Whistleblowers at green fund want federal government to protect them from career, legal reprisals | CBC News

Whistleblowers at green fund want federal government to protect them from career, legal reprisals | CBC News


Whistleblowers who exposed problems at a federal green fund are calling for protection from possible professional or legal retaliation.

SDTC doesn’t follow federal public service rules on protecting whistleblowers

Daniel Leblanc · CBC News


A silhouette in front of a green photo illustration.

A group of whistleblowers who reported problems at Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) are calling on the federal government to protect them from possible reprisals. (Yosri Mimouna/Radio-Canada)

Whistleblowers who exposed problems at a federal green fund are calling for protection from possible professional or legal retaliation.

The organization targeted by the whistleblowers earlier this year is Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC), a foundation created and funded by the federal government.

Under its ongoing agreement with Ottawa, SDTC has $1 billion in federal funds to distribute to small and medium-sized businesses in the clean tech field between 2021 and 2026.

Earlier this year, a group of whistleblowers filed a complaint with the federal government about SDTC’s management of public funds and human resources. The group is made up of more than 20 current and former employees, including executives.

Several of their allegations were validated by a recent report from an outside consulting firm, Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton. The firm was hired to look into the whistleblowers’ complaints by the federal department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED).

A man in a suit gestures with his left hand as he speaks into a microphone at a podium.

Innovation, Science and Industry Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne suspended SDTC’s ability to approve new projects after getting an outside report on its operations. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

After receiving the report, Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne froze SDTC’s ability to approve new projects and ordered reforms to the fund’s conflict of interest and project approval policies, among other things.

SDTC operates at arm’s length from the government and is not subject to the same rules as federal departments regarding the protection of whistleblowers.

In their report, investigators raised questions about SDTC’s decision to distribute $38 million in emergency “relief payments” in 2020 and 2021 to companies with which it had previous funding agreements.

Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton’s report said these contributions “did not appear to be consistent with the requirements” of SDTC’s contribution agreement with the government and “the payments do not require project cost eligibility or monitoring and reporting.”

One of the funding recipients also “appeared to be ineligible” to receive an amount of $280,000, said the report.

The whistleblower group has raised with the federal government the recent dismissal of an employee at SDTC. It alleges the firing was related to the external review.

While ISED funds and oversees SDTC’s activities, it has told the whistleblowers that SDTC employees do not enjoy the same protections as federal civil servants due to the legal status of the foundation.

“ISED has no authority in matters pertaining to the management of human resources at SDTC,” a senior official told the whistleblowers, according to an email obtained by Radio-Canada.

NDP MP Brian Masse raised this issue directly with Champagne.

“ISED and the federal government are providing no protection to any of the whistleblowers, even though they’ve been fully vindicated by the report across all of the allegations that they made,” he said in a recent letter.

Non-disclosure agreements

The whistleblower group is calling for the termination of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) signed by several of its members who are no longer employed by SDTC.

These agreements prevent those former employees from making negative comments publicly about SDTC.

One member of the whistleblower group, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid professional consequences, said they want guarantees that they will not be punished if they cooperate with future investigations.

“They have signed NDAs and they are worried that if they say anything, they will be sued by SDTC. They are not willing to provide documents or testimony unless the NDAs are taken off. We have been told there are no protections because we are not employees [of the government],” said the unnamed whistleblower.

The whistleblower group is calling for an independent investigation of SDTC by the Office of the Auditor General or a parliamentary committee.

In its report, Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton pointed out that SDTC has no formal hiring and termination policy. The government has since asked the foundation to ensure that NDAs “are used in an appropriate manner that is consistent with best practices in labour law.”

An SDTC official said that in most cases, those who signed non-disclosure agreements did not leave the organization voluntarily.

An SDTC official said the organization offers access to a confidential phone line and website that are run independently and can be used to file anonymous complaints against SDTC. The official added that NDAs are meant to protect any confidential information obtained during one’s employment.

The group of whistleblowers is also demanding the departure of members of SDTC senior management who were in office while several failings were found.

The whistleblowers argue that current members of the board and the senior leadership cannot be expected to implement the recommendations made following the external investigation.

Canadian politician speaks on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in 2021.

NDP MP Brian Masse is calling for a whole new management team at SDTC. (The Canadian Press)

Masse is also calling for the departure of the SDTC management team.

“The report raises serious questions about the credibility and competence of the current SDTC board and leadership team, and I have grave concerns around the fact that ISED has asked that same group of implicated individuals to investigate themselves and rectify issues [raised in the report],” the MP told Champagne.

SDTC said its priority is to enact the government’s call for internal reforms so that it can get its redeployed staff back to funding small and medium-sized businesses in the clean tech sector.

“SDTC recognizes the impact this temporary suspension is having on the ecosystem, particularly at this challenging time. That is why our number one priority is to implement the changes recommended by the government as quickly as possible,” said SDTC spokesperson Janemary Banigan.


Daniel Leblanc is a reporter with more than 20 years experience in investigative journalism and federal politics. He is a past winner of the Michener Award, the Charles Lynch Award and three National Newspaper Awards.


    Submit a Comment

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *