest levels of the bureaucracy – the Privy Council Office – at the urging of powerful corporations. Their epic battle is described in Dr. Shiv Chopra’s book about his career at Health Canada, aptly entitled Corrupt to the Core.
Their bravest moment was to raise the alarm to the Senate in 1998 regarding the imminent approval of Monsanto’s bovine growth hormone, a controversial drug designed to boost the milk production of dairy cattle. Their testimony caused headlines around the world and led to the drug being banned in Canada and most other developed countries. For this alone they are known internationally and regarded as heroes. They were promised protection for their testimony, but when all three were fired simultaneously in 2004 the Senate took no action. As their union battled to have them reinstated, the government agency created specifically to protect whistleblowers also sat idle: former public sector integrity commissioner Christiane Ouimet refused to deal with the scientists’ complaints – even though a judge had already ordered a proper investigation. Her office sat on their disclosure of wrongdoing until it was more than four years old, then decided not to proceed, saying that it was “not in the public interest” to do so.
With these “insubordinate” employees conveniently out of the way, Health Canada rapidly approved seven drugs and other commercial products that the scientists had been blocking – including the use of Baytril (an antibiotic in the fluoroquinolone class) for veterinary purposes. This is a highly controversial decision that leaves Canada out of step with many other developed countries.
The overuse of antibiotics on factory-farmed animals is recognized as the main source of superbugs – deadly new strains of diseases such as E. coli that have acquired the ability to resist most antibiotics. By approving Baytril, Health Canada has endangered what was our last line of defense. New strains are already emerging that are resistant to every existing antibiotic including the fluoroquinolones.
Like many other drug approvals, this is a matter of life and death, and illustrates why we need Health Canada to be focused on protecting our health, not promoting corporate interests.
The ordeal of these scientists is part of a larger pattern: one of fierce bureaucratic hostility toward anyone who causes embarrassment to their department – especially if they expose incompetence or illegality. With this mindset, “loyal” employees who follow orders without question – even unethical or illegal orders – can be rewarded and promoted, while honest employees who refuse to take part in corrupt schemes are persecuted.
The PSLRB rulings follow hard on the heels of a closely-related scandal – the outrageous misconduct of Christiane Ouimet, whose job was to protect government whistleblowers. Ouimet closed hundreds of files, often without proper examination, conducted few investigations and, unbelievably, managed to find absolutely nothing amiss in the federal bureaucracy during her three-and-a-half years on the job.
It’s hard to grasp the magnitude of Ouimet’s misconduct: the effect of her actions was to create a massive obstruction of justice, throwing to the wolves whistleblowers who had been promised protection by her office, and giving cover to more than 200 alleged wrongdoers.
Yet her “punishment” for this misconduct, which was exposed by a whistleblower complaint to the Auditor General, was to be sent into early retirement on the equivalent of a full pension, complete with a $500,000 “severance package.” This sets a terrible precedent – is this how future wrongdoers will be sanctioned?
No other developed country has had such a spectacular, public meltdown of their national whistleblower protection system. One consequence of Ouimet’s misconduct – and the government’s actions in protecting and rewarding her – is that Canada is now seen by observers around the world as the “Enron” of whistleblower protection. The PSLRB’s latest rulings merely confirm that impression. How can it be, observers ask, that scientists who are internationally recognized as heroes for their efforts to protect the safety of the food supply can be so badly treated?
Our concerns regarding the board’s decision only get worse as we look more closely at the process. For example, the principal alleged wrongdoer – the manager who is said to have orchestrated the scientists’ abrupt dismissal – retired soon after, and was then hired by Treasury Board to coordinate the government’s legal team, all at the taxpayer’s expense. Access to information requests have revealed that she was paid close to a million dollars through a numbered company, effectively to defend her own actions.
This case also has parallels with another internationally known whistleblower case: that of Joanna Gualtieri, a conscientious Canadian public servant who by diligently carrying out her job exposed massive waste and extravagance at Foreign Affairs – and was then forced out of the department. When Gualtieri sued her bosses for harassment, government lawyers dragged out her case for almost 12 years. They abused the legal process by forcing her to answer more than 10,500 questions during pre-trial discoveries, and then settled virtually on the courthouse steps – thus confirming that after spending millions on an absurd, abusive “defense,” they did not have a case after all.
In each of these scandals (at the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, at Health Canada and at Foreign Affairs) we see a similar pattern: hostility toward honest employees whose work threatened to expose management misconduct; thinly disguised workplace reprisals carried out under various pretexts; justice denied by endless legal and procedural delays; and taxpayer dollars lavished on protecting the alleged wrongdoers and pursuing aggressive action against the truth-tellers.
There are good reasons why the fate of Chopra and his colleagues is being watched closely in other countries. The safety of our planet’s food system is at greater risk now than any time in history – threatened by lethal superbugs, carcinogenic chemicals and pesticides, hormones, heavy metals and illegal additives. In this context it seems incomprehensible that Canadian scientists who sacrificed their careers to keep our food safe are still being punished for their efforts.
Shame on Health Canada, shame on our government and shame on us if we turn our backs on honest employees such as these, who risk their careers to protect us.
David Hutton is executive director of FAIR (Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform), which works to protect whistleblowers. Courtesy: The Toronto Star.
After the sad decision of PSLRB, what is your next step, are you going to fight against this ruling?
The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) is a 60,000 member union of scientific and professional public service employees. As member of PIPSC I expect the PSLRB ruling to be appealed to as far as the Supreme Court which could take several years more to resolve. Meanwhile, the underlying issues of public health and food safety will continue to fester. The most immediate issue due to which I was considered as “insubordinate” and dismissed, after 35 years of “exemplary” service, concerned Health Canada pressuring me to allow mass scale use of antibiotics in food-producing animals, which I refused because such uses of antibiotics lead to widespread emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria (“superbugs”), causing untreatable food-borne disease and death in people. The PSLRB decision gave no consideration to these issues of the public interest. Hopefully, the appeal courts will be more just.
Do you think that your long ordeal has discouraged the spirit of the whistle blowers in this country?
I don’t know what effect the PSLRB decision will have on other whistleblowers but whistleblowing for me is not to seek vain glory. It is not to become a hero but to serve one’s duty as required under the law. According to a previous decision of the Supreme Court of Canada (1978) whistleblowing was ruled to be an “obligation” of every public service employee charged with protecting citizens’ health and safety. Ironically, that was what my colleagues and I did in our jobs at Health Canada and due to which we got dismissed by our supervisors. According to PIPSC, the PSLRB decision made error in law and that it should be rejected to restore public confidence in the government of this country.