Harper’s Man Friday

Ian Bron and Allan Cutler

Last week, the government announced that Stephen Harper had appointed a new Integrity Commissioner, Joe Friday, who has been with the office since 2008 and was the last Commissioner’s Deputy. This was not a surprise to us, but it is a disappointment. It is also a slap in the face of conscientious public servants looking for a safe place to report misconduct. They, as well as the Canadian public have a right to expect an aggressive, thorough, and competent Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner (OPSIC).

Friday served under both previous Commissioners, Christiane Ouimet and Mario Dion. Ouimet’s tenure was an unmitigated disaster. Just three and a half years into her tenure, she resigned in the face of a damning report from the Office of the Auditor General (OAG) that concluded she had been engaging in the very kinds of acts she was supposed to be preventing – harassment and reprisals against staff believed to be speaking out about abuse and mismanagement in her office. She left with her pension intact and a $500,000 lump sum. When called before Committee in 2010, Friday denied seeing anything wrong: “Madame Ouimet was carrying that out in her role as commissioner, which would be appropriate. Within that environment, I did not witness what I thought to be abusive behaviour, for example.”

Dion was much more politically astute than Ouimet. Under his tenure, there were ten cases of wrongdoing found in 4 years. They were relatively trivial, with no senior bureaucrats or politicians implicated. His office rejected a number we felt were deserving of investigation, and may have helped to facilitate the cover-up of serious misconduct in the case of Don Garrett, a contractor in B.C. who was unwittingly exposed to asbestos and then denied payment when he complained. The OAG agreed with our bleak assessment in several investigations on other cases where it found “…that the actions and omissions of PSIC senior managers [the Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner] in relation to this file amount to gross mismanagement.”

The fact that Friday was nominated despite being there while the scandals unfolded suggests that objective measures of performance are irrelevant. We feel that his solid record of protecting his bosses and not rocking the boat has served him well. Indeed, sources tell us that he was the preferred candidate from the outset. When Dion announced that he was moving on last year, a formal process was begun to give the appearance of competition to find a replacement. It was abandoned late last year, however, with word leaking out that a candidate had been selected.

It’s easy to point fingers at the current government, but the truth is that the appointment process has been subject to such machinations since at least Pierre Trudeau’s appointment of Michael Pitfield as Clerk. But we expected more when Stephen Harper became Prime Minister in 2006. Unfortunately, the promised Public Appointments Commission was scuttled, and the tendency of appointing Ottawa insiders known to be safe continues. Of course, there are anomalies – Kevin Page being one. Another exemplar, from outside Ottawa, is Ontario Ombudsman André Marin. Both worked hard to fulfill, and even expand, their mandates to best serve the public interest.

These “mavericks” seem to be received with a kind of injured shock by the senior bureaucracy. Don’t they understand that they should be grateful? That they shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds? They don’t, of course, which is exactly why they are effective. If there were a real appetite to clean up the way Ottawa works, such an individual would have been chosen.

Friday’s relationship with non-governmental organizations is also cause for concern. In 2012, Dion ejected David Hutton, then leading the Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform (FAIR), from the OPSIC consultative committee because he was “undermining” the work of OPSIC with public criticism. This was, Dion argued, driving people away. The argument is laughable for the complete misunderstanding of the role of NGOs such as FAIR, Democracy Watch, and Canadians for Accountability. We and Democracy Watch resigned in protest.

Friday has made it clear on at least one occasion that he shares these views, suggesting that we should be supporting OPSIC in its mission rather than pointing out shortcomings, suggesting that our criticism is morally reprehensible, and that we are impossible to work with. (And, given that our organizations are run on a shoestring by volunteers, one can only assume that he expects us to do this from the goodness of our hearts.)

This perspective betrays the mindset of the top politicians and bureaucrats in Ottawa: that they can do no wrong and an expectation that authority be kowtowed to. Anyone critical is to be attacked and marginalized. The irony, given the nature of OPSIC’s mandate, is palpable.

With Friday’s appointment, we can expect nothing to change for whistleblowers in Canada’s government. We have heard anecdotally that it is widely understood that OPSIC is not a safe or reliable place to report wrongdoing, and falling rates of reporting seem to confirm that. We sometimes still encourage people to go there, however, as there is a faint chance of success. But stories we have heard of people doing so and then facing reprisals at work are alarming. Increasingly, we advise people to seek outside avenues. Some appear to be heeding that advice. The Senate expenses scandal, after all, was broken when someone leaked documents from the Prime Minister’s Office.

We hope for change – but it is a faint hope. Friday begins his tenure with low expectations in an office that has itself been remonstrated for gross mismanagement. Will it continue as in the past or be a force for change? Only time will tell. Friday starts with the baggage of the past – his track record and previous history.

And that is perhaps the greatest irony of all: in seeking to repress dissent and make whistleblowing difficult and dangerous, this government, in nominating Friday, is going to lose control, not gain it. Potential whistleblowers will not trust internal avenues, so opportunities for a quiet fix will be lost.

This oped was first published in the Hill Times on April 6, 2015.

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Unidentified Remains: An Update

Bruce Ricketts

On this blog in April 2014 I discussed a case of a set of Unidentified Remains recovered by the Niagara Regional Police in 1998. In the entry I told of the unusual lengths that the Ontario Coroner and the Niagara Police were going to not release any information on the case. I specifically mentioned a pending DNA analysis which was to be done on the remains so we could compare this to a missing persons (MP) case. Well the fun continues on this case. Here is a bit of an update.

The family of the MP were told by police that the DNA profile had been done by the Coroner but when I met with the Coroner face to face (it took a complaint to the Ontario Ombudsman to get that meeting) I was told that the analysis had NOT been done. Why not? I asked. Apparently the Niagara Police could not find the evidence; including the bones. It was stated that the box in which the evidence was contained had been moved during a renovation sometime in the past 18 years and was only recently found and turned over to the Coroner. While the DNA profile had not be done at the time of the meeting, the Coroner was able to give tell me their description of the evidence and lo and behold, their description did not match that of the Niagara Police from back in 1998. Why would that be? I asked. No answer. So I am left with the question of whether or not the right evidence was turned over to the Coroner by Niagara Police.

I am currently being stonewalled (again) by the Niagara Police to get the original description from 1998 with the Police claiming this is an active case even while admitting that it is not actively being investigated by he Niagara Police. (see accompanying letter from Niagara Police) I have taken the case to the Information and Privacy Commissioner.

Time will tell how long this lack of accountability will continue.

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Fantino: Not tough enough for Veterans Affairs

Sean Bruyea

Minister Julian Fantino is the flypaper to which incompetent management and controversy persistently buzz around and stick. It is not clear why Harper keeps appointing this individual to various cabinet positions. What is abundantly clear: Julian Fantino is not capable of effectively managing the quagmire at Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC).

When he was appointed Minister, there were ambivalent reactions from the veterans’ community. Some mistakenly believed that an MP who wore a uniform in four different police departments would somehow understand living with lifelong injuries due to military service. Others knew of his career record in failing upwards. His tenure at VAC has highlighted a professional repertoire of disturbing tactics.

In 2004, media noted his “chilling legacy” as Toronto’s police chief during which “Julian Fantino’s arrogance and aggression unravelled [the] city’s social weave.” His “thin-skinned” and “vindictive” nature back then erupted ten years later to national attention. While cameras rolled, Fantino contemptuously brushed off frail, ageing and desperate veterans who waited almost two hours for the Minister on a cold January day. By means of an insincere apology, Fantino accused the veterans of being “union dupes.” Fleeing on camera from the wife of a disabled veteran four months later only confirmed his disdain for dialogue with those in need.

As head of the OPP, Fantino oversaw an operation which not only abandoned business and homeowners in Caledonia when their houses were illegally occupied, but some who dared peacefully protest were arrested. Although Fantino met with the illegal occupiers, he refused to meet with homeless residents.

This is all too familiar in 2014. In the week following Remembrance Day, Fantino held a secretive meeting far from veteran and media prying eyes on the military base in Quebec City. The agenda of the meeting: programs affecting younger disabled veterans and their families. Excluded from that meeting: younger stakeholders who represented disabled veterans and their families. Those included: veterans with an average age close to Fantino’s, i.e., in their 70’s, some representing organizations that have been publicly sycophantic to government during the ongoing veteran scandals.

Fantino’s long running autocratic streak has made veterans’ issues a national spectacle. But, even during his election campaigns, Fantino rarely if ever entered into any public debates. His only comment was to ironically label Liberal tactics , “…the Hitler theory. You tell a lie often enough you hope that some people will believe it.”

Since his appointment as Minister in 2013, Fantino has led VAC on the misinformation march. The most persistent distortion: his government’s claim of $5 billion more for veterans since 2006, omitting that $1.1 billion was handed back to Treasury Board. When confronted, Fantino prevaricated that the money didn’t go away, it is “recycled” back into programs. Tell that to the more than 20,000 veterans and family members who lost eight regional Veterans Affairs offices to save as little as $3.8 million annually.

Fantino has been the most recent ministerial champion for the cutbacks underway at VAC for the past three years, the largest proportional cutbacks of any federal department. He professes that 600 hundred generic Service Canada centres which offer nothing more than blank forms for veterans to fill out will somehow replace hundreds of highly specialized VAC front-line workers slashed throughout Canada. He and his party inundate local, regional and national newspapers with template rhetorical letters justifying the cutbacks. Media outlets, veterans and the opposition have been viciously assailed for questioning the wisdom of the cuts while public cries from veterans grow. Meanwhile, his department has surreptitiously begun advertising to replace some of those cutback positions.

Fantino suffocation of debate on veterans’ issues with fierce partisan attacks, are a continuation of his antics on CIDA’s website to bash opposition parties when he was Minister of International Development. What puzzles many is that Bev Oda, his immediate predecessor, resigned after revelations of a $16 glass of orange juice and a swanky stay at the Savoy on the taxpayer’s dime. Surely someone in the PMO must notice Fantino is sucking back “Harper government” political capital faster than an intergalactic kegger of black holes.

It’s not that Julian Fantino will likely never comprehend the financial struggles of injured veterans with his more than $118,000 in current annual pensions plus $242,000 as a Cabinet Minister. It is not that he compared Rob Ford’s intoxicated antics to veterans suffering PTSD. It is not that he confiscated cellphones from veterans at the War Museum while he made a surprise announcement to appeal a court ruling of disabled veterans suing government.

It is also not that he made VAC foot the bill for him to fly to meet the pope in Italy with his wife. Or that six months later he hastily returned to his birthplace, escaping both the scathing Auditor General’s report and the controversy over his announcement of $200 million for mental health spread over 50 years, not the five or six with which he mislead Canadians. It is not that his response to these controversies was the fanciful claim that the department focuses upon “better outcomes” when the AG report specifically chastised the department for failing to measure meaningful outcomes.

It is that Julian Fantino is not tough enough for the job of Minister of Veterans Affairs. He is not strong enough to listen to those in need. He lacks the resilience to speak respectfully one-on-one. And he clearly doesn’t understand the emergency facing our veterans.

Fantino is a bully and bullies are cowards. They fear seeing others eye-to-eye. They prefer to condescend, intimidate and squash the defenseless who dare question.

Veterans spend careers in uniform being bullied into not exercising their freedom of expression. When they do speak up, it is because something is desperately wrong. They need to believe that whatever is broken is due to an oversight. To respond to their public appeals with misinformation, disdain, humiliation and hiding ravages their trust in government, their sacrifice for government and ultimately trust in themselves.

Fantino has broken trust with veterans and Canadians in a most heinous manner. For that his career-long incompetence must finally come to an end before it harms anymore of Canada’s most humble and most vulnerable: our disabled veterans and their families.

This oped was first published in the Hill Times on December December 17, 2014 (paywall).

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