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'Sad day' for whistleblowers, union warns about fired scientists

OTTAWA - Two of three scientists fired by Health Canada in a long-running whistleblowing saga have lost a bid to get their jobs back.

And one of the country's largest public service unions is calling it a "sad day" for bureaucrats who want to raise concerns about public safety.

In a decision released without fanfare last week, the Public Service Labour Relations Board dismissed the grievances of Shiv Chopra and Margaret Haydon, who were fired for insubordination in 2004.

It did, however, rule that Gerard Lambert was wrongly dismissed.

The three scientists—probably the country's best-known whistle-blowers—have sparked headlines since the 1990s in a series of high-profile disputes over food safety. They have said publicly they were pressured by their bosses to approve drugs despite human safety concerns.

In the late 1990s, they publicly opposed rBST, a bovine growth hormone, which enhances milk production in cows. Their criticism led to a Senate inquiry and a decision not to approve the drug.

The Professional Institute of the Public Service says it will likely appeal the 208-page decision, which followed 150 days of hearings over nearly five years.

"Today is a sad day," PIPS President Gary Corbett said Monday. "The government of Canada offers little protection to whistleblowers."

"Their only defiance is that they resisted commercial pressure and provided evidence to official parliamentary committees. Cases of dismissal like these do nothing good to help public-service whistleblowers to come forward and denounce wrongdoing within their departments."

Chopra, perhaps the most outspoken of the group and the author of a book that is scathingly critical of Health Canada, echoed the sentiment.

"The issue here is not just some employees losing their jobs or whistleblowing," said Chopra.

"We're not talking about our rights ... the public's right to know from the people they pay to protect their health and safety — that is the issue. All you Canadians — everybody is involved here."

Lambert greeted the ruling with mixed feelings. The ruling reinstated his job, and an adjudicator will have 90 days to determine how much compensation he is eligible to receive.

Speaking in a soft, halting voice, Lambert estimated that he is owed "$250,000 at least," but that the ordeal has left him stressed and unhealthy. Neither he nor his two fellow colleagues found other work over the last seven years.

"I was sorry for them and my wife asked me why you are not smiling about the decision because you will be reinstated," Lambert said.

Still, he said he would like to return to work, "as soon as possible."

Prior to their firings in June 2004, the scientists raised numerous concerns. They warned that carbadox, a drug used to promote growth in pigs, could produce carcinogenic residues. They said that Baytril, used to promote growth in cows and chickens, could produce antibiotic resistance in humans.

Chopra criticized then-health minister Allan Rock's response to the anthrax scare that followed the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. The scientist questioned the expenditure of millions to stockpile antibiotics, saying the fear of bioterrorism was overblown.

Chopra and Haydon warned in 2003, before Canada's first case of mad cow disease, that measures to prevent the disease were inadequate. They called for a total ban on the use of animals parts in the feed of other animals. Chopra criticized the board for not directly addressing the broader issue of public safety in its ruling last week.

"Meanwhile the damage to public health continues, and companies keep on selling the same stuff," he said.

Chopra cited last week's recall of 36 million pounds of ground turkey by American meat company Cargill as evidence of a continuing problem.

"This is a global problem, right now, of food safety."

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