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Page April 15, 2024

Integrity commissioner report spotlights gross mismanagement at Corrections Canada - The Hill Times

Harriet Solloway’s first report as integrity commissioner is encouraging in its strong findings, which should serve as a warning to other managers in the public service.


New Public Sector Integrity Commissioner of Canada Harriet Solloway published her first report of wrongdoing last month. It details how senior management at the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) failed to take action to stop millions of litres of contaminated water leaking into the ground at a prison (Matsqui) near Vancouver, B.C. The commissioner’s finding of gross mismanagement is welcome, addressing what appears to be a systemic problem. However, there remain some troubling aspects to this case. 

The problem was first reported by an engineer at the prison in 2017 when the leak was still relatively minor. When management refused to authorize the necessary action, the whistleblower worked persistently for four years to have the problem addressed. Indeed, Solloway’s words are measured, but the meaning appears clear: CSC management was incompetent, negligent, arrogant, and dangerously reckless.

For example, at one point, senior management argued that the measurements of water loss were not “scientific enough.” The commissioner notes that they had no engineering expertise to make such a statement. Even worse, the problem deteriorated to the point that cold water had to be added to the system. This risked a boiler explosion, but management refused to allow it to be shut down. Instead, an Occupational Health and Safety complaint was necessary. This put lives in jeopardy. 

Fortunately, the whistleblower was persistent, and the problem was finally solved in 2021. But persistence can be risky. Research shows that repeated disclosures increase the chances of reprisal. It is not clear whether the whistleblower here suffered, but it is difficult to imagine that that management was friendly to them. It is more likely, based on my own research, that management in such a hierarchical organization would treat persistence as unreasonableness. From there, it is a small step from, “Why can’t they let this go?” to “They’re insubordinate.” 

This is especially true when leadership cannot accept that a real problem exists, as in this case. Even if the whistleblower has escaped reprisal to date, this is no guarantee that they will not be targeted in the future. As an Australian whistleblower once remarked about vengeful officials, “They lie waiting in the tall grass.”

As matters stand, one can only hope Solloway has signaled that she will interpret any adverse actions against the whistleblower as reprisal, and immediately refer the matter to the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Tribunal.

While her first report was welcome and strongly supported by the evidence, there were some missed opportunities. Several recommendations appear to address the symptoms of the problem, not the cause. This has the effect of letting the CSC leadership off the hook; it would have been stronger if the recommendations were more pointed in targeting decision-making processes and the failure of CSC systems—such as its own internal whistleblowing system—to deal with the disclosed problems. Nor are there any apparent consequences for the responsible managers. The report does not name them, something which can be a sanction even if nothing else is done. Her predecessor had done so in other investigations. There may be reasons for this, but they could be explained.

Based on this and two previous reports in 2018 and 2020, it seems that there is a cultural problem at CSC. Its leadership goes so far as to deny there was any wrongdoing on the last page of the report, a self-serving conclusion with which no detached reader could agree. This, combined with the foot-dragging and excuses reported, suggest that there is no appetite for accepting dissent and no valuing the voice of personnel—even when they are experts. This is the opposite of “speak-up” culture often championed by genuine leaders, and makes learning from mistakes impossible. The consequences can be fatal, as when Transport Canada ignored whistleblowers prior to the Lac-Mégantic disaster in 2013. 

Further, this case highlights the importance of passing Bill C-290—which amends the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act (PSDPA)— with no changes to water it down. At present, the PSDPA only fully and partly meets 15 out of 58 international best practices for whistleblowing law; Bill C-290 would bring that to 27. From there, more improvements need to be made. Hopefully the Advisory Task Force on the PSDPA, which is in the second year of its review, will make strong recommendations. Current weaknesses in the PSDPA relevant to this case are the limited ways an employee can make a protected disclosure, the near-prohibition on escalating disclosures to the public’s attention if no action is taken, the absence of a duty for organizations to actively protect whistleblowers, and the lack of effective sanctions for those who commit wrongdoing or reprisal. 

While this report is Solloway’s first since her September 2023 appointment, the disclosure was in 2022, so most of the investigative work was done under the auspices of her predecessor. Still, it bodes well for a more robust approach in future. It comes to strong findings which should serve as a warning to other managers who may be tempted to succumb to groupthink and “going along to get along” in the public service. This could be reinforced by changes to the PSDPA which correct existing shortcomings and mandate an ongoing cycle of assessment and improvement for the law. As matters stand, however, the federal government’s whistleblowing regime is not yet trusted and appears to have little deterrent effect. 

Ian Bron is a senior fellow at the Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for Free Expression, and has been studying and advocating for best practices in whistleblowing systems since 2008.

This story was first published by The Hill Times on April 15, 2024, and is republished here with the author's and The Hill Times' permission.