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Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and whistleblowers

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Cindy Blackstock under surveillance

A group called Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) has just issued a report for the year 2012-13 that should challenge our complacency. The CJFE report 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.

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 Schmidt 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 (APTN) 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.

She 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 CJPE 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 bureaucratic roadblocks and to use those laws as effectively as possible. You can read the CJPE report by clicking here.



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