Luc Pomerleau

Luc Pomerleau

What Happened

Luc Pomerleau was fired from his job at CFIA for alleged “gross misconduct” and “breaching security” when he gave his union a copy of internal documents on CFIA plans to replace government food safety monitoring with industry self-regulation.

Pomerleau says that in May 2008 he came across a document (download the PDF) on a computer server that could be accessed by any of the agency’s 6,500 employees. The document contained the decisions of a Treasury Board meeting on November 13, 2007 regarding the “strategic review” of food inspection, certification and labelling.

The ten-page document from Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz had been sent to the Treasury Board for approval as part of government-wide spending cuts. It is a three-year plan to save almost $75 million through 13 measures. These include:

  • At federally-inspected abattoirs, shifting away from a “full-time presence” of government veterinarians to an “oversight role, allowing industry to implement food safety control programs and to manage key risks.”
  • Regarding surveillance for BSE (Bovine spongiform encephalopathy - better known as mad cow disease), reducing the number of samples collected and to “discontinue practice of providing financial incentives to producers to support cattle sampling,” thus saving $24 million.
  • At animal feel mills, to “reduce the need for ongoing CFIA inspection and … shift CFIA’s role to oversight and verification of industry outcomes.”
  • For the certification of commercial seed, the plan “means shifting the program delivery of seed certification, including inspection, to an industry-led third party.”
  • For the Avian Influenza Preparedness program, saving $25 million by reducing “surplus” investments, particularly for equipment.

While some of the 13 decisions were to be implemented immediately, others were to be temporarily “deferred owning to significant communications risks.”

As a union steward with the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), Pomerleau saw these decisions as part of a pattern, often criticized by his union, by CFIA to transfer more of the onus for food safety to the companies that manufacture and distribute food and agricultural products. Pomerleau thought these changes could reduce food safety for Canadians. Pomerleau says he assumed the document could not still be confidential or it wouldn’t have been on the website for anyone to find. The document had a small “confidential” stamp in the top right corner, but none of the pages was marked confidential as is typical for confidential material. Pomerleau provided a copy to his union.

In the first week of July, Pomerleau was fired for alleged “gross misconduct” and “breaching security” by sending the document to his union. He was deemed “unreliable,” which means he no longer has security clearance to work  in the public service.

Michèle Derners, the late president of the PIPSC, said the document revealed a dangerous plan: “They are risking Canadians' health and safety one decision at a time. Most disconcerting is the dismantling of the regulatory functions of the federal government. Who will bear the brunt of these decisions? We will. Even though Mr. Harper promised us accountability and transparency, he is clearly moving in secrecy.

None of the changes outlined in the Treasury Board document have been the subject of specific public consultations or Parliamentary debate. A Hill Times op-ed piece by several whistleblowers and a former Liberal cabinet minister provided another analysis calling Pomerleau’s firing “yet another example of apparent retaliation against a public servant who, by stumbling upon the truth, embarrassed his bosses – and in this case got in the way of senior bureaucrats’ secretive plans.”

Critics have also noted that, in the April 2006 Speech from the Throne, Prime Minister Harper promised “protection for whistle-blowers who show great courage in coming forward to do what is right.”

The year the CFIA fired Luc Pomerleau, 20 people died from the bacterial infection listeriosis due to an outbreak at a meat packing plant under federal inspection.

Relevant Dates

  • November 13, 2007: A Treasury Board meeting approves cuts for the upcoming February budget that affect the inspection of animal feed mills, the certification of commercial seed, and eliminate mandatory label registration of meat and processed products.
  • May 2008: Pomerleau finds a document on a CFIA website outlining the Treasury Board’s approval of policy changes at CFIA ; Pomerleau shares the document with his union.
  • July 2008: Luc Pomerleau is fired. A national campaign is launched to have him re-instated.

Role or Position

A veteran biologist with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), Luc Pomerleau had “a 20-year 'unblemished record' in government.” 

Implications and Consequences

  • Free speech: Another instance of the government’s failure to defend whistleblowers who act in the public interest casts a larger chill on those who would speak up against things they deem to be wrong.
  • Transparency: The government’s ongoing attempts to control information and plug leaks shows the paramount importance for the government of secrecy, and demonstrates willingness to sacrifice transparency and accountability in the process.
  • Democracy: The sacrifice of transparency on important public issues further erodes trust of the citizens that the government is truly representing the interests of the people.
  • Democracy: Further evidence that major policy changes are being decided upon in secret increases the need for citizens to raise their voices for transparency.
  • Democracy: A shift from public control via government regulation of the food industry to self-regulation by industry itself will weaken monitoring of the food system and risk threatening the health and safety of Canadians.