Whistleblowers under attack – RCMP launches investigation into Dept. of Citizenship leaks

In the past few weeks, there have been a handful of high-profile scandals based on leaks from within the Department of Citizenship and Immigration which have reflected poorly upon the Conservative Party. Yesterday, we found out that the RCMP has launched a criminal investigation into the leaks.

Before I dig into how profoundly frightening that is, let’s take a look at the leaks in question.

Although it’s unclear which stories precisely the investigation is focussing on, two major investigative reports are likely candidates.

The first is a CBC story from September 23 which revealed that a new passport design system had led to at least 1,500 flawed passports being issued, and that political pressure led to that system’s implementation ahead of schedule:

Internal records from Citizenship and Immigration Canada reveal the processing program was rushed into operation on May 9, 2015, despite dire warnings from senior officials that it was not ready and could present new security risks.

One government source told CBC/Radio-Canada there are concerns that passports produced under the new system could wind up in the wrong hands.

The report was a major downer for the Conservatives, who have made making Canadians more safe a centrepiece of their campaign. They spent the day in damage-control mode. Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, still reeling from his early-September embarrassment at the hands of Rosie Barton on Power and Politics, hid behind his spokesperson, who issued a vaguely worded statement insistently saying nothing much in particular. (‘”The Canadian passport is, and will remain, one of the most secure travel documents in the world,” said Nancy Caron in an emailed response. “CIC has been moving towards an increasingly integrated, modernized and centralized working environment across many of its business lines, including the passport program.”‘) Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson was also deployed to make reassuring noises without specifically commenting on the allegations. After weeks of being relentlessly attacked over their handling of the refugee crisis, the Conservative Party was no doubt frustrated to have to respond to yet another scandal on the immigration file.

Their frustration must have been compounded earlier this week when the refugee issue returned to the forefront of campaign coverage on the strength of a Globe and Mail article detailing interference by the Prime Minister’s Office into the refugee application process:

The Prime Minister’s Office directed Canadian immigration officials to stop processing one of the most vulnerable classes of Syrian refugees this spring and declared that all UN-referred refugees would require approval from the Prime Minister, a decision that halted a critical aspect of Canada’s response to a global crisis…

The Prime Minister’s Office asked Citizenship and Immigration for the files of some Syrian refugees so they could be vetted by the PMO – potentially placing political staff with little training in refugee matters in the middle of an already complex process.

PMO staff could have also had access to files that are considered protected, because they contain personal information, including a refugee’s health history and narrative of escape, raising questions about the privacy and security of that information and the basis on which it was being reviewed.

Once again, Chris Alexander hid behind a doublespeaking spokesperson, who insisted that security was not compromised and that the intervention by the PMO was ultimately extremely helpful in making Canadians safer. The opposition leaders were obviously not satisfied with that explanation, and took every opportunity both Thursday and yesterday to refer to it:

“We need to think about families who cross the ocean, desperately seeking to build a better life for themselves and for their kids,” said Trudeau to an audience of supporters during a morning campaign stop in Toronto.

“And to know that somewhere in the Prime Minister’s Office staffers were poring through their personal files to try and see … which families would be suitable for a photo-op for the prime minister’s re-election campaign. That’s disgusting.”

The Globe’s article very carefully avoids identifying the source of their report, even eschewing such commonplace references as “senior department officials” or “anonymous sources”. However, it seems pretty obvious based on the extreme specificity of the information provided that the revelations came from a high-ranking departmental bureaucrat.

For both of these stories, there’s a strong argument to be made that the information given to journalists was of considerable public interest. In the first case, we have an example of governmental mismanagement undermining the security of a widely-used piece of identification, and in the latter we have an inside account of how over-centralized decision-making delayed (and perhaps undermined) the process of assessing refugee applications. Both stories have elements of inappropriate political interference in decisions typically made by civil servants and bureaucrats leading to undesirable outcomes. It’s hard to construct a non-partisan argument for why this information ought to have been kept secret. These are pretty much dictionary-definition cases of whistle-blowing.

And whistle-blowing is – in theory, at least – protected under the law in Canada, although successive Liberal and Conservative governments have weakened whistleblower protections to the point that today there is practically no remedy for those who have been discriminated against or fired for revealing government misdeeds. A 2013 op-ed in the Toronto Star argued that, notwithstanding the United State’s atrocious record on the issue, Canada lags behind even our southern neighbour when it comes to whistleblower protection.

It’s unclear if any laws have been broken in this case, but for the individual(s) who provided this information to the media, it likely doesn’t matter – they’re now facing down not only retribution in the workplace, retribution from which they have no protection, as well as an investigation by the RCMP, a fact which ironically became public when it was leaked to the CBC:

A memo to employees from the department’s deputy minister and associate deputy minister says that leaks at any time, let alone in the midst of an election campaign, are “completely unacceptable.” The memo was obtained by the CBC’s French-language service Radio-Canada.

“We are deeply concerned however by recent instances where sensitive information has been leaked to journalists,” reads the memo. “Leaks such as these are unethical and are against the law. As such, we have contacted the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who have now launched an investigation. The trust that the public, our partners and elected officials have in us is the cornerstone of our democratic functions.”

How the maintenance of public trust is achieved by denying the media access to important information about government misdeeds is left unclear, at least in the quoted sections of the memo; it certainly is disconcerting to see a blunt and outright effort at police intimidation of conscientious public servants described as upholding the cornerstone of democracy.

Back in August, I detailed the history of the mutually beneficial relationship between the Harper government and the RCMP, with particular focus on the RCMP’s pattern of selective prosecutions during elections, including their unusually public and completely fruitless investigation of then-Liberal finance minister Ralph Goodale during the 2006 campaign, their complete inaction in the face of early reports of the robocall scandal, and their legally indefensible decision to not charge Nigel Wright for paying a bribe that they charged Mike Duffy for accepting.

The RCMP-CPC relationship has been richly beneficial to both parties, and it’s no surprise to see the Mounties siccing their investigators on the public service, which feels intensely frustrated after nearly a decade of Conservative rule.

The animosity between civil servants and the CPC is no secret, and it exists in no small part due to scandals like the ones reported by the CBC and the Globe and Mail. These scandals follow a clear pattern of political overreach into the bureaucratic decision-making process.

That the government’s response to these scandals is to seek to intimidate public servants into silence, rather than working to correct the persistent pattern of behaviour that leads to them, is extremely revealing. Unfortunately, given the sad state of whistleblower protection in this country, their effort may ultimately prove to be successful.

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