Who watches the watchdogs? It’s a common question in Ottawa amid the expanding number of independent oversight bodies. One relatively new one – the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner of Canada – goes under the microscope of the Auditor-General this week. It’s not expected to be pretty.
In late October, the commissioner’s office released two statements – one confirming the audit is taking place and another announcing the immediate retirement of Christiane Ouimet as commissioner.
Essentially, the woman in charge of protecting whistleblowers left after her own employees complained about her to Auditor-General Sheila Fraser. Was the government-appointed protector of whistleblowers done in by whistleblowers herself? Canadians will find out Thursday when Ms. Fraser releases her audit findings.
There are clear signs of a personality conflict between Ms. Ouimet – a career public servant – and her employees. Radio-Canada reported that one employee filed a complaint that mentioned 18 of the 22 employees in the office had left in less than a year.
One of the workers who left, Norman Desjardins, said he simply could not work with Ms. Ouimet.
“My professional relationship with the commissioner deteriorated dramatically and instantly,” he was quoted as saying.
In addition to Ms. Ouimet’s demeanour, the complaints from staff suggest there was frustration with the record of the commission. It was seen as being focused too heavily on preventing abuses rather than investigating allegations in the federal bureaucracy. The commission’s most recent annual report indicates it received 71 disclosures of wrongdoing in fiscal year 2009-10. Of those, 50 have since been closed and none involved any recommendations or public reports of wrongdoing.
The commissioner has the power to disclose cases of wrongdoing to Parliament, but there is no evidence that has happened beyond vague references in the office’s three annual reports.
Outside groups are calling for an independent review of these files, noting that the list of dismissed complaints includes the case of Sean Bruyea, a Gulf War veteran who received compensation from Ottawa after another watchdog – the Privacy Commissioner – found Veterans Affairs had breached his privacy rights.
The commission was created in 2007 as part of a Conservative law promising legal protection for whistleblowers. The Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act came into force on April 15, 2007, and is subject to a parliamentary review in 2012.
The law was included as part of the Federal Accountability Act – the first major piece of legislation brought in by the Conservatives as part of a pledge to improve ethics and accountability in government.
Ms. Ouimet is a lawyer who was appointed in 2007 with 25 years in the public service, including as associate deputy minister of Public Works and executive director of the Immigration and Refugee Board.