Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 28, No.12

March 18, 2004


Whistle-blower Joanna Gaultieri challenged extravagance

By Sylvain Comeau

Joanna Gaultieri insists that whistle-blowers do not set out to be heroes.

“They usually don’t know that they are whistle-blowers; they are conscientious employees who are just trying to do their jobs.”

In a recent Concordia lecture, Gaultieri said whistle- blowing is an effort to save a corrupt institution, not to tear it down.

“Despite what opponents say, whistle-blowers are the ones that are the most committed to the preservation of the organization; that is why they want to do things right. As we know from history, everything that is corrupt ultimately falls.”

“What is a whistle-blower? It’s simply an employee exercising their free speech rights to challenge wrongdoing that threatens the public interest.”

That conscientiousness – coupled with a strong conscience – are what often gets them in trouble when their principles brush up against corruption or systemic incompetence. She saw much of both in the public service, where she worked in the early 1990s.

“There is a culture of conformity and mediocrity that has developed over the years [in the public service]. I found that many people simply did not feel that they had the right to claim their mandate, and do their jobs.”

Gaultieri became a whistle-blower in the Department of Foreign Affairs as portfolio manager for Latin America. She exposed billions of public dollars spent against government rules, to maintain lavish diplomatic lifestyles.

“We were supposed to acquire housing around the globe, and embassies and official residences that conformed to standards. We were not conforming to them; we were spending billions in violation of the rules, for palatial residences instead of something more modest, reflecting true Canadian values.”

She described how officials tried to stonewall her efforts to initiate change.

“I tried to promote a dialogue and suggest that we could do things better. As a result, I think the department said, ‘She could potentially be trouble, let’s start a campaign to root her out.’ And that is precisely what they did, without me knowing.”

“It started in very subtle and insidious ways. I persisted, thinking that I was just dealing with bullying bosses, without knowing what was behind the bullying.”

Soon she found herself on the sidelines, forced into irrelevancy in her own office.

“I became a pariah. I would come to the office and have no work. I was getting no e-mails, and wasn’t informed about meetings. People said great, just read a book. But I wasn’t there to read a book, I was there to make a contribution.”

Looking back on the history of whistle blowers, Gaultieri said many have shared her fate and been persecuted for their courage. Recent examples include Jeffrey Wigand, subject of the movie The Insider, who exposed dirty business by Big Tobacco in the U.S. and lost his family and his job.

In Canada, Dr. Michelle Brill Edwards resigned from her post and was out of work in Ottawa after criticizing the way Health Canada approves drugs. And Brian McAdam, a diplomat who exposed corruption at Canada’s foreign mission in Hong Kong, “was a broken man after they finished with him.”

Gaultieri has been calling on the government to provide protective mechanisms for insiders who blow the whistle on corruption, not only for their sake, but also for the benefit of the public.

“As eye-witnesses to the birthplace of scandal, whistle blowers are indispensable in bridging the secrecy gap. Public inquiries are post-mortem; they happen after the fact, when the wrongdoing has already happened. But whistle-blowers can nip the problem in the bud.

“For example, with the current sponsorship scandal, we would have saved Canadians a lot of money — money that is now going to be spent on spin and damage control — if someone had blown the whistle on that early on.”

To protect them, whistle-blowers need to have recourse to courts of law; Gaultieri points out that a recent law denies public servants access to the courts.

“Why should we expect potential whistle-blowers to stick their necks out, when they might get their heads chopped off? They need protection in the courts and that means trials by jury.

“Some people say the government should not be sued because that hurts taxpayers. But until they realize that they cant just get away with wrongdoing, nothing will change.”

In 1998 she founded FAIR (Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform) to promote free expression rights, particularly whistle-blowing, of employees.