The federal government is striking a task force to review whistleblower protections for federal civil servants, but an advocate for those very protections says he isn't happy with the move.
Treasury Board president Mona Fortier announced the review at the end of November, but James Turk, the director of the Centre for Free Expression at Toronto Metropolitan University, says it actually shows a lack of dedication to protect workers who raise concerns.
"You would think I would be enthusiastic about it. But I'm really disturbed by what the government announced," he said.
"[It's] an indication that they have no serious commitment to reform of the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act."
Five years ago, a statutory review heard from experts across the country and took "a good deal of time" to evaluate the act and make recommendations, Turk said.
Those recommendations were passed unanimously by the Parliamentary committee looking into the act but were never enacted.
Turk said that leaves him with little faith anything will come out of the new review.
"They had a scathing evaluation of the act and proposed a significant number of major changes that would make it be able to do what it's supposed to do," Turk said, adding many of those original proposals are still relevant today.
In theory somebody could propose a whole new act. - David Yazbeck, PIPSC director and task force member
The new nine-member task force will begin work this month and take 12 to 18 months before producing a report.
David Yazbeck, director of national labour relations for the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada and a member of the task force, said one difference this time around is that the review isn't statutory.
The 2017 review was triggered by legislation, whereas this review is voluntary. Yazbeck said he hopes that "signals an intent by the government" to make necessary changes.
Since the statutory review was limited just to looking at the act, the scope of the new review could be much wider, he added.
"In theory somebody could propose a whole new act," Yazbeck said. "So in that sense there could be something new as a result."
Will take 'far too long': PSAC
According to the initial news release, the group will consider both the 2017 recommendations and "Canadian and international research and experience."
In a statement, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), which represents nearly 230,000 workers, said this new review will take "far too long to address problems with the law" and simply "duplicate the work carried out five years ago."
PSAC took part in the 2017 review and made several recommendations to make the legislation more robust.
"In 2017, this government issued a report on necessary changes to the existing process to support public service workers who come forward with reports of wrongdoing," said PSAC national president Chris Aylward.
"The report clearly stated that the Act did not do enough to protect whistleblowers and made recommendations for improvements back then. It's time for this government to act."
Turk and PSAC both said recent international research put Canada at the bottom of a list of countries when it comes to the protections given — both in law and practice — to whistleblowers.
A joint study by the Government Accountability Project and the International Bar Association called it "concerning" that whistleblower protection legislation in Canada is "nearly entirely dormant."
It recommends that legislation mandate periodic reviews into the laws' effectiveness, while using Canada as an example of a country where that's enshrined in legislation but "ignored" in practice.
"Only eight whistleblowers representing six controversies were allowed to bring reprisal claims before the tribunal between 2005 and January 2020, when 358 complaints were submitted to the Integrity Commissioner's Office in that window," the report said.
"As the Integrity Commissioner must approve whistleblowers' requests to commence tribunal proceedings, this minimal track record indicates that the commissioner is acting as a barrier to those seeking to enforce their legal rights."
Turk said the practical effects of the lack of protection mean problems that go unreported are allowed to develop into "crises," using the Phoenix pay problems as an example.
"The Phoenix project ... has been a disaster and cost Canada billions of dollars," he said.
"Had we had proper whistleblower protection, people would have spoken up about that. It would have been stopped in its tracks."