I call this meeting to order. Welcome to the 16th meeting of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates.
The committee will meet today from 3:08 my time, which is 4:08 your time, and we will try to stay on time and hopefully get through this as quickly as we can, so that we can have time to hear clearly from the witnesses and to be able to ask questions.
We will hear witnesses today as part of the committee's study on the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just to inform the members, the committee will not meet on Wednesday, February 3. We expect a large number of votes following question period that day—we understand close to five—which is going to add an extended amount of time that will prevent the committee meeting that afternoon. We tried to reschedule, but we were unable to, so we have rescheduled the planned witness for the next meeting of the committee on Wednesday, February 17.
To ensure an orderly meeting, I would like to outline a few rules to follow.
Interpretation in this video conference will work pretty well like a regular committee meeting. You have the choice, at the bottom of your screen, of floor, English or French. Before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name. When you are ready to speak, you can click on the microphone icon to activate your mike. When you're not speaking, your mike should be on mute.
For those participating in the committee room, please note that masks are required unless you're seated and when physical distancing is not possible.
My understanding is that each witness has an opening statement. You will each be given five minutes to speak. We will go in the order I have on the notice of meeting.
With that, I will invite Mr. Bron to deliver his opening statement.
Mr. Bron, the floor is yours for five minutes, please.
Good afternoon, Mr. Chair and members of the committee. Thank you for inviting me to speak on this important issue, whistle-blowing during the COVID pandemic.
The group that I represent, along with Mr. Cutler and Mr. Holman, was made up of a range of Canadian experts in transparency and whistle-blowing, who were brought together to seek solutions to a problem: how to detect and correct wrongdoing in both the public and private sectors during the COVID emergency. I've also been researching whistle-blowing in Westminster governments for several years.
At the start of the pandemic, there were numerous stories of shady deals for PPE, not just in Canada but all over the world. Later, I heard of employers failing to pass on the emergency wage supplement to their workers and of employees being too afraid to speak up for fear of losing their jobs.
In Ontario, Ashley Jenkins was fired for speaking up on conditions in a long-term care home. Nurses in Quebec complained of similar reprisals. You may also recall that the Canadian Armed Forces sent in medical personnel to assist in long-term care homes in Ontario. The horrifying details of what they found were leaked to the media, revealing just how badly provincial oversight had failed.
These cases represent only a tiny fraction of employees who have observed wrongdoing. Research shows that only about half of employees will ever report serious wrongdoing, and that only about 10% ever disclose outside of the organization, usually when internal disclosure has failed. Less than 1% of them will ever approach the media. This implies that there are hundreds of cases of COVID-related wrongdoing across Canada that we know nothing about and that may be ongoing.
Transparency, as my colleague Mr. Holman will attest, is one part of the solution. Making whistle-blowing safe is another. Study after study has confirmed that insider tips—whistle-blowing—are the most effective way of detecting misconduct in organizations, beating out audit, management review, law enforcement, and everything else.
Despite the value of the information they provide, whistle-blowers in Canada are not adequately protected. Even internal whistle-blowing is punished, partly to send a signal to other workers and partly to head off external whistle-blowing to a regulator or the public.
Employers carry out reprisals, because they can get away with doing so. The most comprehensive whistle-blowing laws in Canada, which cover only the public sector, don't really work. I know this because my colleagues and I have been comparing them with best practices for years. Most private sector workers have no protection at all, outside of common law, which is a difficult and expensive route to take. A few laws exist in different sectors, but they're disconnected, ineffective or just unused.
For this reason, Tom Devine, one of the world's foremost experts on whistle-blowing, called Canadian whistle-blowing law “a tissue paper shield”, meaning that it is utterly useless and deceptive. In fact, as Mr. Drouin and Mr. McCauley may recall, he said so to OGGO almost four years ago as part of the review of the federal whistle-blowing law. That review led to a unanimous report recommending changes. Unfortunately, none were adopted. This sets us apart from many other jurisdictions, such as the EU, which has just recently required all member countries to implement new and better whistle-blowing laws.
To try to address both the short- and long-term challenges, our group arrived at three recommendations related to whistle-blowing: one, that a COVID ombudsperson be appointed to receive disclosures and inquiries, to direct concerned Canadians to the right avenues and to help resolve disputes; two, that an awareness campaign be launched to inform Canadians of their rights to speak up, and of the disclosure avenues available to them; and three, that existing whistle-blowing laws be rewritten to meet best practices and expanded to include both the public and private sectors.
In closing, I will say that nobody is served by the current state of affairs: not whistle-blowers, not the public, not organizations or the government. The key point is that protecting whistle-blowers ensures that wrongdoing can't be swept under the carpet. As the long-term care tragedy painfully illustrates, unchecked problems metastasize and can cost lives. Effective whistle-blowing systems allow problems to be identified, competently investigated and more quickly corrected.
Accordingly, we ask this committee to recommend immediate action to advise and protect whistle-blowers now and in the future.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair and members of the committee.
You've heard from Mr. Bron, and I'm going to be saying some of the same things. I'm going to say some of them a little differently and in a more general way.
We all know we're in the middle of a pandemic and there's no precedent that's being followed, so we all know mistakes have happened and will happen, but what do we do about them? Everyone has an opinion on what should be done. Criticism is easy from hindsight, but people involved in it are trapped, especially when people won't confess to mistakes.
I talk to quite a few whistle-blowers, just as Mr. Bron does, and maybe I'm talking to them more actively right now. There are two issues that come up continually. One is the fear factor of what's going to happen to them if they speak out. In addition, right now they're afraid of losing their jobs. Jobs have been lost around the country. We have less of a workforce than we used to. They're saying, “If I speak up, I'll be the next one to go”, so they don't want to.
The other thing they're really worried about equally is retaliation. Along with that comes the issue of trust. Right now, I don't know of a whistle-blower who trusts any public official of any party. They're scared. The officials have lost the ability to have the public trust them.
The laws, as Mr. Bron said, are weak to non-existent. The federal law is not really very good at all. In particular, I'm going to make a point that none of the laws, to our knowledge, has the reverse onus that's critical in good whistle-blowing legislation. The reverse onus means that in the case of retaliation the employer has to prove they did not retaliate, rather than the whistle-blower proving there is retaliation. Who has the power? Who has the documents? It's the employer, not the employee.
There are three fundamental ethical principles I'm going to mention, which have been brought up before. They relate to procurement, but they also...which has happened vastly in here. The three fundamental principles are fairness, openness and transparency. The federal ombudsman has addressed this and it has been brought to the committees before.
There are four reasons to sole-source only. I know I'm deviating from just the whistle-blowing, but I'm getting into where the whistle-blowing has had some effect and some things have happened.
There are four reasons, one of which is urgency. With the pandemic, the government—provincial or federal—is totally right that it's urgent. You don't have time to go through the normal procurement practices to get what you want. The issues of fairness and openness exist with competition. Fairness is equal treatment to all bidders, and competition has to be there to do that, and openness is providing everybody a chance to submit bids.
The government has made some attempts to do that to the extent possible, but transparency never leaves. Transparency is providing information in a timely fashion. It never changes and it never leaves, whether it's competitive or whether it's negotiated. It never leaves with HR, or with any facet of our public life or our private life. We have to be able to get the information out and be protected in getting it out. Right now it's not happening.
ATIP, which is another part of it, is not.... ATIP is a great way to park the information and delay giving you anything you want. I've had a lot of frustration in getting information that should be freely given, and some of it's very simple.
In conclusion, I'm going to be short and just say that mistakes happen. We all know mistakes happen. Some governments have admitted this. The provincial government in Ontario admitted it should have kept giving shots to people during Christmas. They stopped for two days; they admitted it was a mistake. There is absolutely nothing wrong with admitting a mistake.
The other thing is that details are essential. When are we going to find details? What we seem to hear from many people is that sometime in the future it will be okay. That's the over-the-rainbow type of defence. Yes, we all know one day in the future we'll be okay. The last report I saw, done by an independent organization, said that we will actually be out of the pandemic about the summer of 2022. That's not acceptable. We should have definite information.
The whistle-blowers will talk to me, but they won't talk to anybody else because they're scared of speaking out. They also don't trust the media anymore.
I'll leave it on that note. It is essentially the same as where Mr. Bron left it. We need a national law that covers the private sector, the public sector and the not-for-profit. We need one national, solid, good law for all whistle-blowers for reporting all wrongdoing in this country.
Thank you very much.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I would also like to thank the committee for once again inviting me to testify on how the public's right to know has been compromised during the pandemic, and what can be done about that problem.
I am a journalism professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, where my research focuses on why we value information in democracies and the history of our country's freedom of information laws. As Mr. Bron mentioned, I am also a member of the Canadian COVID-19 Accountability Group, an ad hoc coalition of experts who joined together last year to recommend reforms to Canada's whistle-blowing and freedom of information laws within the context of the pandemic.
That expertise is why I am deeply troubled by the scale of secrecy we have seen from Canadian governments during the pandemic, which has only continued since I last testified before this committee. That secrecy has meant that the federal government has failed to provide the public and public officials with the data needed to track and account for billions of dollars in COVID-19 spending, including the costs and contracts for COVID-19 vaccines.
It's meant a failure to maintain the usability of Canada's already broken access to information system, and it's meant that the government has too often refused or delayed answering basic questions from the news media and the opposition about its pandemic response, from when vaccines will arrive in this country to whether the has spoken to the leader of one of the companies making those vaccines.
That secrecy didn't just start during the pandemic. History has shown that it is an endemic part of our system of government, no matter who holds power in Ottawa. It's because this system is literally built around the notion that decisions must be made in private. The said as much last month when he argued that the need for accountability and openness must be balanced against “an ability to grapple with very difficult questions in a fulsome way.” Since many of the questions government deals with are difficult questions, the result is very little transparency, something that is reflected and reinforced by the fact that everything that happens in cabinet, the government's principal decision-making body, is a secret.
This belief in the necessity of private decision-making has penetrated every part of government, from the highest minister to the lowliest bureaucrat. Not only does this attitude infantilize the Canadian public and degrade our democracy, but it also threatens the political and social stability of our country.
People want information because they want control and certainty. They want information so they can make better decisions about the world around them, thereby controlling public and private institutions. They want information so they can better understand the world, thereby feeling more certain about what's going to happen in it.
During an emergency, such as the one we're living through right now, this need for information accelerates. That's because Canadians want to make the best possible decisions to keep themselves safe, while ensuring that governments and corporations are doing the same thing on their behalf.
The costs of not providing this information are severe in the post-truth era. If there's an information gap, there is now a substantial risk that it will be filled with misinformation and disinformation, and we can see that in the anti-masking protests that have happened across the country and in the conspiracy theories those protests are based on.
This is why it is imperative that the federal government be more open with Canadians during this emergency. These times demand less secrecy, not more secrecy. The truth is the only counter to the lies that have become such a pernicious part of the public sphere.
To that end, the COVID-19 Accountability Group has recommended that the government be legally required to proactively release a number of broad categories of unredacted records within 15 days of their being prepared, including health and safety inspection reports, public health research and government contracts. There is no reason Canadians should not have access to the truth in these records, whether we're in a pandemic or not.
In combination with the whistle-blowing reforms recommended by my colleagues, we believe these measures will do much to ensure Canadians' confidence in the government and preserve evidence-based decision-making at a time when it's under threat of wrongdoing and abuse within the public sector.
Thank you so much for the opportunity to speak.
Gentlemen, welcome back.
First of all, I want to thank Mr. Bron and Mr. Cutler for doing so much work with us on whistle-blowers, and I want to thank the other committee members who were with us in the 42nd Parliament: Mr. Drouin and, of course, Mr. MacKinnon. Despite their best efforts, the government has dropped the ball and done nothing with moving forward on that legislation. Hopefully, one day we will, because I agree that it serves no one when we're hiding information.
Mr. Cutler, I want to start with you. What do you think it says about our country when both Trump's America—and, of course, it has changed over to Biden—and the U.K. have released details on their COVID contracts and we're continuing to refuse to release that information?
I don't think any province in Canada right now is actually doing it well when it comes to transparency, because all of these measures, whether or not they're whistle-blowing, or whether or not they're freedom of information, are essentially coming from the same source. They're all relatively the same, so we encounter the same problems as we look at all of the jurisdictions across Canada.
What we should be looking at is how other countries are doing this, and how other countries are doing better. A quick example is New Zealand, which has been elevated internationally for its approach to dealing with the pandemic. One interesting thing that doesn't get as much attention as it should is the fact that it publicly discloses its cabinet records, proactively after 30 business days of final decisions being taken by cabinet. Other countries are more open than we are, and we need to follow the lead of those countries in bringing more openness and accountability to Canada.
If I could just add another thing.... You mentioned China. That's a really interesting example. The Toronto Star did some really good investigative reporting and found that many companies in Canada are actually importing goods that have been manufactured with forced labour. What's interesting is that the reporting was only possible because some of those import/export records are available in the United States. We don't have access to those import records in Canada—
I want to thank the witnesses for joining us today, both in person and virtually.
I want to speak a bit about what, in fact, this government is disclosing, and what the public knows as a result of many of the disclosures that have occurred during this pandemic.
I'm speaking as Parliamentary Secretary to the . The Translation Bureau is under our responsibility and is inundated with requests to translate documents destined for the general public.
The backlog we are currently experiencing at the Translation Bureau to provide public disclosure of COVID and other related documents is an overwhelming one. It's never been seen before. That is precisely because this government has agreed to disclose a number of COVID-related documents and provide extraordinary disclosures.
I do recall, and all members here will recall, the first motion we made to adjourn the House and to adjourn to hybrid sittings. It was one that called upon the Auditor General to do special examinations of the government with respect to COVID-related decisions.
The front page of The Globe and Mail today contains disclosures that are extraordinary and would never have been made outside of a pandemic-related circumstance.
Mr. Holman, you have noted the disclosures by the Canadian Armed Forces of conditions in long-term care homes, which, again, arguably, are extraordinary and would not have been made outside of pandemic-related conditions.
My posit—and I would like the witnesses to react to this—is that this government has gone above and beyond with respect to disclosures during the pandemic.
Many of the arguments are those that surround things like acquisitions and procurements of a sensitive nature. I would posit again to you, before turning the floor and the mike over to all three of you, that we are indeed in global competition for vaccines, vaccine supplies, personal protective equipment, and to disclose many of the terms.... Obviously, we have disclosed some of the terms of these contracts, an important number of them, but to disclose many others of these terms would have, in fact, posed the ethical dilemma of putting actual Canadian lives in danger.
I'll ask you to react to that, Mr. Cutler, Mr. Holman, and then Mr. Bron.
I obviously disagree somewhat with your premise. In terms of information being freely given, I have been dealing with access for many years now, and in the last two or three years, well before the pandemic, the system has ground almost to a halt.
I agree that it is much, much worse since then, because people are not working in their offices and there are delays in getting documents. That is totally understandable. It has to be, at least to some extent, judged as being acceptable. If you will, the delay is unacceptable; the fact that there is a delay is acceptable.
As for the government contracts, I have been dealing with government contracts for many, many years. I know exactly what documents are open and what are not. When you ask for a copy of a contract, certain information that is considered trade confidential is redacted, and that usually includes the actual cost, which is normal. However, a lot of information is not redacted, such as deliveries and who gets the contract, and that has always been considered open and easy to obtain through a request.
Mr. Holman, I have some questions for you.
On June 9, 2020, the noted in her opening remarks that, as a result of competition and the current market instability, some information about our procurement could compromise federal government orders and Canada's negotiating position.
You spoke about the system of silence. Is the system of private or secret decision-making meant to ensure better service to the public?
Is its goal instead to preserve any potential sensitivities with regard to international partners?
Does it exist to open certain political doors?
Oftentimes it's to protect secrecy.
As a small historical footnote, when we were talking about making government records available after 30 years, in the post-war period there was discussion in cabinet about this. One principal reason they didn't make it 25 years was that men in public office could still be in public office after 25 years. There was a desire not to embarrass those individuals.
We're really talking about embarrassment here more than anything else. We're not talking about good government. We're not talking about democracy. We're talking about, in a lot of cases, simply the desire to protect public officials from embarrassment.
You're absolutely right. The funny thing is that we got an Access to Information Act in the early 1980s because there was a recognition that in the United States more information was being made available, information that Canadians didn't have. In fact, one of the big moments was the realization that Canadians could get access to information about meat inspection reports at their own meat inspection plants in the United States, but couldn't get access to those same records in Canada.
We need to revisit the amount of comparative information between ourselves and the United States, because it will expose just how secretive our governments in this country are, regardless of their political stripe.
Sean mentioned the whole concept of openness by default. I would tend to state that the government, for many years, has been openness by exception, not by default. My premise would be that from a user's viewpoint, a public viewpoint, openness by exception...you can only close it down occasionally.
By the way, what I was talking about is a normal process that is already there. I'm not talking about something new. I want a copy of a contract. I make an access request. I get a copy of the contract. I have seen the contract for Phoenix, for example. It has been given to me by media, which was given it. The only things that were missing were certain redacted portions, but it was enough to tell me a lot of the problems.
Every contract put out under the COVID situation could be published. We then would know who it was, how much money we're spending in total—we don't need the individual figures for a firm, but how much in total—and the details of the contract. All that information is already what is normally given.
Gentlemen, thank you for joining us. Your presentations are very informative.
We've been talking about contracts for the past while. I have a list here from a Government of Canada site. It's in “Table 3: N95 respirators.” Currently, only two companies out of 23 are named. The others are simply referred to as Company A, B, C, D, and so on. The contracts are worth $91 million, $35 million, $69 million and $158 million.
Do you think that it's normal that we don't at least have the names of the companies?
We're told that the issue concerns confidentiality in negotiations. I understand that. However, wouldn't it be normal to have the names of the companies?
I want to hear your thoughts on this, Mr. Cutler.
I now have some questions for you, Mr. Holman.
Last week, we learned that the CanSinoBio contract, the contract awarded by the Government of Canada for vaccine development, had ended. In June, the National Research Council of Canada told a House of Commons committee that the agreement was in place. In July, the Government of Canada said that there was still an agreement in place. In August, we were told that there was no longer an agreement. We're now learning that the Chinese ended the agreement in May.
Do you think that it's normal for the Government of Canada to hide this information?
Welcome to our witnesses, once again.
Let me start with Mr. Cutler.
You indicated in your opening remarks, as well as in response to a number of questions my colleague raised, that you are very much interested in contracts. You like to see the details. You've reviewed many of the government contracts. That means you're quite familiar with the standard contract the government probably issues. You also said you understand that some of them are shared and some of them are not shared.
Let me start with a fundamental question. Do you believe that the Government of Canada procurement contract is a complete and comprehensive set of building blocks that, if followed, will protect us?
Do you mean the federal whistle-blowing law from 2007?
Ms. Julie Vignola: Yes.
Mr. Ian Bron: Well, in theory, yes—I mean, there are statutory protections—but in actuality, no, there are just too many loopholes in the law. Most of the law is dedicated to directing whistle-blowers through certain channels and making sure that they can report only certain things—one misstep and it all goes wrong. As Mr. Cutler was saying, the system doesn't really have the trust of employees anymore.
Also, that's just for the public sector. There is nothing for the private sector. In cases like this, where you have contracting with the private sector, you're going to see wrongdoing on both sides of the transaction. The current law doesn't even allow the Integrity Commissioner to go into the private sector to find out the truth.
Of course, there's the case of Shiv Chopra, where he raised the issue of the use of bovine growth hormone and the decision-making process there having been pretty much designed to approve just about anything industry wanted.
Transport Canada had records to do with derailments, for example, that weren't being put out, so the companies looked to be doing a much better job than they actually were. We found out, unfortunately, at Lac-Mégantic just how bad it was.
As Mr. Holman was saying, these records are easily available in the States. Why they shouldn't be available here only serves to protect the company, not the public interest.
Hello and thanks to all three of you for being here.
I was a journalist for 30 years myself, and I dealt with a lot of issues of public disclosure and VoIP hacks and all of that, so I know intimately the headaches that could come with trying to get information from governments.
Now that I am a member of Parliament, the headaches continue.
Just off the top, I think we can all agree that hindsight is 20/20, and it's obvious that the federal government and provincial governments have made some grave errors in dealing with COVID. It wasn't so long ago that we were told that COVID wasn't a threat to Canada, masks weren't really effective, and stopping international travel wouldn't be effective. So against that backdrop—and that's been in just a year—this is kind of a philosophical question, but how would better disclosure of public information ensure that these kinds of grave missteps are avoided?
Any of you could start. Who wants to jump in?
Right now, speaking of COVID, Canada is way behind in getting people vaccinated. I know that we've heard from the government that there are lots of vaccinations coming and lots of drugs coming, but when you look at the statistics right now from the Oxford-based Our World in Data, Canada is now ranking 20th globally, well behind our allies like the U.S., United Kingdom, and even some of the middle-income countries like Poland and Serbia.
How would better access to information and improved whistle-blowing legislation solve this kind of great problem?
Anybody could start on that.
Thank you, my fellow members.
I'm pleased that our witnesses, who often appear before the committee, are here again to speak to us.
I have a question for Mr. Cutler. However, I would also like Mr. Bron and Mr. Holman to share their views.
Mr. Cutler, I'm wondering whether the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act should apply to the private sector. I don't know whether you have had the chance to conduct a legal analysis of this issue. Does the federal government have the jurisdiction to legislate in the private sector with respect to employment standards and employability, when several of these areas fall under provincial jurisdiction? I'm curious to hear your comments on this issue, because you said that we need national legislation.
I was curious because I know that when certain parties were all contemplating raising the minimum wage, the federal government, it only applied to federally regulated businesses. I figured that if we can only raise the minimum wage in federally regulated businesses, then, obviously, when you create other whistle-blowing acts, it may not apply, but I was curious to hear your opinion.
The other question I have has to do with culture and whether you've been advising organizations on how to create a culture of openness within the system.
I know, Mr. Cutler, that a lot of public servants continue to reach out to you. How do you instill a culture of openness? We can pass all the laws we want, but we know that people break the law, and unfortunately, sometimes you have to go to court to make sure who is right. However, even before we get to that point, have you been advising folks on how to create a culture of openness, making sure that when something is wrong then there can be that discussion with their superiors—unless it's criminal, obviously?
Both Ian and I have been extensively involved with the whistle-blowing community. I have tried—and I'm certain Ian has—to get into the organizations that talked about wanting to create it. I took the time about four or five years ago and wrote to every deputy minister in the federal system. I only heard back from two or three, and all the letters said, “No, we don't have a problem”, so they didn't need to look at it any further.
What happens is that we deal with the whistle-blowers and actually advise them to avoid—I do, anyway, now—the public routes that are usually there, other than to report it if they have to. We try to help them get the message out through brown envelopes or whatever other means are needed. To do that, we also have to check that it's valid and not just malicious. However, there are so few malicious ones that it's not a hard thing to check.
Ian, you must have comments on it.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair. I'll make sure to convey those kind words.
This is really just an open question. I have really enjoyed this conversation we're having. I think some important questions have been raised, and some important points of discussion.
Transparency International is a leading organization that's tackling corruption. Last week, it released its corruption perceptions index, or CPI, which measures perceptions of public sector corruption in about 180 countries. Canada placed 11th, alongside the U.K. and Australia. They actually have the best transparency score in the Americas. As an example, by comparison the United States came in 25th. There's always room to improve and, no doubt, to do better.
Again, this is an open question. We discussed some of the shortcomings today, but what underpins Canada's performance on this index?
I'm a member of Transparency International, as it happens. You're right that we're now 11th, but you didn't address that it's a drop from where we were traditionally. We were traditionally, for years, in the top 10. We have dropped out of the top 10 now.
A good part of what is not done in Transparency International is.... It's a perception index. For whatever reason, in Canada, we perceive white-collar crime as misdemeanours. We really don't take the corruption seriously. Consequently, we're higher up in the index than we probably should be, and many people who are in Transparency International would tell you that. They've told me that.
One of the things used down in the U.S. is literally rewarding whistle-blowers. That's the Securities and Exchange Commission. One of the other two may want to talk about it a bit more, but it certainly has proven effective.
In Canada, we passed a law that said that if you reported anything to Canada Revenue, you could get up to 15%, but then they put a caveat into the law that said a person who has a criminal record can't get that 15%.
Mr. Bron and I are aware of a particular individual who has tons of knowledge, but because he was convicted in the States, he can't get that percentage to expose the crime in Canada. He actually says that if he crosses the border, they'd find a reason to arrest him. That shows you his belief in how the Canadian justice system works.
That's a tricky question. Harassment is usually treated as a personal-level issue. It's usually treated through different channels. Harassment is a typical response to whistle-blowing. It's probably the most pernicious, because it's really hard to prove that somebody is harassing somebody else and that it's related to the whistle-blowing.
Harassment would be considered a form of reprisal and should be treated differently from.... I don't want to call it “garden variety” but that's kind of what I'm getting at. The people who control the harassment procedures are often implicated in the wrongdoing where the harassment is being used as a reprisal. Does that make sense?
Harassment is a standard reprisal technique. If you want a fair hearing on normal harassment, you can go through the normal processes to get it addressed. However, if the harassment is a response to whistle-blowing, often the leadership in the organization will be implicated. They are also controlling the harassment process, so they can derail it. It's a tricky problem.
I get where you're going with it, but that would have to be handled very carefully.
I'm asking the witnesses. I'm wondering if they're seeing value in the past reports that this committee has done that were passed and then completely shelved by this government. I'm trying not to get agitated because, Mr. Chair, I'll share with you that in my own approach to try to get information out of this government during COVID...you'll recall the many filibusters we sat through in this room.
While I respect my political friends across the aisle in government, and I respect their ability to manoeuvre, I think it's incumbent upon us, particularly in this committee, given that we've gone around this issue before, that we look at reintroducing the findings of our past study and call on this government to take the recommendations not just of the white paper but of the work we've already done in this committee.
Maybe, Mr. Chair, through you to our clerk, are there any avenues within this committee to reintroduce the 2017 report on the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act?
In one of my earlier questions, I said that Senator Claude Carignan would introduce a bill tomorrow or this week to strengthen the 2007 whistle-blower legislation. I hope that this bill will be welcomed by the government.
Gentlemen, after hearing from you since the start of this meeting, I sense that there are a lot of transparency and even corruption issues. “Corruption” sounds like a heavy word, but it isn't that complicated to engage in corruption.
Mr. Cutler, you and other witnesses spoke about alternative approaches pending legislation that will help whistle-blowers. The government's current internal mechanisms aren't effective. Apart from the normal process, what are the other ways to help whistle-blowers right now?
This becomes a difficult one to answer. I'm certain Mr. Bron and Mr. Holman can address it too.
How do you develop trust? Trust is the key core of a whistle-blowing situation, and they're not going to come forward if they don't trust you. They don't trust the present Integrity Commissioner. There's a lack of trust, but there are a few individuals out there, such as Mr. Bron, Mr. Holman and myself, whom they do trust because we keep things quiet, and we've been dealing with them for years.
The only way I can see forward is getting somebody neutral, with a reputation for being neutral, into the centre, and saying, “There's where you go,” which is what Mr. Bron, I think, was mentioning about setting up a separate organization.
Maybe he has a better idea, but I don't perceive any other way to go if you want to get people to speak out.
I think the first thing you have to do is to have the political levels acknowledge that whistle-blowers are a value and not an impediment to the process. As soon as something happens—the senior bureaucrats are really good at this, by the way, and we could give you examples—they spin the situation. It goes to the politicians. The politicians immediately are saying it's the fault of so and so, or blaming each other's parties.
Phoenix, for example, was a bureaucratic bungle, totally, but they have managed to get the two political parties fighting with each other over it. It's a bureaucratic mess that they created themselves.
How do you correct that? You have to have people who will say, “Come forward. We honour you coming forward.” Maybe it's a special award for the whistle-blower of the year in the federal service, honouring that individual, something that really highlights how important it is and how you value people.
Mr. Cutler, Mr. Bron and Mr. Holman, you all said, at some point, that people were afraid, that they didn't trust the commissioner and that they were more likely to turn to you.
Would one solution involve having a body at arm's length from the government be responsible for collecting evidence from whistle-blowers and taking steps on their behalf while protecting their identities in both the public and private sectors?
Thank you very much, Mr. Drouin.
With that, I would like to thank all three witnesses, Mr. Bron, Mr. Cutler and Mr. Holman, for being with us today and for bearing with us because of the votes we had that delayed us a little bit. We do appreciate your sticking with us for this length of time.
I would also like to thank the interpreter and the technicians, as well as the analysts and the clerk, for bearing with us as we went through that.
That being said, I see that my clock reads 5:07, and I said we started at 3:08, which means we are one minute ahead of time.
Thank you very much, everybody, for being with us.
I call this meeting adjourned.