OTTAWA–Richard Colvin at age 40 now holds the dubious and unlikely title of "whistleblower." It's a label the 15-year veteran of Canada's foreign service, currently the deputy head of security and intelligence in Canada's embassy in Washington, might find fatal to his career.
Although the Conservatives promised protection for whistleblowers, Defence Minister Peter MacKay, once foreign affairs minister and Colvin's political boss high on the chain of command, clearly has Colvin in his sights.
He attacked Colvin's credibility after the diplomat's testimony that suggested widespread Canadian knowledge and cover-up of the abuse of Afghan prisoners transferred by Canadians to local authorities, and said Colvin "never raised the issue with me."
"Mr. Colvin is a member of the public service who has a job in Washington. As far as I'm concerned his job is there for him," said MacKay. But he also added: "I suspect that promotion (to Washington) took place, or it did take place, long before he gave his evidence yesterday."
Until Colvin's explosive appearance before a parliamentary committee, the foreign officer had the confidence of his political and public service bosses.
After joining the foreign service, he moved through increasingly senior positions in Sri Lanka, Moscow, Jerusalem, Ramallah in the Palestinian territories, Afghanistan and now Washington where his job still involves dealing with the Afghanistan file, and a high security clearance.
In Afghanistan, where he was posted until October 2007, he was head of the political section and chargé d'affaires or acting ambassador whenever then-ambassador David Sproule was out of the country, which was a lot.
The Star spoke with several people close to Colvin who say he went into his testimony with his eyes open. He knew it would be "an atomic bomb" politically. The expectation was that because a parliamentary committee summoned him, he would be shielded from career reprisals for his revelations.
Colvin, through his lawyer Lori Bokenfohr, declined to discuss his testimony or its fallout.
Sources say the impact was even bigger than they thought, and they now hope that the high-profile attention will actually afford him more protection, not make him a target.
History and whistleblowers like Allan Cutler say otherwise.
Cutler, the former bureaucrat who blew the whistle on the sponsorship scandal under the Liberal government, was transferred from his position, and later ran unsuccessfully as a Conservative candidate.
He now heads a national whistleblower support group called Canadians for Accountability. He said that in practice, little has changed for whistleblowers, despite the Conservative government's "Accountability Act."
"The fate that generally awaits anybody involved in whistleblowing is your career is basically dead-ended, whether it's overt or covert," says Cutler, who places blame on top bureaucrats, not politicians. "The culture hasn't changed."
Friends say Colvin's motivation for stepping forward was nothing other than to tell the truth about what he believes – that federal policies in managing the war in Afghanistan actually hurt its chances of success, and strengthened the insurgency.
Colvin, they say, is "single-minded" in his belief that the war has gone badly wrong because of poor political leadership, which has endangered Canadian and Afghan lives. He also feels that view is widely shared among his colleagues who've been silenced by their superiors. Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform (FAIR), a charitable group that calls for greater legal protection of those who reveal wrongdoing, lists 29 other whistleblowers on its website who were punished for their efforts.
Lost jobs, lost titles, lost reputations and long battles to restore their credibility are usually the result.
"If you look at past experience, his career is toast," says FAIR's director, David Hutton.
"He is unlikely to go anywhere now, even though he seems a very competent, level-headed and obviously very courageous person. In my view, he's the type of person that Canada needs in its foreign service."
That the Conservative government is attacking Colvin's credibility outright, even suggesting his testimony is aiding the Taliban claims, is typical of the response that Hutton has seen under both Conservative and Liberal governments. Colvin, he says, will face a professional shunning if not worse.
"He can expect simply the silent, cold shoulder all around. His name will forever be synonymous in Foreign Affairs management with betrayal. That's how they look at this type of behaviour. It's a reflex action. They go after them, often viciously."
The Conservatives' first piece of legislation was the Federal Accountability Act that took effect April 15, 2007. With it, the government – in theory – welcomed disclosures as part of a new era of transparency and accountability.
But Cutler and Hutton say little has changed.
Indeed, the list of people who've borne the brunt for speaking out could include Linda Keen, the fired head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, and top officials with Elections Canada such as Jean-Pierre Kingsley, his successor as chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand and electoral commissioner William Corbett, who have taken different views than the Conservatives on political financing and spending limits.