Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Harper's Newspeak and its Enforcers

I think, from here on in, I am going to allow my blogs to drift as far away from theatre as my mind happens to be at any given moment. And in this case, I have as my topic another passion, my hatred of bullies.

The bully in this case is one Dr. Irwin Itzkovitch, Assistant Deputy Minister, Earth Sciences Sector, Natural Resources Canada (who has very thoughtfully posted his photo and email on the government website). To be sure, he was carrying out the wishes of his odious master, Stephen Harper --- but rather more zealously than conscionably, as you shall see. A couple of months ago, Harper's Magazine (a favourite of mine) published some of Itzkovitch's email correspondence, and while it made me laugh, and then sneer, eventually it made me burn with indignation. If there is one thing that I hate even more than a simple bully, it is one who is putatively acting in my name, as a citizen of Canada. I began to think that, in spirit, though of course not degree, Itzkovitch's acts are of a piece with the sort of attitude popularly typified by Adolph Eichmann: unquestioning, boot-licking obedience to one's masters and ruthless intolerance towards underlings. And once I'd thought that, I didn't really feel comfortable just letting this go with a sneer anymore. So I wrote to him. Anyway, for your reading pleasure and moral indignation, I offer to you first the original correspondence as it appeared in Harper's, then my email to Itzkovitch.

From a September email exchange between representatives of Natural Resources Canada and Andrew Okulitch, a scientist working at the Geological Survey of Canada in an emeritus capacity. Irwin Itzkovitch is an assistant deputy minister under Minister of Natural Resources Gary Lunn. Vanessa Nelson is an executive adviser. Okulitch was fired but reappointed two weeks later. The Conservative Party won control of Canada's government in January, after twelve years of Liberal rule. Originally from Harper's Magazine, December 2006:

FROM: VANESSA NELSON As per the Minister's Office, effective immediately, the words "Canada's New Government" are to be used instead of "the Government of Canada" in all departmental correspondence. Please note that the initial letters of all three words are capitalized. Thank you for your cooperation.

FROM: ANDREW OKULITCH Why do newly elected officials think everything begins with them taking office? They are merely stewards for as long as the public allows. They are the Government of Canada. Nothing more. I shall use "Geological Survey of Canada" on my departmental correspondence to avoid any connection with "New Government." The GSC, steward to Canada's earth resources for 164 years, is an institution worthy of my loyalty, as opposed to idiotic buzzwords coined by political hacks.

FROM: IRWIN ITZKOVITCH Given your strong though misdirected views of the role and authority of the Government as elected by the people, and your duty to reflect their decisions, I accept that you are immediately removing yourself from the Emeritus Program. I wish you every success in your future.

FROM: ANDREW OKULITCH Although your knee-jerk response seems typical of Ottawa "mentality" these days, to give you the benefit of the doubt, it may have been mandated by our nervous minister. Of course, it is not a particularly rational decision, and perhaps you might reflect upon it. We of the GSC are used to taking the long view. Ministers come and go, but my talents will always remain available to the people of Canada.

FROM: IRWIN ITZKOVITCH This is not a knee-jerk reaction nor was it dictated by anyone. My decision stands and I await confirmation that it has been executed by the responsible GSC management.

FROM: ANDREW OKULITCH I have just received the clarification of the usage policy for the term New Government, stating that the new wording is required only in documents prepared for or on behalf of Minister Lunn. This limited usage is consistent and appropriate. We would appear to have been victims of an unfortunate misunderstanding. My intransigence about the term was in protest about its misapplication, not a call for civil disobedience. I do understand the need to obey ministerial directives once I am given them clearly. If I can help calm the waters by issuing my own clarification and apology, I would be glad to do so.

FROM: IRWIN ITZKOVITCH Your reaction was and continues to be unacceptable for anyone associated with Public Service. My decision stands. As of yesterday you are no longer an emeritus scientist.

FROM: ANDREW OKULITCH I concede that my memo was intemperate and deserving of a reprimand. It was, however, prompted by misinformation sent out by your staff. I don't expect that anything I might say now will change your mind, so I'll conclude with a few facts you will now have to live with. I'll come out of this a champion of common sense (except when it comes to sending memos), someone who tried to defuse a situation with humor and made an effort to restore calm. You'll come out as an intemperate, irrational manager who lacks the strength of character to reverse a hasty decision. Do you really want to be remembered as the only assistant deputy minister who sacked an emeritus scientist over such trivia? It is never too late to repair an unfortunate situation if everyone approaches it with an open mind and good intentions.

From: Craig Walker
Subject: Correspondence

Dr. Itzkovitch,

Because I have been busy with other things, I have only just read your correpsondence with Andrew Okulitch published a couple of months ago in Harper's Magazine.

I imagine your emails must look very different, reading them as reproduced in an international publication rather than reading them upon your computer screen from the seat of power. Now it is there for all to see that in one swoop you managed to act as both a bullying tyrant and a craven toady. Shame on you. If you do not have the bare common sense to be at least moderate in your implementation of a government policy that any objective judgement would have to admit was, at best, rather vulgarly self-serving, you have no business holding any leadership role. I suggest that you resign before you disgrace yourself any futher.

Craig Walker
Professor of Drama,
Queen's University


Shauna Dobbie said...

Harper's and Walker-- along with Rick Mercer on his blog ("Harper in Harper's")-- tell only the first part of the story. Okulitch was reinstated a few days after the nasty business. See here:

Of course, this doesn't excuse the boorish conduct of the Ministry; it does, however, prove that good can triumph over evil.

Craig and Molly, you may also be interested in knowing that civil servants aren't covered by any Employment Standards Acts; this kind of ridiculousness isn't all that uncommon in a culture where no cause is required for dismissal. To me, the most remarkable thing about the Okulitch affair is that he was reinstated. I had expected the Conservatives to stand by their ugly decision.

"Canada's New Government" indeed!

Molly Lyons said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shauna Dobbie said...

Suspend your disbelief, Molly Lyons; here's documentation:

From the Public Service Employment Act (the Treasury Board is the employer of all federal public servants in Canada):
Discipline, termination of employment and demotion
Subject to any enactment of the Treasury Board, a deputy head may:
establish standards of discipline
for employees;
for persons occupying teacher and principal positions in the department of Indian and Northern Affairs, and
prescribe, impose and vary or rescind, in whole or in part, the financial and other penalties, including suspension and termination of employment, that may be applied for breaches of discipline or misconduct.
(A) Subject to any enactment of the Treasury Board, a deputy head may, for reasons other than breaches of discipline or misconduct, terminate the employment of an employee or demote an employee to a position at a lower maximum rate of pay, and vary or rescind such measures.

From a memo from Alex Smith, Political and Social Affairs Division of the Library of Parliament:
Ministerial staff have very little job security. They cease to be an employee 30 days after their minister is no longer a minister, and they can be dismissed at the discretion of the minister with no mechanisms for complaint or appeal. They are entitled, however, to severance pay, and the minister may provide separation pay.

Employment Standards Acts in Canada are under provincial jurisdiction and federal employees aren't protected by them. There is a Canada Labour Code, but that doesn't do much for federal public servants either. What's more, when you work for the government, you are subject to the Duty of Loyalty; for your reading pleasure, it's located at

In case you aren't interested in all the details, the upshot is this: toe the govt line or get out. The only real exception is if the government does something illegal.

Siscoe said...

A little birdie told me that Craig Walker had a blog and I had to check it out, so I did. I was planning on just being a voyeur but then lo and behold was there not a discussion going on that I couldn’t keep out of …Um, so I’ll be the first to admit that I live on a different planet than everyone else does. It took me a minute to figure out that this Harper magazine wasn’t a publication put out by Stephen Harper himself (I kept wondering why he would publish something so self-deprecating)… However, for the sake of trying to paint Canada in a better light, aren’t the rights of Canadian federal employees, in some part, protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms? Since the Charter of Rights protects citizens from the government, I’m pretty sure that the Canadian government can not fire people based on sexual orientation/gender/race and/or religion without being free from possible lawsuits… Furthermore, what sort of federal employees are we talking about? My mother, who works for Stats Canada, is a federal employee and she has a union. It would be pretty hard to fire her without just cause… And, finally, just for the sake of playing devil’s advocate here, if we are just talking about the bureaucrats who are hired to work with particular ministers during their reign in office a) Who accepts these positions naively thinking that their job positions are secure enough to outlast cabinet shuffles and brand new governments? and b) Can you really blame the politicians for wanting to be able to clean house quickly?

Shauna Dobbie said...

You've hit the nail on the head, Siscoe: government ministers need to be able to build a team very quickly and the process doesn't really allow for months of coddling old-regime proponents. The problem is not the legitimate turnover of positions but the abuse of power and the tendency of some ministerial people to believe that the hierarchical nature of their employment is based on natural law and not on policies which apply only within the ministerial world.

As for job security, it's politics: there is no job security when you work in a minister's office. I suppose if a ministerial worker were dismissed and could prove it was for a reason contrary to the Charter, he or she could launch a law suit-- you'd have to ask an employment lawyer or dig deeper into the policies or find a precedent to know for sure.

I'm sure your mother is well protected by her union at Stats Can. My thought when I originally brought up the matter-- and my apologies for not parsing it out-- was that there is a culture I have observed with bureacrats that goes a long way toward explaining the lout Itzkovitch. In his world, you fall in line with your "superiors" or you are squashed. Okulitch didn't fall in line, so Itzkovitch believed himself perfectly justified in squashing him.

My Libran attempts to explain the source of Itzkovitch's attitude are not meant to excuse him; indeed, I think the fact that Itzkovitch could not see outside his own realm and understand that Okulitch was not a part of it ( a)not employed by the ministry, b)an independent scientist, c) not even on the government payroll, d) long-serving and honoured with an emeritus title) proves that Itzkovitch is an idiot.