Meanness is a way of life in Ottawa
TheStar.com – News/Canada – The lack of civility has become a way of life in government and the civil service.
Nov 20 2013. By: Linda Diebel
Cindy Blackstock knew something was up when officials threatened to cancel a 2009 meeting on aboriginal child welfare if she was in the room. So she dutifully sat outside the Parliament Hill office, watched by a security guard, while deliberations continued within.
Blackstock is executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, a university professor, author and recipient of awards for distinguished service over 20 years in her field. The Ontario chiefs had invited her to the meeting specifically because she is an expert in child advocacy.
Baffled by what she terms the “extreme reaction” to her presence, she filed a request under the Privacy Act and in due course received a 2,500-page file on herself.
She was astounded by the findings.
Senior officials in Justice and Aboriginal Affairs, she learned, had cast a broad surveillance net over her professional and personal life, including her Facebook and Twitter accounts. Moreover, in notes and emails to one another, they trashed her in terms that were arrogant, demeaning and sexist.
“Our girl’s on a roll,” wrote one official.
Another referred to, “Our dearest friend Cindy Blackstock … ”
Officials passed around her Facebook posts and those of her friends — including baking recipes — to other bureaucrats in Justice and Aboriginal affairs.
“ Baking ! What does that have to do with policy issues?” asks Blackstock.
An official sent an email to nine others about Blackstock’s appearance at a public event, that said in part: “Day One opened with the Cindy Blackstock show, a tour de force that seems to fire up a ready-to-be impressed audience … after this clever argument she rattled through some general statistics (or gave the impression of doing so) and whisked away to the airport.”
Blackstock recalls being “shocked by the level of sarcasm and the nasty tone about me by people I’ve never met. These are officials employed by the government acting in the context of their official duties,” she says. “It was so negative and deeply personal — and nobody ever appeared to ask if it was appropriate.”
When did Ottawa get this mean?
In February 2011, as the Conservatives were about to celebrate five years of minority government, the Star interviewed some 30 public officials, politicians, academics and consultants for their take on the mood in the capital. Some spoke off the record of an “us versus them” mentality under Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
At that time, Wesley Wark, an expert on national security issues, warned that a climate of fear among civil servants was having “a stifling effect that gathers momentum the further it works its way down in the system.”
Today, the nastiness is deep and systemic.
Recent interviews with many of the same people show that lack of civility has become a way of life in Ottawa — from committee meetings to tribunal hearings to everyday communications in which civil servants treat groups and citizens like Blackstock in a manner that suggests they have been actively targeted for meanness.
Toronto political consultant Patrick Gossage, who worked for prime minister Pierre Trudeau, argues that society’s weakest are being hurt the most: “The reduction of political dialogue (in the interests of) smaller government and saving money as the only ways to attract votes has exposed a deep-seated meanness and lack of care for large sectors of the population that have fallen behind.”
And a number of individuals said that today Ottawa can no longer be singled out as the only bully on the block.
McMaster University professor Henry Jacek sees contempt among politicians, mean tweets and inexcusable behaviour both provincially and federally. Others, inevitably, point to the turbulence at Toronto City Hall.
“In recent years, both (the provincial and federal) governments have gotten meaner and nastier,” says Jacek. “When the politicians get mean and nasty, it brings out the mean and nasty in the population.”
Conservative commentator Tim Powers stresses it is wrong to point to Stephen Harper as the fountainhead of mean. “It’s a popular narrative generated by the Opposition to say he is mean but I think it’s too simplistic.” Certainly, he says, Harper is taciturn and hardly a “touchy-feely” individual. But he cautions against seeing his political style — it’s all Harper’s doing! — as a question of black and white.
He refers to the Prime Minister’s involvement in setting up the Mental Health Commission of Canada in 2007 as “a significant gesture.” His kind actions go unnoticed. The public saw the state funeral for former NDP leader Jack Layton, Powers says, but not the decisions made by the PM leading up to it.
Others disagree. An Ottawa consultant, who fears the consequences if his name were to be used, argues that Harper’s stamp is all over government: “It’s vicious because there always has to be a bad guy … The government doesn’t care about truth. The truth is whatever the hell they say it is.”
Wark’s view has hardened over the past three years. Thus, his somewhat facetious summing up: “Ottawa is not a bright and cheerful town.”
He points to pending actions in the omnibus budget bill, such as the government’s right to define which public servants have the right to strike, as “mean-spirited” and concludes that “there’s a war brewing between the federal civil service and the government. There’s a daily atmosphere of mistrust and anxiety.”
And he shakes his head at the treatment of returning veterans, particularly their problems with the new Veterans Charter that, according to a study by ombudsman Guy Parent, fails many returning vets and means the most severely disabled veterans will suffer financial hardship at 65.
“It’s unconscionable that Harper could ignore his obligation to the troops,” says Mike Blais, who founded Canadian Veterans Advocacy. He spoke to the Star the same week the PM attended Remembrance Day ceremonies in Ottawa — which honoured, among the war dead, the 158 Canadian Forces soldiers who have died in Afghanistan since 2002.
“There is so much frustration. More than 150 died and 1,500 were wounded under his watch and he has an obligation,” said Blais. “Soldiers feel their sacrifice was not worthy.”
In an email, Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino, said: “Our government is fully committed to giving veterans the support they need to lead successful lives beyond their time in uniform.” On Tuesday, before the standing committee on veterans affairs that is reviewing the charter, Fantino said, “I am convinced more can and should be done.”
In another area, NDP finance critic Peggy Nash says tactics are “just ugly” at Finance committee meetings discussing the omnibus budget bill three times a week. She’s not happy that the government chooses to push through changes to the appointment of Supreme Court judges, health and safety laws for federal workers and public sector labour issues within the massive bill, thereby avoiding separate debate in the Commons.
“It’s beyond ridiculous,” she said. “Procedure gets in the way. It’s just an irritant to them.”
Meetings are sullied by derisive comments aimed at those perceived to be unfriendly to government. “When I see how the parliamentary budget officer (Kevin Page) is treated, I cringe,” says Nash. “He’s been right (on his projections) but (Conservative MPs) tell him he was wrong or he doesn’t know what’s he’s doing. They try to imply his numbers don’t make any sense. It’s very condescending … They’re bully tactics.”
Blackstock certainly feels officials are bullying her. Her child advocacy organization and the Assembly of First Nations filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in 2007, arguing discriminatory funding for aboriginal children across Canada. After a bumpy ride, hearings have wrapped and a decision is expected late next year.
“But that wasn’t personal,” says Blackstock, who was stunned to find that, apparently as a result of the complaint, officials kept personal files on her. “I didn’t file the complaint as an individual.”
The AFN and Blackstock’s group amended the tribunal complaint on child welfare in late 2012 to include the retaliatory action taken against her by the government. Says Blackstock: “Complaints should be allowed with no fear of retaliatory action.”
Why did they intrude into her life? They twice applied for and received her Indian status information (she’s a member of the Gitksan Nation in B.C.), copied an entry on her Facebook page from a 12-year old aboriginal child and wrote about an event she attended in the Australian desert. By her count, a total of 189 senior officials from two ministries gathered information.
The Star asked the justice ministry why “senior officials” had repeatedly accessed her personal accounts and made derogatory remarks about her. (“Justice Canada takes Canadians’ right to privacy very seriously,” said a return email. “The privacy commissioner has generally accepted that the department is entitled to access publicly available documents, including Facebook, and to collect and produce relevant information in court.”)
In another email, Aboriginal Affairs denied there had been retaliation against Blackstock and stressed information was reviewed as part of its due diligence where it pertained to issues before the tribunal.
Blackstock says there was a telling moment last July on the child welfare case. A justice department paralegal who had visited Blackstock’s Facebook page at the instruction of the lead government lawyer was asked why she hadn’t informed her subject. She blurted out: “But she’s on the other team.”
Blackstock would like to know: which team would that be?
But this meanness pales when compared to the sad case of Rémy Beauregard, president of the Montreal-based International Centre for Rights and Democratic Development.
Overnight, on Jan. 8, 2011, he died of a massive heart attack at age 66. The distinguished human-rights defender had finished a second long day of tense board meetings with members who had disapproved of his decision to award three grants to Palestinian groups. He returned home and told his wife, Suzanne Trépanier, he was exhausted, and went straight to bed at 9 p.m.
In an opinion piece for the Star in 2011, Trépanier wrote that the coroner stated that “his sudden death was induced by severe stress.’’
She believes her husband died because he was bullied by officials, including the centre’s chair, Aurel Braun, and board member Jacques Gauthier. In the Star, she called it “psychological harassment.”
Dissension over the past year had centred on the grants and Beauregard’s frustration that he couldn’t get a copy of his own performance evaluation that had been sent to Ottawa without applying under the Freedom of Information Act. The centre, an arm’s length organization, received $11 million in annual funding from the federal government.
“You’ve got to leave, you’ve got to leave,” she recalls telling him that last evening. “He looked so pale and tired. He was stressed out. I told him, ‘I’m afraid for you.’ ’’
In a telephone interview, Braun said the “unfounded accusations are unfortunate. They are completely unfair. There was no stress and he was treated with civility. I acted professionally … I don’t want to talk about a person who has passed.”
The matter was scrutinized repeatedly in the months following Beauregard’s death. No wrongdoing was found on his part and the standing committee on foreign affairs recommended an apology to his wife and family.
The government declined and no apology has ever been made.
In 2012, then Foreign Affairs minister John Baird announced the centre would be closed.
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