Shooting the Messenger

Till Death Do Us Part

The Niece

The Public Service Commission is dedicated to building a Public Service that strives for excellence. We protect merit, non-partisanship, representativeness and the use of both official languages.

We safeguard the integrity of staffing in the Public Service and the political impartiality of public servants. We develop policies and guidance for Public Service managers and hold them accountable for their staffing decisions…

Public Service Commission of Canada, Mission and Values Statement (partial)

If you think you are above the law, then it logically follows that you can’t break laws that you do not acknowledge apply to you. Carried to the extreme, you will reach a point where you are a law unto yourself. You can do no wrong because whatever you do is beyond reproach. You are a modern Louis XIV; you are the law. I would stumble upon one after another of these sad, pathetic impersonations of the Sun King.

The people who stole those millions did not see themselves as criminals; they were just rewarding themselves for a job well done. The managers who chose to ignore the requirements of the Official Languages Act were not breaking the law, they were just simply hiring the best people for the job—they just happened to be all English-speaking. They got the job on merit, of course, just like the managers who gave jobs to relatives and family members. Who is more meritorious than your progeny or a close relative?

The Niece is about nepotism and its enablers; it is about a receptionist in a dentist's office who was found more qualified to help in the preparation of the budget and estimates for the Department of Foreign Affairs than those who had spent years auditing the expenditures of diplomats and were familiar with government accounting and budgeting cycles. These were the girls and women in Post Accounts; clerks who performed a mostly thankless task without complaining, waiting for their merit to be recognized.

To get an unqualified candidate for a job hired was not difficult if you were willing to lie, and the guardians of the merit principle, the Public Service Commission, were predisposed to believing your lies. If the request for staffing came from Foreign Affairs, that was a given. In this instance, the guardians of the merit principle chose to believe, with just a slight exaggeration, that 1) the job required experience that could only be gained from working as a receptionist in a dentist’s office, 2) the position needed to be filled immediately or the world would come to an end, and 3) you had already identified the person who could save the world.

It was perhaps a month or so before I was exiled to my little beige cell when the receptionist joined the department as a temporary employee to help her uncle with his paperwork. Her uncle was head of the Estimates and Budget section of the Financial Planning and Analysis Division. She was given the desk next to her uncle’s office. Her uncle was particularly proud of his niece, whom, he claimed, was related to a member of the Group of Seven, the famous group of Canadian 1920s landscape painters. The niece’s family name was not Thomson, Lismer, MacDonald, Johnston, Carmichael, Jackson or Harris, therefore either she had taken her husband's last name or the relationship was on her mother’s side.

A temporary assignment was not what the uncle had in mind for his niece. In a few months, he would not only have her appointed to a permanent position but given a substantial promotion. An employee occupying a temporary position can compete for permanent positions. An employee occupying a temporary position for only a few months will usually not be successful against permanent long-term employees competing for the same job, if the competition is fair.

To quickly get his niece into a permanent position and give her a substantial raise in the process, the uncle could count on the support of his colleagues in the Personnel Bureau where the merit principle was to be observed in theory and ignored in practice. The only risk he ran was if an unsuccessful candidate complained to the Public Service Commission.

As part of the automation of the Estimates to Parliament, I had created the Locally Engaged Staff Database and Reporting System. This system kept track of where non-Canadians employed by the department were located, what they were doing, and how much they were paid. Canada doesn’t so much have a Foreign Service as a foreign Foreign Service. In 2007, there were 11,371 of these locally engaged staff (LES for short) representing approximately 55% of all employees of the department.

LES are the diplomats' main support staff. They are not only chauffeurs, gardeners, cooks, maids and other household staff, but many are in positions where they could influence, if not decide, whose application to immigrate to Canada will be accepted, who will get visas, and so on. To manage the inputs and outputs of the LES Reporting System, the uncle created a supervisory position (this and the fact that the job involved working with computers, with which the niece had no experience, would trigger the raise) within his section. I was asked to prepare the questions and answers to be asked of the candidates for this new position but was not invited to sit on the selection board, as would normally have been the case.

This did not stop the uncle from telling candidates who wanted to discuss the job requirements with me that they could not do so because I was on the selection board. He also told candidates that no job description would be provided as a French translation could not be provided in time. This was true to the extent that he wanted his niece in the job before the reason for the rushed staffing action become evident. When the uncle told one candidate that he would favour his unqualified niece for the job because she was more deserving, she tore up her application to his face. She knew the fix was in, as did most of the girls in Post Accounts. Needless to say, the niece got the permanent position and the promotion that came with it.

I thought I had misjudged the niece’s ability to do the job; she had successfully answered every question in every category and achieved the highest score overall. After she was confirmed as the successful candidate, I went to see her to offer my congratulations on answering what I thought were difficult questions to get the job. "It was easy," she said. "My uncle gave me the answers." She just blurted it out. She admitted that her uncle had given her the question and answer sheet which she had memorized before the interview.

The girls and women in Post Accounts reminded me of those whose welfare I looked after when I was manager of the Cost Recovery Unit. Maybe that is why, after hearing this outrageous admission, I met with some of them and encouraged them to file a grievance. I may have confused my role; I was now part of the elite that could do no wrong, even if I could not be trusted to sit on a selection board and pick the least qualified person for a job.

Most of the women I talked to were reluctant to file a complaint; the caste system at Foreign Affairs did not encourage grievances and their jobs were already in jeopardy because of automation. A lower caste member did not question the decision of an upper caste member. This archaic pecking order, most often associated with Indian (Indus) society, was alive and well at Foreign Affairs when I was there, even after it was publicly denounced in 1981 by Pamela McDougall, the one-woman royal commission into the state of the Canadian Foreign Service. Its elimination was the third of 53 recommendations.

3. The caste system, which dominates the Foreign Service and unnecessarily reduces the support staff, their families and often other groups to the status of second class citizens, must be attacked immediately.

Royal Commission on Conditions of Foreign Service, 1981.

Someone from the Public Service Commission interviewed me as to the niece's admission. Shortly thereafter, I got a visit from the uncle. The uncle expected the competition to be cancelled and a new competition held. Under ordinary circumstances the uncle would, at the very least, be censored and the niece denied the right to compete in the new competition, if not fired, but this was Foreign Affairs.

The pudgy, balding, middle-aged man with the Buddy Holly glasses was nearly apoplectic when he barged into my office. The little man towered over me—I was sitting down. Stabbing a finger in my direction, he shouted, “How dare you!” He shouted that he would hold another board; he shouted that someone else would prepare the questions and his niece would get the job (one can assume she would be given the questions and answers again, but this time told to shut up); he shouted that there was nothing, absolutely nothing I could do about it. Then the shouting became a whisper. He was no longer yelling, he was no longer pointing; he was pleading: “She is related to the Group of Seven,” he said. “She deserves the job,” and he walked out.

He had not shown up for work the next day when I was visited by the niece. She said I should be ashamed; the previous evening her uncle had suffered a mild heart attack and had to be rushed to the hospital. The niece's accusation that I had nearly caused the death of another human being with my obsession with doing the right thing did hit close to home, but I didn't let on.

She claimed the moral high ground after conspiring with her uncle to make a shamble of the merit principle. She knew, and I knew, it was getting tangled in their web of deceit that had caused the discomfort that led to the heart attack, but it was an opportunity too good to pass up. She could not resist suggesting to me that I was the cause of her uncle's near-death experience. She would have made a fine diplomat. No one from the Cost Recovery Unit ever accused me of having contributed to the untimely death of Janine. They could have, but they were decent people.

Surprisingly, the competition was not immediately cancelled, but an appeal by Leola Anne Hartley, who took the substantial risk of being branded a troublemaker and all the negatives that entailed at Foreign Affairs, was allowed to go ahead. The competition was cancelled on a technicality after a hearing into Ms. Hartley's complaint. The Public Service Commission cancelled the competition because the applicants had not been provided with the job description. Nothing was said about the niece getting the questions and answers beforehand.

The Public Service Commission officer who chaired the hearing into the complaint even went out of his way in his decision to praise an uncle’s concern for his niece when he told the candidate who tore up her application that the niece would suffer a "greater disadvantage" if she did not get the position. This greater disadvantage would later become evident and also would explain why the uncle was in such a hurry to make his niece a permanent employee. The niece was expecting.

Why would the vaunted guardians of the merit principle allow such an egregious transgression of what they claimed was sacred? Why would they praise a man they should have censored? Why allow him to hold another competition when they knew he could not be trusted to hold a fair contest? Who were they trying to impress? This was the first time I witnessed firsthand how Foreign Affairs' corrupting influence reached beyond 125 Sussex.

The day after the niece’s visit or the day after that, the uncle was back at work. He did not look the worse for wear, heart attack or no heart attack. He was as good as his word. Every day now, when I made my way to and from my office, she would stare at me without saying a word. Every day that I passed her workstation, I was reminded of the deceitful people whom only a short time earlier I was proud to have as colleagues, and wondered at the example they were setting.

For the uncle to do what he did for his niece, he not only had to be given the green light by the Personnel Bureau, but they would also have been party to every action taken in this illegitimate staffing process. I should have realized then and there that when the people in the Personnel Bureau allowed Uncle Hugh to do what he did, it was because they were cut from the same ethically-faded cloth, and when push came to shove, I was doomed.