A federal government scientist in Ottawa has been put on administrative leave and is under investigation for writing and singing a protest song against Conservative Leader Stephen Harper.
Tony Turner, whose day job involved mapping the flight patterns of migratory birds for Environment Canada, is one of three people responsible for the viral Harperman video.
Turner wrote the tune and lyrics for a songwriting competition last spring. Set to a peppy beat and backed by an ensemble called the Crowd of Well Wishers, the lyrics call on Canadians to ditch the Harper government with a chorus of “Harperman, it’s time for you to go.”
Almost 50,000 hits later on YouTube, the federal public service took notice.
Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), told Yahoo Canada News that Turner was sent home on paid leave and is now under investigation for breaching the public service ethics code.
She said the union would support Turner and called it a highly unusual handling of an administrative leave.
“Usually if an employee is going to be sent home it’s because there’s a high risk if they stay in the workplace and usually it is without pay,” she said. “This is a slightly different handing, sending him home with pay on administrative leave while they conduct their investigation. We believe strongly that there is no case to be had here, which is perhaps why they’re handling it this way. [We wonder] if what they’re really after is simply to intimidate or discourage other public servants from exercising their rights.”
She added that while there are some reasonable restrictions on how public servants can participate in politics, “within those restrictions we’re allowed to participate in a federal election just like any other Canadian citizen and that’s a right upheld by the Supreme Court in 1991.”
Environment Canada spokesman Mark Johnson said in an email that it would be inappropriate to discusses the specifics of any individual case.
“Compliance with the requirements of the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector is a condition of employment for every public servant in the federal public sector, regardless of their level or position,” he wrote.
The ethics code requires that public servants be: “Acting at all times with integrity and in a manner that will bear the closest public scrutiny, an obligation that may not be fully satisfied by simply acting within the law.”
It also requires: “Taking all possible steps to prevent and resolve any real, apparent or potential conflicts of interest between their official responsibilities and their private affairs in favour of the public interest.” And “acting in such a way as to maintain their employer’s trust.”
When contacted Turner declined to be interviewed while under investigation.
Harperman videographer Andrew Hall said, “The practical effect of this [the investigation into Turner] is nothing. The guy retires in a month or two,” says,. “That was scheduled long ago. All they’ve done is help publicize the song and singalong we’ve planned for Sept. 17.”
Turner, who is well-known in Ottawa folk singing circles, has been performing music in the city since 1994. He has toured throughout Ontario playing folk festivals and even has a CD.
Turner wrote Harperman and performed it live for the first time at a songwriting contest in early May. After winning the contest he teamed up with Hall, a broadcast journalist and former public servant himself, and Chris White, co-founder of the Ottawa Folk Festival, to record the song and create a video.
Hall is angry that Turner’s rights have been impeded.
“I would like to see this case, if possible, go to the Supreme Court and have them apply the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I think we need that kind of wisdom applied [to the situation] and not just the boot of the Conservative government coming down on him.”
Hall adds that as a public service town, freedom of speech is a hot topic in Ottawa.
“They’ve forbade them [public servants] from putting out lawn signs, commenting on social media, on and on and on. The ethics code is incredibly restrictive. Say I live in a house with my wife who isn’t a public servant and she wants to put out a lawn sign, well, as it is that’s forbidden.”
If an investigation decides Turner did breach the ethics code he could face a range of disciplinary actions, including termination.
A new anthem
Taped on June 12, the Harperman video was uploaded to YouTube on June 22 and received nearly 3,000 views in the first few days.
Online reaction to the video has been overwhelmingly positive, with some calling the song their new anthem until the end of the election. On Twitter #harperman was trending on Friday morning. Since news of Turner’s suspension has broken, however, critiques have begun to roll in questioning public servants’ roles as activists.
“I am absolutely certain that if I posted a YouTube video of myself singing a song that called for the ouster of my company’s CEO, I would be fired. He should expect no less,” Andrew Craig wrote on Facebook.
Others simply took issue with the tune.
“Is this dopey earnest sing-a-long what passes for clever on the Ottawa folk scene?” asked Blayne Millington of Ottawa.
In addition to the video a Harperman website has been set up. Viewers are encouraged to submit their own lyrics and videos of themselves singing the song, and an Indiegogo campaign is expected to help fund a Cross-Canada Harperman Sing-Along event scheduled for next month. There, Hall and White hope to see Canadians gather across the country to sing Turner’s song together a month before voters go to the polls on Oct. 19.
“Tony probably can’t participate and that’s perfectly understandable. But hey, you wouldn’t believe the line up of people who want to get up there and sing it,” Hall says.