National Energy Board aims to improve response to whistleblowers

National Energy Board
The National Energy Board is looking to improve its approach to whistleblowers, calling in an outside expert. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

The National Energy Board is looking to shore up its training, policies and procedures related to whistleblowers, a change it says is part of a broader “new direction” within the organization.

The NEB issued a call for tender on Wednesday, via the federal government’s procurement website, stating that it is searching for an expert “with substantial experience in dealing with source handling and confidential information in order to provide guidance and to develop procedures, and deliver training on how the NEB should store, handle, record, share and respond to reports that are received from external parties with respect to activities at NEB regulated pipelines and facilities.”

According to spokesperson Darin Barter, the NEB — which is responsible for, among other things, regulatory approval of inter-provincial oil and gas pipelines — is hoping to have the right person in place by next spring. The expert is being brought in as part of the “new direction” undertaken by the NEB, Barter said, and not in response to an upswing in whistleblower tips or a breach in the current system for handling this type of sensitive information.

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“People have always been able to contact us via mail, telephone and through an online comment form,” he noted. “But as we look at ways to improve, looking at the whistleblower program was a natural extension of trying to get better.”

Whistleblowers in the private sector are partly protected from retaliation by their employers under the Criminal Code, but only if they report wrongdoing directly to law enforcement officials. Special provincial legislation also exists in numerous (but not all) jurisdictions, further shielding tipsters from threats of dismissal or lawsuits. The Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act has similarly protected whistleblowers in the federal public sector since 2007.

The NEB has received 17 whistleblower reports over the last three years, said Barter, and every one has led to an investigation being opened.

Barter said the new expert’s mandate will include improving staff training to ensure that rules are understood and tips are properly handled. The NEB cannot contact a source after receiving a tip unless the person has given their express permission, he added, and that won’t change. All tips will continue to be treated as private and confidential.

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“We are not going to turn around and contact the company (employing the tipster),” Barter said. “We’re very sensitive to the fact that individuals could be identified.”

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One of the NEB’s more recent whistleblower reports came in early 2015, when a source reported numerous safety-code violations at TransCanada Corp. It was the second time in recent years that the NEB opened a probe into safety practices at the major pipeline company following a tip.

The whistleblower behind the first investigation, in 2012, was former TransCanada engineer Evan Vokes. He left the company after raising a series of allegations involving safety practices. A subsequent NEB audit concluded that the Calgary-based firm was non-compliant in four out of nine areas including hazard identification, inspection, risk assessment and control, and management review. Vokes later called the audit “toothless,” claiming that the NEB was not doing enough to prevent future pipeline breaks.

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