Shooting the Messenger

16 - No Future Here

I had been warned that if I informed the Commissioner of Official Language about the department’s plans to turn the clock back on official languages I would face disciplinary action.

The disciplinary sanction contemplated was no less than my dismissal from the public service. Of course, the real reason for this drastic course of action had to be obscured.

It was maybe a day or two after I placed the call to Maxwell Yalden that I received a visit from Gordon. He asked me what I was working on.

I explained that with most posts experiencing massive gains on foreign currency transactions month after month it was obvious that the budgeted exchange rates used were not very good (you may remember that the budgeted exchange rates used were the rates published by the Globe and Mail at the beginning of the Estimates process in September).

The department's central computer now contained almost two years of information on how the Canadian dollar fared against foreign currencies where Canada maintained an official presence. Why not use this information to set a more realistic budgeted rate and thereby reduce the wild fluctuations in gains and losses on foreign currency transactions?

He asked me to show him how the Currency Fluctuation Report was produced. The system was actually well documented. Maybe he had not read the User's Guide. I also had been providing the 300+ page report on gains and losses on foreign currency transactions directly to the Director, as requested, for more than a year now.

What was going on here?

Later that day, Richard, the manager to whom I now reported asked me to accompany him to a beige closet-of-a-room with a floor-to-ceiling window that looked out onto a narrow beige high-traffic corridor. On the way there he mentioned that my regular office was needed "for people who had a future with the Department.”

We made our way to a small office that, until I moved in had been used mainly for storage of mostly electronic equipment such as the new personal computers that the division was acquiring at a rapid rate and not had time to install. The installation had mostly to do with ensuring that there were no security implications and this sometimes took time.

The office had your basic necessities: a filing cabinet, a desk and a chair. The only difference I noticed from before, apart from no more boxes labelled IBM or Wang PC or Lanpar printer, when Richard and I entered that sparse claustrophobic working environment was a desktop calculator on the top right hand corner of the desk. In front of where I would be sitting, there was a pen or a pencil next to a white legal size pad.

Richard explained that they had decided (I assume him and Gordon) that I did not need access to the mainframe computer to do the massive computer-generated monthly Currency Fluctuation Report; that it would more efficient for me to do it using a desktop calculator, pencil and paper.

I had not noticed, but Richard had some papers in his hand which he then handed to me. He said it was his new Milestone Reporting System which would be used to track my progress in producing the Currency Fluctuation Report.  On one of the sheets Richard handed me, was an area where I was to write an explanation if I did not provide the needed report on time. Explain what! There was nothing to explain and they knew it.

What they were asking me to do was impossible unless I had access to the Department’s mainframe computer where the Post Expenditure Database, the Estimates Database, the Currency Fluctuation Database and the programs I wrote to perform the millions of necessary calculations and to link, merge and summarize hundreds of thousands of pieces of information were stored. But that was not point.

Betraying only a hint of frustration and in all seriousness, to help me concentrate on the Currency Fluctuation Report, Richard warned me that “if I see you reading a newspaper or a computer magazine or anything not related to your assigned work you will face disciplinary action” — in effect, all reading materials. Richard, like Gordon, did not make idle threats.

His next demand, which I admit I ignored, was not followed with a threat of disciplinary action. To make sure I was concentrating on the all important Currency Fluctuation Report, he ordered me to sign in and out whenever I left the gloomy little room that would become my home away from home for more than eight months.

I thought it was a joke.

After I had a chance to sit down and contemplate what had just happened and the task I had been assigned, I realized it was no joke.

The claustrophobic environment, the fish bowl existence, the impossible task, the tight monitoring of my activities, the petty restrictions such as reading the newspaper were all designed for one purpose and one purpose only to get me to quit. Richard's remark about needing my office for "people who had a future with the Department” now made sense.

I ran after Richard. We went into his office where I point-blankly asked him what was going on.

Whenever I remember this conversation I am reminded of the movie Cool Hand Luke where Paul Newman plays a prisoner who is made to dig a hole and fill it up again, a pointless exercise meant to break his spirit.

I told Richard that what he was asking me to do did not make any sense; that only the powerful central computer could produce this report (which it had been doing for more than a year, and which required more than a million calculations every month) on a timely basis. I told him I could not deliver such a report using a desktop calculator by the end of the month, or the end of year for that matter. It was impossible and pointless!

He smiled and said “We know that.”

He then went on to explain that I had two choices 1) I could leave, quit or accept a transfer to another department or 2) be fired. They knew I could not deliver on their request and when I failed to do so I would be dismissed from the public service for incompetence or insubordination, “they hadn’t yet decided” which it was going to be.

He finished his explanation with a question. His smile now grew into a Joker-like grin: “By the way, which would you prefer, being fired for incompetence or insubordination?”

“If I am going to be fired anyway, why don’t you make it for insubordination you son-of-bitch!” I shouted and walked out.

That last remark, completely out of character, would come back to haunt me.

I returned to my little beige cell and waited for the inevitable.

I was hoping they would make it quick. A dismissal from the federal public service for cause, bogus or otherwise, is appealable all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. I now looked forward to my day before a judge when the truth about this gangster-like organization would come out.

They did not make it quick.

They left me in my small beige cell with my impossible, pointless task for months on end, on display, an example for the dozens who every day had to traverse the narrow corridor in front of where I sat at my desk, behind that floor-to-ceiling wall of glass, with my desktop calculator, pad and pencil starring into space.

What were they waiting for? For the Commissioner of Official Languages to complete his investigation into my complaint perhaps!