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Protecting whistleblowers in the public service


When a public servant witnesses wrongdoing in the public service and wants to do something about it, she should not have to worry about being disciplined or fired for speaking out.

In recognition of the valuable role whistleblowing can play in ensuring the integrity of the public service, jurisdictions across Canada have enacted laws to both protect whistleblowers from reprisals and investigate when wrongdoings in government are disclosed. This post will examine whistleblowing laws in Canada (federal) and Ontario.

Disclosure and investigation of wrongdoings

Most federal public servants are covered by the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act, and most public servants in Ontario are covered by Public Service of Ontario Act. Those laws provide public servants with mechanisms to disclose wrongdoings (also known as blowing the whistle), anonymously if they choose.

A “wrongdoing” in whistleblower legislation has a particular meaning in both Ontario and federally. It can include things like:

  • Breaking a law;
  • Misusing public funds, such as wasting public money on unnecessary purchases or spending public money without authorization;
  • Gross mismanagement, which can include serious errors in management or mismanagement that poses a risk to a part of the public service;
  • An act or omission that seriously endangers the life, health and safety of Canadians or the environment;
  • A serious breach of a code of conduct; or
  • Knowingly directing someone to commit any of the above.

Once a public servant discloses a potential wrongdoing, an investigation may follow, headed up either by the public servant’s department or by the federal or Ontario Integrity Commissioner. If the investigation reveals that a wrongdoing took place, a report will follow which may be made public. The report may include recommendations for corrective action, including, for example, disciplinary action against those responsible for the wrongdoing or systemic changes to the affected government organization to prevent future wrongdoings.

Protecting whistleblowers from reprisals

In Ontario and federally, whistleblowers are protected from having reprisals taken against them because they have disclosed a wrongdoing or potential wrongdoing. For example, employers cannot discipline, demote or in any way adversely affect the working conditions of a public servant because they have blown the whistle, nor can an employer even threaten to do any of those things.

A public servant who believes that she is the victim of a reprisal can make a complaint to have the reprisal reversed and seek compensation. To whom the complaint is made will depend on the status of the employee and may often be in the form of a grievance. Under the federal system, a complaint may be made directly to the Integrity Commissioner.

Final thoughts

Be aware that there are some differences between the federal and Ontario laws for whistleblowers, including differences in the definition of a protected disclosure, and differences in the processes for blowing the whistle or reporting a reprisal.

Despite those differences, and while Canada’s whistleblower protections have much room for improvement, public servants should be aware that there are many cases in which they are protected when they want to expose a wrongdoing.