For Whistleblowers

We at wish to express our support and encouragement to anyone who has faced reprisal as a result of reporting a safety issue.

The Issues

When safety problems occur in aviation, these are often flagged by conscientious employees who take their concerns to line management or use the official safety reporting channels. If this doesn't work, they may go to the regulator, or even to the media as a last resort. However all too often, managers working towards production and profit targets seem unwilling to hear about such problems and do not investigate or take corrective action.

Worse, employees who report concerns are often rewarded with reprisals, which may take various forms such as: a change in hours of work, reduction of responsibilities, demotion, psychiatric examinations, harassment, dismissal and blacklisting. For the safety of all those who fly, it is vital to protect people who try to "blow the whistle" on safety problems, and to ensure that their concerns are properly investigated. This is an essential part of an effective aviation safety regime.

The status of whistleblower protection in Canada

Although various systems and procedures exist in Canada that should ensure that safety problems are identified and reported, it appears that few of these are working well. In particular there are few avenues of support or protection for employees who find themselves subject to reprisals for reporting problems. Some individuals may find that their collective agreement provides some recourse, or that their union is willing and able to protect them. For many, this is not the case.

Two organizations who participated in the Round Table event – FAIR (Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform) and Canadians for Accountability provide help and support to people who are considering "blowing the whistle" or have already done so. These organizations – as well as others – are highly critical of the current situation.

The only national whistleblower legislation in Canada is focused on the federal public service. The Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act (PSDPA), which came into force in April 15, 2007, establishes a Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, a whistleblower watchdog responsible for overseeing most government departments and crown corporations. 

However, many consider this legislation to be deeply flawed (see FAIR's analysis "What's Wrong with the PSDPA"), and the Commissioner's performance disappointing. During her first two years of operation the Commissioner has uncovered not a single case of wrongdoing in the entire federal public service, nor a single case of an employee suffering reprisals for reporting concerns. Both FAIR and Canadians for Accountability have publicly criticized this track record (see "Calls for Whistle-Blowing Watchdog to Step Down").

For employees outside of the federal public service the situation is no better. A few provincial governments have legislation with similarities to the PSDPA, but weaker. In the private sector there is no legislation specifically to protect whistleblowers (and none contemplated) although some individuals may be able to secure some degree of protection through collective agreements or labour law.

Another area of legislation that may be applicable in some situations is the Criminal Code of Canada, as this relates to the occupational health and safety violations; but again these provisions seem to be largely ignored by the authorities. Effective September 15th 2005, Bill C-13 amended the Criminal Code of Canada to include section 425.1 which was claimed to expand whistleblower protection by "creating a general criminal offence in relation to employer reprisals against employees who provide information with respect to the violation of any federal or provincial law" Bill C-45 which came into force on March 31st 2004, also contained Criminal Code amendments and made organizations legally responsible for the Occupational Health and Safety of workers. However there appear to have been few, if any, prosecutions under these provisions, although there have been numerous accidents where the published reports seem to suggest serious negligence on the part of employers.

Where to obtain help

Although they may be witnessing serious risks to air travellers, employees in the industry may be forced to wrestle with an agonizing decision: whether to push hard to have their concerns looked into, thereby perhaps putting their own livelihood and their families' well being at risk – or keep quiet and try to live with their conscience, since this decision may put others' lives at risk.

People in this predicament need all the information and guidance that they can get, to help them decide on a course of action, and to execute this in a way that gives the maximum chance of success and the least harm to them and their loved ones.

For such people there is a body of valuable self-help information available: about whistleblower legislation, about the options typically available, about how employers muzzle and punish whistleblowers, about finding allies and building support networks. FAIR's website contains useful information for whistleblowers from any sector:

Our External Resources page contains more information specific to aviation.