Saskatchewan’s public interest disclosure commissioner says legislative changes are needed to strengthen protection for whistleblowers in the province.
In her latest annual report, commissioner Mary McFadyen says that in the 10 years the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA) has been in effect, just 139 provincial public sector employees have contacted her office suspecting a wrongdoing has occurred.
“Considering there’s about 67,000-plus public employees in Saskatchewan, that’s not that many,” McFadyen said Thursday at the legislature after her report was published.
“That doesn’t mean that everything’s fine, but it doesn’t mean that necessarily that things are bad, it’s just that people should be comfortable coming forward.”
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According to the province, PIDA “protects employees who make a disclosure of wrongdoing in good faith, which occurred in their workplace that relates to public interest” and applies to employees of provincial ministries, Crown corporations, and a large number of government agencies, boards and other government institutions.
Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) and Saskatchewan Cancer Agency employees are also covered under the legislation.
A “wrongdoing” can be defined as one or more of the following:
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- contraventions of any federal or provincial legislation
- acts or omissions that create substantial and specific danger to life, health, safety or the environment
- gross mismanagement of public funds or a public asset
- knowingly directing or counselling someone to commit a wrongdoing of these kinds
McFadyen’s report recommends a number of specific actions she believes will result in public sector employees feeling more comfortable coming forward with complaints.
Firstly, she recommends municipal sector employees be given the same protections provincial employees are given under PIDA.
She says that while protections are granted to municipal employees under municipal acts, “they do not provide any way for disclosures of wrongdoing to be made, either internally within municipalities or externally to the Commissioner.”
“If employees are not effectively protected when they come forward, they just will not come forward,” McFadyen wrote in her report.
Secondly, she recommends PIDA be amended to “effectively protect public health sector employees and service providers from reprisal when they come forward to make disclosures of wrongdoing.”
In 2019 the Public Interest Disclosure Amendment Regulations were passed to bring the SHA and the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency under PIDA.
The publicly funded Health Entity Public Interest Disclosure Act has since been drafted to provide protections specific to those working in health care, but McFadyen calls that a “carbon copy” of PIDA that “makes no significant improvements.”
She also says PIDA amendments are needed to expand the list of people employees can bring complaints to.
She said that, as it stands, employees wishing to bring up a complaint internally must do so to a “designated officer” who must be “a senior official of the government institution.”
“This has proven ineffective,” McFadyen writes.
“Requiring employees to seek advice and make disclosures only to a senior official within their organization discourages them from coming forward, which is the exact opposite of what the Act is intended to do.”
She notes that some jurisdictions allow for disclosure to be made to supervisors, rather than only to a senior official “they have never met and do not trust.” She notes some jurisdictions also allow for disclosure to the public.
An employee can also bring a complaint directly to the commissioner’s office.
McFadyen is also calling on the government to remove the requirement that the commissioner give notice to a department’s permanent head that a disclosure has been received unless action is recommended, and to end the requirement that employees file complaints on prescribed forms.
“Employees should be able to make disclosures of wrongdoing and complaints of reprisal in any written form (email, letter, etc.) as long as they include essential information,” McFadyen writes.
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Saskatchewan ethics and democracy critic Matt Love weighed in on the report.
“We do not have enough whistleblower protection, in particular for health-care workers in this province to speak up about what they see every day when they go to work,” he said.
“I think it’s incredibly important. Saskatchewan public sector employees don’t have the assurance that if they speak up it won’t land them in hot water.”
In response, the provincial government provided the following:
“The Government of Saskatchewan appreciates the work of the Public Interest Disclosure Commissioner and values the recommendations for The Public Interest Disclosure Act. Government will consider these recommendations and consult with other stakeholders to determine next steps. We are committed to maintaining high standards of professional values and ethics in the public service.”