Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and whistleblowers

Cindy Blackstock under surveillance

A group called Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) has  issued a report for the year 2012-13 that should challenge our complacency. The CJFE details how the Conservative  government and its bureaucracy are muzzling scientists, putting roadblocks in the way of people trying to use the Access to Information legislation, and harassing whistleblowers and other individuals who dare to challenge their political masters. Two of the names raised by the CJFE in its report, those of Edgar Schmidt and Cindy Blackstock, will be familiar to readers of this blog. The name of Evan Vokes may be new to you.

Edgar Schmidt

Edgar Schmidt is a senior Department of Justice lawyer who has blown the whistle on what he believes is his department’s failure to protect Canadians against Parliament’s passing laws that may be contrary to our rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Schmidt says the law requires his department to review proposed legislation for its compatibility with the Charter and to inform the Minister of Justice regarding that analysis. He says, in effect, that the department does not do so. He attempted for years to raise the matter internally but without success. In fact, he had been warned to back off.

In a highly unusual step, Schmidt has taken his department to court for what he believes is its failure to protect. He was promptly banned from his office, suspended without pay and had contributions to his pension halted. He has received moral support for his legal position from a variety of constitutional experts and has been lauded for his courage. But four and a half months after going public, he remains without income and in professional limbo.

“Schmidt’s case is an important one,” the CJFE says in its report. “Right or wrong, his freedom to raise that issue, and the public interest involved in allowing members of Parliament, lawyers and the public to hear and debate it, could hardly be more compelling.”

CJFE says it will continue to monitor Schmidt’s case and, if appropriate, to seek leave to intervene in the court case that he has launched.

Evan Vokes

Evan Vokes is an engineer who worked for the TransCanada corporation, this country’s largest operator of oil and gas pipelines. According to the CJFE report, Vokes told his superiors and officers of his company that it was not complying with National Energy Board (NEB) regulations when inspecting pipelines, including the welding on those lines. This is an important matter of public safety since the lines transport natural gas and oil. Like Edgar Schmidt at the Justice Department, Vokes was ignored.

Vokes decided to meet with top officials at the NEB and he filed a written complaint with them on May 1, 2011. Seven days later, TransCanada fired him without cause.

Vokes, like Edgar Schmidt, is paying a personal price for his professional integrity. Two years after blowing the whistle on his company, he remains unemployed. CJFE says this is “a fate suffered by most whistleblowers in the private sector because there is no legal job protection for them in Canada.” There are purported protections in some government jurisdictions but they obviously have not helped people like Edgar Schmidt. In March 2013, Vokes was awarded the Golden Whistle, presented by the organization Canadians for Accountability.

Cindy Blackstock

CJFE also reports about Dr. Cindy Blackstock whose case involves not whistleblowing but rather her being spied upon and harassed by agents of the federal government. Blackstock is the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada and she has discovered that federal government departments, most notably Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, have been collecting personal information and spying on her for the past several years.

Blackstock ran afoul of official Ottawa because she went to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to make the case that federal funding of welfare and other social services for Aboriginal children on reserves is less than that provided by provinces for other, off-reserve children.

Blackstock, to put it mildly, is not a popular person with the federal government. She became suspicious in 2009 after she was forced to leave a meeting with Aboriginal Affairs where she was acting as a policy advisor to Ontario’s chiefs to discuss child welfare issues. A large security guard kept watch on her in a reception area. She used the federal Privacy and Access to Information acts to see what information the government had been collecting on her. Eventually she discovered hundreds of pages of government documents, squeezed onto two CD-ROMs.

The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network reported that Ottawa sent its employees to listen in on between 75 and 100 meetings at which Blackstock was a participant. Government employees in Aboriginal Affairs and in the Justice Department also monitored Blackstock’s Facebook page, both during and after working hours. Her Status Indian file was accessed along with its personal information, including data on her family.

The CJFE report says that Aboriginal Affairs even reported back on Blackstock’s speaking at a conference in a remote location in Australia. “It’s kind of like I had a professional stalker,” Blackstock says.

Blackstock has responded by launching a complaint before the Canadian Human Rights Commission. She is being represented by human rights lawyer Paul Champ. He is quoted in the CJFE report as saying, “It brings to mind a Big Brother image of government, following every move of a citizen. It certainly causes a chilling effect.”

Treasure trove

The CJFE report is filled with useful information, not only about surveillance and whistleblowing, but also about the state of our Access to Information and Privacy laws – along with hints about how to get around bureaucrat roadblocks and to use those laws as effectively as possible. You can read the CJPE report by clicking HERE.

 

 

 

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Dennis

Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer, blogger and a former member of Parliament

3 thoughts on “Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and whistleblowers”

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  2. Journalists may be angry about the Harper government’s attempts to silence whistle blowers and keep information from the public, but too many reporters across the simply haven’t been doing a good job. Many Canadians are complacent about the crimes and misdeeds of the Harper government because the mainstream media is constantly feeding us tripe like ‘we live in the best world possible’ or ‘Harper is a good economic manager.’

    Harper’s record is abysmal: sustained attempts to subvert democracy with tactics like vote suppression and lying to Parliament; a grossly unfair tax structure ; destruction of the environment for corporate profit; vicious attacks on human rights at home and abroad; a direct assault on churches designed to keep them out of public policy discussions; sustained attacks on the poor, working families and aboriginal people; and so on and so on.

    Only very greed and ignorant people can justify such immoral actions with excuses like ‘Harper is ‘good economic manager’ or whatever lie people tell themselves to avoid facing the truth about the political hooligans now running the country. Mike Duffy was a former ‘big time journalist’ before he was appointed to the Senate. Senator Duffy has been making the news a lot lately. One cannot help but wonder if the he approached his job as a journalist with the same dedication and character he has brought to the Senate.

    Harper Conservatives – and their cronies slurping up bucks in the public trough – love to proclaim their ‘family values’ and ‘moral uprightness’ from the roof tops. But, when the public posturing is over, their actions as political leaders and government appointees demonstrate a consistent contempt for families, a willingness to lie and cheat, and a persistent habit of branding ‘greed’ as a ‘virtue’ as well as equating the ‘public trust’ with ‘private profit.’

    I understand that even CBC television now has some sort of ‘financial commentator’ or ‘analyst’ who regularly appears as part of a two-person discussion/debate and likes to proclaim ‘greed is good.’ Well, if greed is a virtue, then rape is just being friendly and muggers and thieves are just entry level business people. Canada in the 21st century is indeed something to behold!

  3. This kind of spying on perceived political enemies is the next step in our sleepwalk toward autocracy. I believe we are in the nymph stage of an autocratic transformation that is unfolding without the knowledge of the people who are directing it. I believe they simply believe they are “right” and are unaware of the similarities of their policies and actions with those of dictatorships and I find this immensely worrisome.

    Some believe that autocracies foment in a restive and frustrated citizenry that eventually turns to an ambitious military to get the country back on the “right track,” but this is not always the case. The military need not be overly involved. Hitler did very well without it for many years, for example. Indeed, the German army mostly loathed him, which is why he invented and grew his paramilitary SS, SA and other units to do his political bidding. In their early stages, they were not unlike the spies Dennis mentions.

    Modern dictatorships often start out as democracies, where citizens and their leaders grow weary of the cumbersome democratic processes that hinder the application of simple and direct solutions to complex problems. Enemies are identified to provide focus. Pluralism becomes problematic as the dominant culture feels pressure to change and accommodate difference. Scientists and intellectuals who offer contrary evidence are snubbed and then silenced. They’re not needed because common sense rules.

    Consider some evidence to date here in Canada. Harper announced years ago that he would make Canada over in his own image (Conservative/Reform/Right wing) and destroy any vestiges of liberalism (principles that guide a pluralistic democracy, which Harper regularly conflates with the Liberal Party). It would take time, he said, and it would be incremental. You will not recognize Canada when I’m done, he said. To get elected, he promised transparency and an open government. Once elected with a majority, he created the most secretive regime in Canadian history. He works tirelessly to control media and messages, setting up his own room for press conferences, dictating which media are allowed to ask questions and what those questions may concern. He muzzles ministers, MPs, and all government scientists and bureaucrats. In short, he uses the powers of his office to effectively govern by decree. He has sufficient power to control every facet of government and with the Senate in his pocket as well, he can pass any legislation he cares to introduce.

    To prevent public outcry he buries controversial legislation in “omnibus” bills, not unlike Hitler’s use of “enabling” legislation in the mid-1930s. He quietly disbands virtually all watchdog agencies that could ring pesky alarm bells and he effectively politicizes the federal bureaucracy–if you want to work for this government you will support this government’s policies.

    He casts unions and democratically elected opposition parties as “the enemy” and he wages a continuous propaganda war against them. His minions are fed daily talking points and regardless of their seniority, they do not stray from them. Questions, in parliament or out, are not answered. Rather, the closest related talking point is parroted until the cameras and microphones are turned off. Goebbels would have been impressed.

    Our prisons are bulging as new laws put more people into them and keep them there longer, the better to slake Harper’s core supporters’ blood lust and to stoke their fears that they are being saved from the enemies at the gate. To quell unrest over pluralism, he bans collection of data about minorities; to deal with environmental concerns that could slow economic expansion, he muzzles environmental scientists and stops collecting data.

    I’ve used the word “Hitler” a couple of times and that, I’m told, guarantees skeptical readers, but I’m not alone in holding these views. Many in the media–and even some in the right wing media–are now ringing alarm bells. I’ve never seen this before in my lifetime. When Andrew Coyne is worried about our democracy, we should all be worried.

    Ah well, some might say, we’ll just turf him out at the next election–after all, he didn’t pass legislation naming him PM for life. Quite so. He’s not, after all, an idiot. He is, however, devilishly clever and he not only knows how to keep this game going, he told us all his strategy, years ago: Incrementally. Bit by bit, and here’s the part that shrivels my nether regions: he is gaining supporters among the youth. Consider this: a graduate from high school in 2013 has known nothing but Harper rule since he or she was in grade five. These children have now been slowly and carefully imbued with the new realities of Canadian life: We are not citizens, we are taxpayers. We are wary of Muslims,socialists and foreigners, fearful of terrorists (even though terrorism is at an all time low, historically) and perhaps most frightening, we are soon going to be fed Harper-revised versions of our own history.

    Incrementalism is working. I’m not as concerned that I am waking up each day and asking myself what is happening to my country as I am concerned that a whole new generation has never known any other kind of country. I do not recognize Canada now and Harper still has two more years. Whether or not Harper is re-elected may well be moot if the Canada he has created is accepted as the norm. Autocracy by stealth. It works. We should be frightened and we should resist.

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