OTTAWA — They took a stand and they paid the price.
Some of Canada’s best-known whistle-blowers will receive awards Monday for their work defending the public interest, but there won’t likely be any glee at this ceremony.
Most of the nominees have suffered severe career damage, some are in financial distress, and one has died because, his colleagues say, the pressure overwhelmed him.
“We’ve lost a friend, that’s devastating for us,” said Shiv Chopra, a former Health Canada veterinary scientist who was fired last year after a long record of criticizing departmental policies.
He was referring to former colleague Chris Bassude, who died in 2002 of a suspected heart attack after being demoted for insubordination.
Two other scientists who worked with Chopra and Bassude, Margaret Haydon and Gerard Lambert, are also receiving the Vanessa Award, named in honour of Vanessa Charlotte Young, who died at 15 of an adverse drug reaction.
The award is sponsored by Drug Safety Canada, an advocacy group founded by Vanessa’s father, Terence Young, and the Canadian Health Coalition.
“We continue to suffer a great financial load and stress,” said Chopra, 70, who has earned no income since his dismissal. He has put his house on the market while he waits for an appeal before a federal staff-relations agency.
“I don’t know how long it’s going to go on. It’s a stress but on the other hand it’s my duty which I’ll never give up on.”
Other recipients of the Vanessa Award:
Pierre Blais, a Health Canada scientist who exposed the risks associated with silicone breast implants in the 1980s. He was fired, then reinstated by court order, but he now works independently.
Michele Brill-Edwards, who took a Health Canada director to court in the 1990s for overruling scientific decisions on drug safety. She was demoted and resigned, and continues to speak out on drug issues.
Nancy Olivieri, a University of Toronto researcher, who attracted international attention after the company sponsoring her clinical trials of a new drug attempted to suppress her findings of unexpected risks.
Nicholas Regush, former reporter with the Montreal Gazette who died of a heart attack on Oct. 14 last year. He documented Health Canada’s ties with the drug industry and created a web site, RedFlagsDaily.com dealing with medical and ethical issues.
“These are people who have paid a high personal cost for speaking up to protect the public in matters related to health,” said Young of Drug Safety Canada.
He says that many of the issues exposed by the whistle-blowers – he prefers the term “public guardians” – remain unresolved.
The federal government has introduced legislation it says will protect whistle-blowers, but Chopra said the new bill would make things worse rather than better.
In any case, the bill wouldn’t apply to his case. Health Canada has refused to recognize that Chopra, Haydon, Bassude and Lambert fit the definition of whistle-blowers.
Haydon says she is learning how to live on a reduced household budget and has no regrets about the actions that resulted in her dismissal.
“I think it’s the health and safety of the public that is the most important thing,” she said.