Here’s a novel idea: Isn’t it about time that the Governor General finally acknowledges the long, illustrious history of whistleblowers who have exposed corruption and malfeasance by awarding the Order of Canada to one of the many Canadians who have raised the alarm on our behalf?
Every year, Rideau Hall bestows the coveted award in elegant ceremonies to individuals who have made Canada, and occasionally the world, a better place by their actions. To my way of thinking, that defines what whistleblowers do: by their actions, they often have made Canada a better place despite the risks, ridicule and retribution they faced.
I was prompted to make this suggestion after reading about yet another Canadian who has stepped forward to tell the truth about the corruption he exhaustively documented, only to have the powers-that-be literally and figuratively turn away from the truth.
That’s precisely what former Quebec public servant and Montreal police chief Jacques Duchesneau has revealed in recent testimony before the commission of inquiry examining corruption in the province’s construction industry.
Duchesneau appears to have taken the responsibilities bestowed upon him by the government of Quebec on behalf of its citizens seriously. As a result, he produced a lengthy report — the product of 18 months of investigation — that detailed kickback schemes involving public officials, as well as the disturbing extent to which organized crime syndicates had rigged the province’s construction industry to favour unscrupulous contractors.
According to Duchesneau’s testimony, when he presented his alarming findings to the province’s then minister of transport, Sam Hamad, the cabinet minister apparently did not seem particularly interested and simply looked out his office window.
“I did not get the sense that it (the report) interested him,” Duchesneau told the inquiry. “I began my presentation only to notice that at a certain point he wasn’t even listening.” Indeed, the transport minister reportedly didn’t even want a copy of the report to “touch his fingerprints,” and it was handed instead to one of his assistants.
Convinced that no one in the chain of command was going to act on his report, Duchesneau now admits to having leaked it to a reporter, who did listen and acted, triggering a cascading series of events that has led to police probes into the sordid matter and ultimately to the establishment of a commission of inquiry.
To be fair, to date, we have heard only Duchesneau’s version of events. It is certain that the former minister of transport will be given an opportunity to tell his side of the story in full before the inquiry. (Hamad briefly responded to Duchesneau’s testimony by publicly insisting that the former civil servant was mistaken to conclude that the report’s findings were of no interest to him.)
Having said this, I spent more than two decades as an investigative reporter and Duchesneau’s story more than rings true. Duchesneau fits the profile of the many whistleblowers I encountered during my career.
First, like Duchesneau, most whistleblowers never originally set out to go public with what they know. Like Duchesneau, they do their jobs and, perhaps in their naiveté, remain convinced that the appropriate authorities will act to protect the public interest based on what they have discovered. When that doesn’t happen, again, like Duchesneau, they sometimes feel little alternative but to risk their careers, reputations and livelihoods, and step outside the prescribed chain of command by contacting the media in the hope that they will finally be heard.
For many, this is an agonizing and lonely experience that can, at times, exact a heavy physical and psychological toll. Then they have to steel themselves against the inevitable public and private retribution that follows their acts of “disloyalty.”
Indeed, Duchesneau watched as Premier Jean Charest initially disparaged his report as a collection of “unproven allegations” before grudgingly agreeing to establish the commission of inquiry after an unrelenting public outcry.
Watching this dynamic unfold yet again, I was reminded of a young woman who confided in me many years ago. Her name was Jane Shorten and she was a brilliant analyst with Canada’s electronic eavesdropping agency, the Communications Security Establishment Canada.
Shorten spoke several languages fluently and earned a stellar reputation as a rising star inside the notoriously secretive and little known espionage service. Despite her success, Shorten began to have grave misgivings about her work when she realized that the spy agency was, at the time, breaking the law by routinely intercepting the electronic communications of Canadians.
Like Duchesneau, she followed the chain of command. She was told, in effect, to shut up. The tipping point came when she heard an intercept of a Canadian woman discussing gynecological problems with her doctor. That’s when she reluctantly agreed to go public. She was so fearful of CSEC’s reach that Shorten only agreed to be interviewed on-the-record outside of Canada.
In the end, her revelations prompted Ottawa to set up a watchdog over CSEC to try to ensure that it abided by the law. But Shorten lost her job and Canada lost an honourable civil servant.
The laws that are supposed to protect whistleblowers are woefully inadequate — as the indefatigable David Hutton, executive director of FAIR, a lobby group devoted to whistleblowers, has rightly argued. They must, as Hutton insists, be strengthened to truly protect whistleblowers working in the public and private sectors who are motivated neither by fame nor fortune, but rather by the desire to do right by Canadians.
Failing that, here’s another suggestion. The Governor General also hands out bravery medals to deserving Canadians. I can think of no one more deserving of that recognition than the whistleblowers who have risked so much to serve the public interest. It’s time he pinned a medal on one of them.
Andrew Mitrovica is the author of Covert Entry: Spies, Lies and Crimes Inside Canada’s Secret Service.