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Province reviews whistleblower law

Protection legislation to be strengthened

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The Selinger government is promising to strengthen its whistleblower-protection legislation in the wake of a review that points out serious shortcomings in the law and how it is administered.

A government spokeswoman said Tuesday amendments to the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA) are expected to be introduced in the coming year -- once key stakeholders are consulted.

A report released this week by former Manitoba Human Rights Commission executive director Dianna Scarth said more must be done to make civil servants and others covered under the act aware of their rights and obligations.

She said there is inadequate recourse for whistleblowers who face reprisals from employers for speaking out about wrongdoings in the workplace.

She said government departments and public bodies must do more to make employees aware of the whistleblower law, and she recommended a central monitoring process be set up to ensure compliance with the legislation.

Manitoba was the first province to bring in stand-alone legislation to protect whistleblowers. PIDA was proclaimed in April 2007.

Since then, several other provinces have introduced legislation containing provisions Manitoba might do well to copy, Scarth suggests in her report.

Currently, the only recourse for whistleblowers who face reprisals from their bosses is through the Manitoba Labour Board. That process involves the complainant revealing their identity.

In Alberta and Saskatchewan, she said, a public-disclosure commissioner (a role performed in Manitoba by the Ombudsman's office) has the authority to investigate allegations of reprisal.

Scarth told of speaking to one whistleblower whose disclosures led to findings of wrongdoings in a Manitoba workplace. The woman was "extremely distressed" because she and others involved in the disclosures were subject to acts of reprisal and the legislation designed to protect them failed. She said because of the organization's structure it was relatively easy for her employer to identify a small pool of potential whistleblowers. The woman said she didn't have the energy to take her actions to the labour board, nor was she willing to be identified as a whistleblower.

Currently, workers covered by PIDA have the option of disclosing wrongdoings to their supervisor, a designated PIDA officer (usually a senior manager) or directly to the provincial Ombudsman's office. Since the law was proclaimed, the vast majority of disclosures have been made to the ombudsman.

Alan Levy, a Brandon University business professor who specializes in dispute resolution and labour relations, said a big problem with PIDA is few public-sector workers know it exists.

"Most people don't even know about this legislation. So there needs to be intensive training," he said.

In 2013, there were 42 disclosures under PIDA made to the ombudsman (with a number dealing with the same matter) and three made within government. But in most years since the legislation was proclaimed, total disclosures have numbered in the single digits.

Levy feels the provincial bureaucracy should lose any responsibility it has for implementing the act. That should rest with the ombudsman or a separate public-disclosure commissioner, he said.

He said he attempted a few years ago to survey civil servants to gauge awareness of the legislation and his efforts were resisted by the Manitoba Civil Service Commission. An assistant deputy minister with the commision said Tuesday she was unaware of the survey request.

Jennifer Howard, minister responsible for the commission, was unavailable for comment on Tuesday.

Conservative Leader Brian Pallister has called a news conference for today to comment on the report.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 13, 2014 A5

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