Shooting the Messenger

Till Death Do Us Part


André’s—another André—small, Montréal-based computer consulting firm had won an impressive contract to provide user support to the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), and he was looking for someone to manage the young people he sent to Ottawa.

Ross, the man who spoke with André about giving me the job, had been a student of my Lucette. During the summer months, the University of Ottawa offered a program in French immersion at the University of Aix-en-Provence. The course was paid out of pocket as it was not part of the government’s second language training program for public servants. My wife-to-be, who already taught French as a second language at Ottawa U., was asked to accompany the group to the south of France the summer before we met. This is how she got to know Ross.

Unlike Richard, our insecure bilingual, the University of Ottawa was proud to send Canadians to teach French, even in France. It did not cost more than hiring a French professeur and they were just as good, if not better.

I met with André at CIDA headquarters at Place du Portage, a large complex of grey buildings that dominates the Federal presence on the Québec side of the Ottawa River across from Parliament. The next day, he called me at home to say that I had the job. Lucette was at work. “Thanks, André,” I said, “but I have unfinished business to take care of. I’m sorry.”

André was my age, perhaps a couple of years older, and like Richard, he had that self-assuredness; unlike Richard, whose self-assurance was ignorance masquerading as bravado, André’s inspired confidence, a confidence that was hard to resist.

“Finish it before Monday,” he said, “because that is when I expect you at CIDA,” and he hung up.

The per diem offered was good, very good, and we needed the money. I could return to the fight at a later date, so on Monday I showed up at CIDA first thing in the morning.

I enjoyed supervising the work of my staff, although I was their boss in name only. Sylvain was the one they looked up to. He was their Hawkeye (Alan Alda of M*A*S*H*) and I was more their Colonel Blake (McLean Stevenson). I did not mind, as long as the work got done.

I knew better than to send Sylvain to fix the easy problems; he thrived on the difficult ones. He was the team’s go-to guy when a problem seemed unsolvable, and he always graciously accepted to see what he could do—just don’t send him to show someone where to find the on/off switch. He was also a workaholic. If he had free time, he could be found working at his computer. He reminded me of myself in many ways.

The manager at CIDA to whom I reported, and whose name now escapes me, was seldom around. During the year that I was there, he spent more time on the golf course or in French training (so I was told) than at the office. Sylvain could barely contain his disdain for the man’s work habits and his ethics. He knew something about the man that he would divulge later, after we became friends, that more than justified his contempt.

It was during one of his longer visits to the office that my CIDA boss noticed I did not assign work on a strictly rotational basis. I seldom needed to. Employees who required assistance usually called the person who had helped them the last time. New requests for support had no shortage of volunteers and, when I had to make a decision, I usually sent the person most qualified to deal with the problem reported. Everybody was happy. During my time at CIDA, I did not receive a single complaint about my staff’s performance.

For some reason, almost a year into my assignment, my CIDA boss decided that letting people choose their assignments and sending the most qualified to deal with a problem was no longer acceptable. There was to be no more volunteering or selection on the basis of expertise. It was a matter of who was next in line when the call came in. Needless to say, this did not go down well with my staff, let alone Sylvain. My four-person crew of trouble-shooters included a young woman who was less experienced than the others, which also explains much of the volunteering by her male colleagues. They were a team and looked after each other. My CIDA boss’ new directive meant they could no longer work as a team.

Early one afternoon, Sylvain came to see me and asked why he had been shut out of all computer systems. That was weird; I still had access. It was obviously not a systems failure. “Give me a few minutes,” I told him, and went to enquire from my CIDA boss, who just happened to be around on a Friday, if he knew what was going on. He said he was doing me a favour. He had noticed Sylvain was unhappy with the changes he had made and that this was causing me difficulties, so he was getting rid of him. He wanted him out of CIDA that afternoon, and would I take care of it?

Yes, Sylvain was not the easiest employee to deal with, especially after the changes in the way my staff was given assignments. Nonetheless, a disapproving look, a muttered objection to what I was asking him to do, and a slowness to get up when I sent him to solve a problem that he felt was beneath him was no reason to sack him that way. The type of cavalier, cowardly treatment of a fellow human being demonstrated by my CIDA boss hit too close to home. Maybe every manager should be summarily shown the door at least once in their career so that they may learn to appreciate what it’s like.

He wanted to get rid of Sylvain and that was his prerogative, but not that way. I was going to have a talk with him. In the meantime, I asked the man on whom my job also depended if he wouldn’t mind restoring Sylvain’s computer privileges. It was important for what I was going to do next that he still be with CIDA, and that there be no doubts he could be trusted to access the agency’s computers.

Other managers at CIDA had no problem managing bright, if sometimes difficult, people. One of them, a fellow by the name of Sutherland who was responsible for local area networks, had told me, at one time, that if I ever wanted to get rid of my best problem solver, he would gladly take him. When I told him that Sylvain was available, he simply said: “Send him over; glad to have him.”

I then asked Sylvain, whose computer privileges had been restored, to join me for a coffee. I told him about how the client felt and the job offer in another part of CIDA. Was he interested? He was. That would be the last time I met with Sylvain at CIDA. That weekend, I received a call from André. The client had contacted him and wanted me replaced. The client had wanted Sylvain fired, not sent to another jurisdiction. I saved Sylvain’s job only to lose mine…again. I knew I had done the right thing when André immediately offered me another job within his organization: that of marketing his company’s services to the Federal Government.

To get the CIDA contract, André had offered incentives to my now former boss and the official who, in what was then the Department of Supply and Services (DSS), had to sign off certifying that the contract had been fairly awarded. André was convinced, and I can’t blame him, that a supplier of goods or services to the Federal Government could not play by the rules and stay in business. "You played by the rules," he said, "and what did that get you?" He had a point. It did not matter; I could not operate that way.

We parted ways amicably. I was ready to go out my own and market my services using an application I had developed, during the two years it took for my appeal to reach the Supreme Court of Canada. Before I left, I had an opportunity to ask André why he hired me. He had to know that I would eventually learn about how his small company obtained such a large multi-year contract. Wasn’t he worried? No, he was not worried at all. The fact that I had been fired from the Federal Government for blowing the whistle was one of the reasons he hired me; I was not about to make the same mistake again. He was right, though it pains me to say so.

The incentive André offered to the CIDA manager—who would provide him, beforehand, with the questions (and answers) that the staff he proposed would be asked as part of the evaluation—was the opportunity to play golf, all expenses paid, at some of Montréal’s and the Laurentians’ finest golf courses.

The DSS bureaucrat responsible for ensuring a fair competition let it be known that he had some office space for rent, a dilapidated two-story house with sagging floors and yellow wood siding in desperate need of a fresh coat paint, only a block from CIDA headquarters. Shortly after the winner was declared, the man from DSS took down his "For Rent" sign. André did what he had to do to survive, if not prosper, and in the process he saved my marriage, if not my life.