Shooting the Messenger
23 - A Sunny Day In May
Every morning, if the sun was shining, for a few hours the corridor in front of the small beige cell where I sat would be flooded with sunlight from the east facing windows in the section further down the hall where the bosses had their offices. I was staring into the brilliant May sunshine flooding the usually gloomy corridor when Bruce came running in.
"Do you have the 15 cents I loaned you for the bus the other day," he asked.
Bruce more than lived up to the stereotype of the penny-pinching Scot—in other ways he was not the archetype at all. He was fastidious to the extreme. Some can't see the forest for the trees; Bruce could not see the trees for the leaves.
Bruce did not share much and considered just about everything a private matter. This did not leave much room for small talk. I once had him over for dinner and asked him about his parents only to be told, in no uncertain terms, that it was none of my business.
Bruce was a stickler for security, even if most of the stuff we were involved in was not classified. He did admit, in a moment of rare candor, that many of the security procedures were time-consuming and pointless, especially overseas, where locally engaged staff had the run of the place. Even when caught riffling and photocopying embassy files, you only asked them not do it again and left it at that. Bruce spoke from experience.
Bruce and I were left much on our own when my first boss at Foreign Affairs, John Turley, accepted a posting as Chief Financial Officer to the London High Commission (it was like going home, John, a great boss, hailed from Manchester). Bruce's boss, the head of Systems Administration, also accepted another assignment, quit or retired, I don’t know, but he too was no longer available.
They both became unavailable at a critical juncture in the implementation of Full Telegraphic Input of Financial Data. Bets were that it would be cancelled because testing and training on the new system was taking too long and posts were complaining. At this stage posts were somewhat overwhelmed with having to maintain the current financial reporting system and having to send additional information to Ottawa via our global communication network to allow us to iron out the kinks in the new system.
The information they were sending also allowed us to test their understanding of the new procedures to be followed once the old system was abandon and the new one took over.
It is difficult enough to train staff on a new system when they’re in the same building, imagine what it’s like when most of the people you have to train are mostly citizens (locally engaged staff) of another country. That is more than one hundred countries and twenty-four different time zones.
Bruce and I spent a summer and many more months, at 125 Sussex, working 14 hour days, and weekends getting staff around the world to prepare and transmit operational financial data in a manner that the central computer in Ottawa could process.
It was crunch-time when Bruce and I were asked to meet with Dave Gordon, the director with overall responsibility for the Full Telegraphic Input project.
"When can we go ahead with full telegraphic input of financial data?" he asked.
Gordon was asking us when the Department could abandon the old way of reporting financial information altogether. If the new electronic way of transmitting and managing financial information did not work as predicted after the old way of doing things was abandoned, it would be chaos, but not unmanageable chaos.
Except for a few posts, Warsaw in Eastern Europe, Addis Ababa in Africa and a handful of others who could present problems (which I felt we could easily handle) I was in favour of going ahead as soon as possible. Bruce wanted to wait until every posts had achieved perfection. A laudable but unrealistic goal.
Bruce was not into taking risk no matter how miniscule—no McDuff or Macbeth was he.
Gordon emphasized that the entire project was in jeopardy if we did not go ahead soon. Bruce would not budge.
At the end of a rather animated discussion between Bruce and me, I asked him: “Would you rather have an assured failure than risk an almost certain success?” The usually soft-spoken Bruce shouted his emphatic "YES!" I recommended taking a chance on success.
Gordon made his decision. We would go ahead with full telegraphic input of financial data the following month—ready or not. Bruce did not express any further misgivings. Somebody else would be blamed if things did not go as planned.
We went live the next month and the rest is history.
An ambitious, daring, innovative project to get a handle on the Department’s expenditures was a resounding success; a success due, in large measure, to Bruce and I (and Dave Gordon who as project manager had the most to lose but stayed the course) who rose to the challenge and saved the day when others, perhaps fearing a disaster with which they did not want to be associated, took their leave.
Getting back to Bruce and his 15 cents. He was almost beside himself. He was literally shaking as I reached into a pocket and found a dime and a nickel.
"Yes, I’ve got it," I said, and gave them to him.
Without saying another word, he ran out the door just seconds before two security guards showed up.
"Please come with us," one of the guards said.
I cannot describe what it was like walking past your former colleagues escorted by two security guards. They were nowhere to be found. Maybe Bruce was the signal to clear out.
The Foreign Affairs complex is comprised of three low-rise buildings (Towers A, B and C) which are linked by a large cavernous reception area. My little beige cell was on the ground floor of Tower C.
I was escorted down a long corridor pass Paul Dunseath's section where the corridor opened onto the reception area.
At a brisk pace—I was thankful for small mercies—we crossed the vast lobby where curious visitors waiting at the central reception desk looked on, and embarrassed acquaintances exiting from the ground-floor cafeteria looked the other way.
I was being escorted to Tower A (the tallest of the three towers), the tower where the really important people had their offices.
We took the elevator to the floor where Canada’s former ambassador to Belgrade (then the capital of Yugoslavia, today the capital of Serbia), Assistant Deputy Minister, Personnel Branch, J.G. (Jim) Harris conducted his business. Ambassador Harris was between diplomatic assignments keeping busy in Ottawa until he could return to the job he was trained for.
An important and pressing piece of business that day for the man next in line for Massé's job was firing me. Somehow it seems appropriate that it was an ambassador on temporary assignment as head of what passes for Personal Management at Foreign Affairs who would officially put an end to a nasty piece of business.
With me standing in from of him, Ambassador Harris, in the manner of medieval heralds for kings, tyrants and other potentates read a formal proclamation of my crimes of lèse-majesté.
The senior management of the Department has carefully reviewed all facts pertaining to your conduct during the period of March 21, 1985 and April 9, 1985.
The most serious crime, that of alleged insubordination led the short list of accusations:
During this period:
- You have neglected to submit to instructions from your superiors to begin work immediately on the project which was assigned to you namely the preparation of the report on currency fluctuation. In spite of instructions from your superiors you did not produce any work as part of this project which you had been assigned and that during the entire period from March 21 to April 9.
The seventeen day period in question straddled the Easter weekend, and included two statutory holidays, and the three days I was on sick leave. I was, in effect, being accused of being insubordinate for only eight days, they just wanted to make it appear longer. I was insubordinate for eight months or not insubordinate at all.
What to make of the Ambassador's second accusation. In the following he makes allusions to a period outside this narrow timeframe when:
- On a number of occasions, you have disobeyed your supervisor's orders not to read newspapers, magazines or other materials not directly related to the project which you have been assigned.
Considering the project I had been assigned was the impossible Currency Fluctuation Report, this meant a restriction on all reading materials.
Of all the constraints put on me during the time in my little beige cell the restriction on reading was the hardest to endure. I admit that on a few occasions it became unbearable and I did sneak a peek at The Ottawa Citizen. As to the magazine I was spotted reading, it was PC Magazine, the computer industry's leading magazine on the micro-computer revolution.
Even prisoners in the nation's maximum security prisons are allowed to read as a means of preserving what's left of their sanity. But preserving my sanity was not what management had in mind as Lee Gottdank admission mentioned earlier will attest.
The third indictment, for those who find it difficult to condone hypocrisy, is proof that the first accusation, that of insubordination, was exaggerated. The period of alleged misconduct in this accusation is actually contained within the first.
- During your absence from work from April 2, 1985 until April 9 1985 you neglected to submit to a demand from your superiors that you call in at the beginning of each working day.
For a supervisor to request an employee to call him every day, while he is sick on legitimate sick leave, to tell him that he is sick was unheard of until management at Foreign Affairs decided to use this potentially health-damaging harassment technique.
When the guards came for me, I had more than three months of unused sick leave. Normally, if an employer suspects an employee of abusing sick leave privileges, he will informed the employee that future approval of continuous sick leave days more than the collective agreement allows (which was three days) will require a doctor's certificate.
I was sick in bed when I heard someone banging on the door. I ignored the banging and went back to sleep. The person banging on the door had been sent by the Department.
The person banging on my door had a letter for me in which Foreign Affairs threatened me with on the spot dismissal (I would be deemed to have abandoned my post) if I did not call the Department every day to explain the nature of my illness which they already knew and which, by their actions, were trying to worsen.
I had left work telling my supervisor I had to get away from the harassment for a few days to avoid a nervous breakdown and this is what they do! This was beyond the pale.
To recap, a public servant with more than twelve years service, with an exemplary record of accomplishments and dedication in the service of her Majesty's government until he to came to Foreign Affairs, was being terminated for:
1) Allegedly having not produced any work during a period of eight days;
2) For having read a newspaper and a magazine;
3) For having failed to call his employer every day during three days he was sick to tell his employer, who knew he was sick, that he was sick.
After Ambassador Harris finished reading my list of crimes against her majesty's government, I was escorted out of 125 Sussex. A poster with my picture and description was put up in a conspicuous place with a warning ...
Less than a year after proclaiming the end of my career as a public servant, Ambassador Harris returned to his diplomatic duties as Canada's High Commissioner to New Delhi.