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Accountability group seeks whistleblower protection, transparency amid COVID-19

A health-care worker prepares to swab a man at a walk-in COVID-19 test clinic in Montreal North, Sunday, May 10, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world.
A health-care worker prepares to swab a man at a walk-in COVID-19 test clinic in Montreal North, Sunday, May 10, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

An ad-hoc transparency group is calling on governments to make crucial records related to the COVID-19 pandemic open by default as a measure of accountability to Canadians.

The Canadian COVID-19 Accountability Group urges public officials to proactively release documents concerning health and safety enforcement, scientific and public health research, and contracts, grants, and loans provided to companies and organizations.

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The coalition includes academics, lawyers and representatives of groups including the Whistleblowing Canada Research Society and Anti-Corruption and Accountability Canada.

In a report released today, it says the COVID-19 pandemic has demanded dramatic action, both politically and financially, to slow the spread of the disease.

But the coalition says public and private bodies have been less than transparent with the news media and the public about those actions.

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The group echoes a recent call from federal information commissioner Caroline Maynard for agencies to release pandemic-related records they create without prompting.

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The coalition seeks a clear declaration that Canadian governments will protect anyone who reports public or private-sector wrongdoing pertaining to health and safety, science or the misuse of public funds, particularly during the COVID-19 crisis.

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It also recommends the creation of a COVID-19 ombudsman to advise and support Canadians wishing to disclose any wrongdoing they see.

Many Canadians who witness suspect deeds will have questions and require advice about reporting what they have witnessed, the group says.

“Even those in organizations with disclosure mechanisms, such as whistleblower hotlines, may not know of (or trust) them,” the report says. “They would benefit from support in choosing where to go, articulating their concerns and understanding what evidence they need to make a credible disclosure of wrongdoing.”

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The report calls for an awareness campaign to educate employees about how to report wrongdoing concerning the expenditure of public funds related to the pandemic, as well as the non-disclosure or manipulation of information about COVID-19.

The coalition acknowledges its recommendations are ambitious and will require “work and consistent, steady leadership.”

Some can be enacted quickly while others, such as the development of comprehensive whistleblowing legislation, will require more time, it says.

“However, without these reforms, it will be difficult for citizens to hold bad actors accountable for their actions and inactions during the pandemic, as well as prevent future failures that could jeopardize both taxpayer dollars and Canadian lives.”