CJFE launched a new award last year to honour Canadians who, at great personal and professional risk, report wrongdoing in their workplaces. Called the CJFE Integrity Award, it recognizes whistleblowers who have attempted to correct behavior in the public or private sectors.
In creating the award, CJFE believes that whistleblowing is a right of free expression, and affirms its belief that there should be greater protection for whistleblowers in Canadian law and practice.
Whistleblowing is generally undertaken by those who combine an extraordinary sense of conscience and determination with a desire to make society better and safer. What most Canadians do not know is how difficult it is, and how great the risks are. People who are brave enough to go public about misdeeds in the workplace are often attacked by their employers and branded ratfinks, squealers, snitches or disloyal traitors—or worse. Alan Levy, an associate professor at Brandon University, in Brandon, Man., who has done considerable research on whistleblowers in Canada, estimates that nearly all end up losing their jobs—either because they are hounded out or actually fired.
There are many definitions of what whistleblowers do, but the common elements are that they have inside information of wrongdoing or negligence involving corruption, misconduct, illegal or unethical activity or other actions that can adversely affect the public’s well-being, or the strength of a country’s democratic processes.
Whistleblowers, particularly in the United States, have taken on government and corporations in famous cases that have changed public policy, protected the public from harm or led to the arrests of senior executives of major corporations:
- DANIEL ELLSBERG gave the Pentagon Papers, about the Vietnam War, to The New York Times, which contributed to the erosion of public support for the war and changed U.S. policy.
- JEFFREY WIGAND spilled the beans about the nicotine his tobacco company was putting into cigarettes to addict smokers. It ignited the debate that led to stronger non-smoking regulations in many parts of the world.
- CYNTHIA COOPER AND SHERRON WATKINS exposed financial illegalities at WorldCom and Enron, respectively, two giant enterprises that eventually went bankrupt. Their information led to lengthy prison terms for senior executives.
Despite the fame some whistleblowers have gained, nearly everyone who takes the path less travelled faces vicious and unrelenting opposition from their employers—whether government, corporate or another type of institution. Most whistleblowers are censured, defamed, disciplined, sometimes fired and, in extreme cases, sued by those trying to cover up the wrongdoing that had been done.
Becoming a whistleblower is like competing in a marathon, not a sprint. A whistleblower’s first obligation is to make the complaint within the organization where they work; only if this process does not address the wrongdoing will they then have protection when they go public.
In many cases, the harassment and ensuing arbitration or court cases result in stress, mental pressure, anguish and anxiety for the whistleblowers. And nothing moves quickly. In Canada, for example, it took 18 years for the charges by Joanna Gualtieri against the Foreign Affairs department to be settled, while Dr. Nancy Olivieri of Toronto is in year 14 of her fight with a drug company.
Whistleblowers are needed because they know more about what is going on where they work than anybody else. They know when and how corporations are cutting corners in quality and safety, when proper procedures are not being followed in government dealings, and so on.
But the problems for whistleblowers are usually very difficult. The Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform (FAIR), a Canadian support organization whose mandate is “Protecting whistleblowers who protect the public interest,”says that it’s only after whistleblowers go public that they discover “it’s not just their immediate boss or a colleague that they are up against, but perhaps an entire department, perhaps an entire government, desperate to avoid bad publicity.”
Many whistleblowers say they originally brought their concerns to their immediate superiors or other senior managers because they believed that doing so was part of their job. Their first motivation was to stop the wrongdoing, and they went public only when they became convinced their employers had no intention of fixing the problem.
Now, probably more than ever, we need whistleblowers. Over the past few years nearly all levels of government have changed how they keep an eye on industries. Monitoring has been replaced with a self-regulation system where the companies themselves are required to do the inspections and report the results back to government. In many cases, there is no independent evaluation in sectors ranging from aviation to food, water quality to rail traffic, and on and on. The inadequacy of the situation was vividly exposed earlier this year when the federal auditor general blasted Transport Canada because 70 per cent of Canadian aviation companies were not inspected last year. In his report Michael Ferguson said: “Transport Canada is not adequately managing the risks associated with its civil aviation oversight.”
The battle to improve whistleblower protection is reminiscent of the struggle years ago to promote other human rights, such as racial equality and sexual orientation. That means a need for more education in the public realm, and direct and sustained pressure on politicians to pass better laws and commit to effective enforcement (not lip service) in the public sector. Moreover, protection for whistleblowers must be extended to the private sector. These changes will be an uphill battle, but one that is definitely worth taking on to create a better and safer Canada.
Original article on CJFE website (part of CJFE annual report card, pdf file)