Shooting the Messenger
8 - The Death Of Janine
My first meeting, after being named Head of the Cost Recovery Unit (CRU), was with the Head of the Canada Map Office. Under ordinary circumstances I would have reported to Peter but for this assignment I reported higher up.
Peter offered his opinion as to who were the “trouble makers.” He identified the usual suspects: the people who complained the loudest. Janine was not one of those.
I was not about to follow the example of the Chairman of the Energy Supply Allocation Board — or Arthur for that matter. Before making a decision that had the potential of ruining a person’s life, I wanted to make sure I had all the facts and was doing the right thing.
I then met with Juliette, the out-spoken supervisor of the Order Processing Section, and Fran, the soft-spoken supervisor of the Accounting Section. I met and talked with just about everyone within the CRU. When I believed I had a firm grasp of the situation I took the first decision aimed at solving one of the problems identified by the Auditor General.
Thousands of invoices were outstanding; most months, some years past due. Clients complained when called about some of these unpaid invoices claiming they had already been paid.
Who do you believe? If your accounts receivables are followed up on a timely basis and cash received through the mail is properly accounted for (two areas where the CRU was deficient) the onus is on the client to prove that an invoice has been paid.
I recommended to Treasury Board that they write off about $200,000 of these unpaid invoices. To try to collect these questionable receivables would only make the bureaucracy look bad. Then, like today, I was well aware that to portray the people who collect your taxes, pay your pension, and represent you abroad... as incompetent, let alone dishonest, is not always a good thing.
Treasury Board agreed; just make sure it doesn't happen again.
Before tackling the problem of the timely collections of receivables, I decided to solve the more straightforward, I thought, and more pressing issue of the handling of cash and negotiable instruments received through the mail.
The opening of mail containing cash or other negotiable instruments is usually witnessed by two people. One opens the envelop and takes out its content; the other writes down in a ledger what has been received and they both sign off that what has been recorded is correct, and is an accurate record of what has been received.
It goes without saying that these two witnesses should not be related so as to not facilitate fraud or invite accusations of fraud. At the CRU this function was performed by two middle-aged sisters.
One of the sisters would be offered another position within the CRU that did not involve opening mail. I had left it up to the mailroom supervisor, a matronly late fifties or early sixties grandmother as to who that should be. When I explained the situation to her and Fran (her immediate supervisor) they had not raised any objections. The CRU matriarch did not really say anything; her pursed lips and icy stare was the only indication that she did not approve.
It did not matter, it had to be done.
A few days after this discussion, I went to the mailroom to enquire as to who had accepted a transfer and did they have any questions. I reiterated that whoever accepted to be moved would be given a job at an equivalent level within the Cost Recovery Unit, of her choosing, if it could be done.
The mailroom supervisor was biting down hard on her lower lip.
Janine, one of the sisters, was the first, and from my recollection, the only one to speak. She said she would quit if I insisted on splitting them up.
By quitting she would, of course, be solving the problem in the mailroom. No amount of assurances — including my explanation that it was not a question of not trusting them, but a question of rules over which I had no discretion — would change her mind.
Janine quitting her job to protest what she considered an unfair demand was, in some ways, admirable if misguided. What is the point of quitting if it will have no impact on the action you’re protesting and leave you worse off?
It was maybe a month or so after she walked out of the building at 130 Bentley Road when she called and asked to return to work. Was there anything I could do? She missed her friends.
Some turnover in temporary positions could be expected. I told her that as soon as a temporary position opened up I would let her know. Once back with the CRU she would be able to compete for a permanent job and things would almost be the way they were before.
It wasn’t soon enough. A few weeks after she sought my help, she had a heart attack and died. She is buried on the Québec side of the river, in the cemetery on the left side of the road leading to Pointe Gatineau.
I did not know Janine that well, but accompanying her friends and family to her final resting place is one of the more difficult duties I ever had to perform.
I felt sorry for Janine. I felt some responsibility for her perhaps untimely demise, but I don't know how else I could have handled the situation.