Five years after Parliament ordered federal departments to protect whistle-blowers “as soon as possible,” soldiers and spies still lack crucial protections that would allow them to highlight wrongdoing without risk to their careers.
When Canada’s security agencies were broadly exempted from a 2006 law to protect whistle-blowers within the federal bureaucracy, they were directed to come up with parallel systems. The ones that have been put in place have been lagging or found lacking – the military, for example, has never followed up on a directive to designate a senior official to be a sounding board for soldiers.
Critics say a robust culture of internal checks and balances is all the more crucial for national-security agencies given the legal and ethical quandaries they routinely face. Such whistle-blowers have exposed illegal spying operations in Canada and war-crimes cover-ups overseas despite lacking legal protections.
“These are black holes, these institutions,” said the NDP’s Paul Dewar. “And yet the work that they do can have enormous consequences on individuals, on foreign relations and potential breaches of everyday rights.” He added that these factors make it “absolutely imperative” that whistle-blowers within security agencies be protected, and noted that whistle-blower protections were a “cornerstone” promise of the Conservative government when it was first elected.
In 2006, Parliament passed an act to protect whistle-blowers in response to the cases of several civil servants who faced reprisals after exposing boondoggles. The scandals included a kickback scheme for Liberal-government advertising contracts and the misuse of RCMP pension money.
The Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act became law in 2007. It required federal departments to install senior officials to protect whistle-blowers and investigate their complaints.
Exempted, however, were Canadian Forces soldiers and spies in both the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) , and Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC). The tradeoff was that these secretive agencies – which have recently raked in significant top-ups in budgets and powers – would create parallel systems.
“As soon as possible after the coming into force of this section, the person responsible for each organization that is excluded … must establish procedures applicable to that organization, for the disclosure of wrongdoings, including the protection of persons who disclose the wrongdoings,” the act reads.
Yet the Treasury Board, which has been tasked to oversee implementation, told The Globe and Mail it is satisfied that only one of the three organizations has built a system that complies with the legislation.
Meanwhile, there is no documented case of any whistle-blower from these security agencies raising an issue though the mandated process. And, unlike the rest of the federal bureaucracy, soldiers and spies don’t have recourse to an outsider who can hear complaints.
(Other bureaucrats have access to the government-wide Integrity Commissioner, an office whose performance to date has also been lacklustre. The Auditor-General revealed this spring that the now-ousted commissioner, Christiane Ouimet, routinely blocked complaints without investigating.)
There are signs of improvement. A year ago, CSIS gave one of its top auditors an added title – senior officer for the disclosure of wrongdoing. She has since gone from bureau to bureau, soliciting whistle-blower complaints from intelligence officers, putting up posters with her name and phone number.
“The Treasury Board is satisfied that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has established sufficiently similar procedures,” spokeswoman Lucie Vignola said in response to questions.
But Treasury Board is not yet satisfied that employees of CSEC, an ultra-secretive electronic-eavesdropping agency, are sufficiently shielded.
The surveillance agency, which is building a billion-dollar headquarters, has a director-general of audit, evaluation and ethics who is to protect whistle-blowers. But Treasury Board is “in the process of evaluating” CSEC procedures, Ms. Vignola said.
The Canadian Forces never seems to have installed any comparable official. Treasury Board is “actively working” to help the military to develop a system, Ms. Vignola said.
Officials for the security agencies pointed out that they have other built-in procedures that whistle-blowers can use to air complaints. Codes of conduct also forbid reprisals against whistle-blowers.
But defence officials admit work needs to be done, especially in terms of appointing a senior official.
The Canadian Forces “understands the need for someone in this position,” e-mailed Andrew McKelvey, a spokesman for the Department of National Defence, in response to repeated inquiries.
The Forces are “confident that a senior officer will be in place soon,” he said.