A man of courage

Last week I had the honour to accompany Hugh Danford, a whistleblower of great courage, to the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner. Hugh is a former pilot with many, many years in the cockpit and who served as an aviation safety inspector at Transport Canada from 1996 to about 2004.

Following a 1999 crash in Davis Inlet which killed 22 year-old Damien Hancock, Mr. Danford prepared a report documenting Transport Canada management’s failure to act against the pilot (the Hancock report). This pilot had already crashed four times and had a long history of other violations. The Hancock report also noted that Transport Canada was not implementing a Transportation Safety Board recommendation and that Transport Canada was negligent and in part responsible for the death of Damien Hancock.

As punishment for speaking out persistently, Transport Canada senior management employed a tactic which has been well described in literature on whistleblowing: dubbed the “nuts and sluts” approach, there was a concerted effort to represent Mr. Danford as mentally unstable (women are sometimes represented as promiscuous). He was also described as insubordinate. At one point, Transport Canada management ordered him arrested on unfounded allegations that he had made a death threat. The charges were dropped shortly thereafter, but the point had been made to Mr. Danford and other employees of Transport Canada. Ultimately, he was forced out of Transport Canada.

Since then, other aircraft crashes have occurred and similar concerns raised about Transport Canada oversight, including the controversial “Safety Management Systems” it uses. SMS, critics argue, puts industry in charge of its own oversight – leaving the fox in charge of the henhouse.

There is substantial evidence that Mr. Danford’s criticism’s are well founded. For example, 163 people died and 55 were injured in 86 Canadian aviation accidents since April 21, 2009. He also reports that 36 people have died in 15 aviation accidents since July 1 this year.

Mr. Danford has made many attempts to have his concerns and the reprisals addressed, all without success. In his latest, I accompanied him in a meeting with the Interim Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, Mario Dion. We offered a letter of support to the Commissioner.

It was an interesting meeting. Mr. Danford is a colourful and passionate man, and dressed in full Scottish regalia for the occasion. Some seem to have found this peculiar, and perhaps even a sign of instability. I do not, however. His goal was to make a statement, and to attach some ceremony to it. This would be the last time he tries to play their game (and it is a game, designed to frustrate whistleblowers and cover up wrongdoing).

He made his case to Mr. Dion, who was patient and listened attentively. Indeed, his very presence was a huge improvement over the previous Commissioner, Christiane Ouimet – who would never have bothered. Ouimet, you may recall, retired in disgrace after a damning Auditor General’s report on her conduct. She still got a $534,000 payout in hush money, though.

Mr. Dion made it clear that he was limited in what he could do as he couldn’t overturn previous decisions (no matter how wrong-headed), and said that he had heard other negative reports about Transport Canada. He would, he said, try to connect the dots to come up with a plan of action both to help Mr. Danford and to address the aviation problems Mr. Danford raised.

It’s hard to tell whether these were just empty words to comfort a man who has been led down the garden path so many times before – I suppose time will tell. But I am not optimistic.

First of all, Mr. Dion is right about his limited ability to act to protect Mr. Danford. Too much time has passed. But the aviation concerns remain, and there’s no reason why an inquiry couldn’t be called now.

Second, it came up that Bill Elliot, former RCMP Commissioner, was directly involved in the reprisals against Mr. Danford – and had, apparently, made the order for the false arrest. Mr. Elliott has a track record for abusive management, as Canadians learned last year. It was widely reported in the press that many of his subordinates had made complaints of harassment. I have also heard through other sources that he has a government-wide reputation as a screamer and at one point had to go on a $44,000, three day course on ethics and integrity.

So when Mr. Dion began referring to him as “Bill”, I was a little concerned. It suggested familiarity – as if they were old buddies. It certainly didn’t strike me as professional, and reinforced my belief that senior executives in government are a club in which only those who pass certain tests are admitted. Rigid ethical standards are, in my cynical experience, an automatic disqualifier.

But none of this takes away from the fact that Mr. Danford did something so few have the courage to do, and did it despite his own well-founded fears of reprisal. I could tell that he was nervous, and I could tell that he was deeply hurt and disappointed that so few people were willing to stand by him and report on his efforts.

Perhaps he will take it with some sense of vindication that the CBC’s The National will be reporting on aviation safety (again) on Wednesday, November 9, and on Radio-Canada’s Enquête on November 17. (Note that you can watch a podcast if you miss it.)

In any event, I don’t think this will be the last time we hear from him. Unlike those who covered up the problems and made reprisals against him, he is a man of principle and determination. And we should thank him for that.


Hugh Danford’s summary of the Davis Inlet crash and the events afterward
Safeskies, April 21, 2009
Summary: “I am here today to speak to the historic and on-going “Lack of Regulatory Supervision” that has resulted in the death of innocent lives over the past ten years.  Today I want to make sure that everyone on both sides of the House knows who Damien Samuel Hancock was and how he died when they stand to vote for Bill C-7…”

Jonathan Huggett’s testimony at the Aviation Safety Round Table
Safeskies, April 21, 2009
Summary: “I find I should tell you, I am a professional engineer. I have spent my life, the last 38 years, in and around government in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States.  I don’t think I have ever seen a more inept, disgraceful, incompetent bunch of people than the senior management of Transport Canada in all of my life. It is unbelievable to me that that group of people can be allowed to continue…  I would say that Transport Canada senior management is every bit as bad as the senior management of the RCMP were, and it is clearly one of the most important things that could happen – is the replacement of that management en masse, because they foster a culture of arrogance, of failing to do their job and really a most unfair and unhealthy atmosphere that is costing people their lives…”