Municipality should not silence firefighter

First published: April 21, 2006

It is truly frightening to watch how our ability to speak freely in this country is under attack. And while this fundamental right is protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the practice is far from the ideal.

Two items recently in the news are most worrisome: the suspension of volunteer firefighter Bob Cranley, following a controversy over a letter to the editor in this newspaper; and, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s directive to limit cabinet ministers and civil servants speaking to the press or public.

Mr. Cranley’s letter to the newspaper was a staunch defense of the Port Hope fire department’s ability to protect citizens against a blaze or accident at the two major nuclear processing plants: Zircatec and Cameco. He sets out the facts, as he knows them from his 10 years of experience and inside knowledge. With some zeal, he passionately calls on members of Families Against Radiation Exposure and members of Port Hope council to share information. And, he bluntly states his assessment of various statements and individuals.

As a decorated volunteer firefighter and an acting captain, Mr. Cranley can speak from a position of authority and credibility. And, by his fervent argument as presented in the letter, it was a transparent attempt to provide both fact and opinion on an issue of extreme importance. All too often, civil servants are forced to bear the brunt of attack by the community and politicians, who fail to recognize the expertise of these individuals. He believed the public was being misled and wanted to correct the situation.

There was also a great degree of latent frustration after watching for more than two-and-a-half years as various groups like FARE, politicians and others continuously get their opinions printed in the newspapers, while he sat in silence.

Director of Fire and Emergency Services Frank Haylow went too far. Certainly, the normal protocol would be for Mr. Cranley to seek a different forum, say a council meeting or a committee to express his views. And, there would no doubt be some form of clearance (or even censorship) since he would need approval from the towns’ bureaucracy or politicians prior to making a public statement.

The key argument justifying the suspension, which seems to emerge from news reports, is Mr. Cranley signed the letter both as a taxpayer and as a member of the volunteer fire department. By adding his credentials as a firefighter, it is interpreted as representing the entire fire department.

Which bring us to Mr. Harper’s gag order on cabinet ministers and civil servants. Here, the prime minister, in a memo to his party and senior civil servants last week, says ministers must avoid talking about the direction of the government and be less accessible to the media and to vet every piece of external communication, including letters to the editors of local papers, with the prime ministers office.

Both cases reek of paranoid and are blatantly undemocratic. This is a result of countless public relations consultants and spin-doctors working overtime to create a mythos of secrecy and control unfitting of a modern, intelligent society like Canada or a community like Port Hope.

Certainly, it is understandable that governments want to ensure a clear message is sent out to the public around issues of importance. No one would deny this. Yet, citizens realize the incredible amounts of rhetoric and deception plaguing civic discourse. To even imagine one organization or level of government has the only handle on “the truth” is beyond belief. Any intelligent, sane individual is savvy enough to discern the simple fact that governments have agendas. (Just look at all the lies American President George W. Bush spews).

Still, public relations consultants and spin doctors bask in the notion that it can somehow manipulate the public and control public opinion by building a wall around issues and gagging everyone in an organization accept a privileged few.

It is patently undemocratic to do this. Without a fully informed citizenry, it is impossible to debate or make decisions. It causes misunderstandings and it is divisive. And, it gives power to a select few.

By doing this, it also undermines the importance of media, particularly in a small community. More and more, we see politicians and corporation trying to develop communication strategies cutting out the news media. And, while some might argue the sad state of journalism, without public forums like a letter to the editor section or other forms of public space for discussion and debate, a community’s ability to function as a democracy is gravely damaged.

Already a number of letters of support for Mr. Cranley have been published. And, it appears the labour relations committee was not informed, meaning appropriate protocols were not followed by senior staff. But, even if these issues are addressed, the deeper, more fundamental concern may be missed.

Civil servants must be free to speak. Whistleblowing legislation at all levels of government must be put in place, particularly at the municipal level. If Mr. Cranley believes citizen have been misled, roadblock are being created, conflicts of interest exist on council, within his department and with others in the community, then he has a fiduciary responsibility to speak out. His job is to serve the broader public interest over those of a select few. And bylaws, along with provincial and federal legislation, must protect people like Mr. Cranley from the punitive measures that send a chill through the ranks of town halls across Northumberland and the country.

It is incumbent Port Hope staff and politicians re-instate Mr. Cranley immediately and issue a public apology (including a letter to the editor). Then, we must urge all municipalities within Northumberland County to draft bylaws protecting civil servants from unfair actions when speaking out to inform the public of gross injustice or misinformation.

In the meantime, Mr. Harper, through Northumberland MP Rick Norlock, should be told the same thing. Avoiding the press and gagging politicians is undemocratic and a substantial breech of values Canadian hold to be dear. We put them in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms for a reason – not to be abused.