The largest number of federal public servants who sought permission to run in the election are throwing their hat in the ring for the People’s Party of Canada.

Seven candidates who took leave from public service jobs are running for the upstart right-wing party led by Maxime Bernier — about a third of the 20 people who won party nominations after asking the Public Service Commission for permission to run.

Four more are running for the Liberals, while three are running for the NDP, two for the Greens, two for the Conservatives and one each for the Animal Protection Party and the Christian Heritage Party.

Donald Savoie, the Canada Research Chair in public administration and governance at the Université de Moncton, said he’s “dumbfounded” that bureaucrats could be drawn to the People’s Party, whose platform is like “a vote of non-confidence for the institution” at which they work.

“It’s like a chicken voting for the party led by Colonel Sanders,” said Savoie.

"It must be a level of frustration, because it takes some creative imagination to think the People’s Party has sympathy with the public service or would be willing to work with the public service. It’s not what the party is all about. I am very surprised indeed."

Johanne Mennie, PPC executive director and a retired senior bureaucrat, argues public servants are drawn to the party and Bernier’s “authenticity.”

She said they are frustrated by an increasingly “politically correct” workplace. This reticence to speak out is stifling fulsome debates and “decisions are being made without all the facts on the table or left out because they are not politically correct.”

People's Party Leader Maxime Bernier takes questions from media following his appearance at the English-language leaders' debate in Ottawa on Oct. 7, 2019. Photo by Andrew Meade

People's Party sees government as 'dysfunctional'

Public servants have a charter-protected right to engage in political activities. Canada's public service is non-partisan and the PSC's job is to oversee its neutrality, which includes vetting bureaucrats before permitting them to run in elections by examining their seniority, public visibility and nature of their work.

Savoie said he can understand public servants aligning with parties that champion issues they feel strongly about, such as someone working on environment programs deciding to run for the Green Party. “I could see links between public servants and the NDP, the Liberals, the Conservatives but there is a great difference between PPC and the public service,” said Savoie.

PPC spokesperson Martin Masse speculated bureaucrats may also be drawn by the party’s commitment to get the federal government out of provincial affairs.

"Public servants have direct experience of how our federal government has become more and more dysfunctional, and is wasting billions of dollars as it becomes bigger and intervenes to solve every problem in society, including in areas of provincial jurisdiction,” he said.

Many of PPC’s policies are at odds with those of the other parties, but also challenge the broad role of government and some of Canada’s long-held policies for an egalitarian and open society.

It supports what Bernier calls a "Canadian identity" by significantly cutting the number of immigrants and refugees allowed into the country, and ending support for official multiculturalism, which is part of the mandate of the Department of Canadian Heritage.

The PPC also rejects the scientific consensus that global heating is driven by human activity. Its platform promises to withdraw from the Paris climate accord and cut aid to developing countries that will be hit hard by climate consequences such as sea-level rise.

Canada currently has a number of federal departments and scientists examining the climate crisis. It released a sweeping report this year in partnership with university experts that found the country was heating at twice the global rate.

Alain Musende, the PPC candidate in the Ottawa riding of Carleton, is a manager in the Marketed Health Products Directorate with Health Canada. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he says he came to Canada to study science; earned a master's and PhD degree and joined the public service in 2009. He was a long-time member of the Conservatives before supporting PPC.

Musende said he was attracted by PPC’s distinct policies compared to those other parties and a promise to eliminate the deficit in two years. PPC is calling for $5-billion in cuts by eliminating corporate welfare, $5 billion in foreign development aid, and $1 billion to the CBC, as well as by restructuring equalization payments.

“I believe the work of the public service is critical,” said Musende. “I would oppose blanket cuts of the public service on the claim that it is too big. I don’t believe that. When we say we want smaller government, we want the federal government to respect the constitution and return to the provinces what belongs to them. That would lead to jobs being transferred to the provinces.”

Supporters cheer on their leaders outside the Canadian Museum of History on Oct. 7, 2019, in advance of the English-language leaders' debate there. Photo by Andrew Meade

Few candidates when compared to workforce

Overall, 36 public servants asked to run federally this year, compared to the 48 who asked for permission to run in 2015. Most requests, however, come from bureaucrats running for local or municipal councils.

In 2015, 13 federal public servants went on to win nominations; six NDP, five Liberals, and one each for the Libertarian and Forces et Démocratie.

In addition to failing to win nominations, bureaucrats are denied permission if they don't accept the PSC’s conditions for candidacy. They may also end up withdrawing their names.

As well, the number of those granted permission to run is counted by the commission since the last election in 2015, and bureaucrats could have left the public service since then.

The numbers are small for a growing workforce of nearly 288,000.

Public servants running as candidates in federal elections, however, are always particularly sensitive.

Savoie said public service is aimed at drawing non-partisans with a “different calling” than politicians, so it always “raises a few eyebrows” when they run. He also questions how well one-time candidates fit back into the workplace with colleagues.

“Why join a non-partisan institution if you have partisan interests?” he asked. “The good news is only 36 of them wanted to run, so I’d say the public service is still quite healthy.”

The Supreme Court of Canada's pivotal Osborne decision in 1991 changed the landscape for public servants, who were once forbidden to take part in political activities.

The ruling recognized the need to balance the political neutrality of public servants with their charter right to participate in politics. That means they are allowed under the Public Service Employment Act to take part in political activities as long as they aren’t in high-ranking jobs and the activity doesn’t relate to their work or impair their ability to do it impartially.

Typically, the more senior and visible the person is, the less likely that the PSC will approve their running. Those working in the front-line delivery of programs and services are more likely to get the nod.

The riding is also a factor. The commission examines how much interaction public servants have in the community. Managers who run in the same communities in which they work can no longer be involved in hiring, signing contracts or making deals in the run-up to the election, or for a year after the election, if they lose and return to their public service job.

Public servants have a wide berth of activities they can engage in before crossing the line. They can volunteer for election campaigns, post political lawn signs, canvass for candidates, and raise or contribute money to a party. They can also publicly speak on election issues at a meeting and support a party or candidate.

The big limitations: don’t use government resources, do it on your own time and ensure the political activity doesn't affect the ability to do your job impartially.

Social media eroding older rules

Those rules worked in an offline world before Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, which amplify the exposure of those participating in public debate. Today, social media is part of modern life and political activity has moved online. Public servants are online outside of work and in the push for open government they are encouraged to be online for work.

Isabelle Roy, general counsel for the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, said the old rules aren’t clear on how political public servants can be online, so the fallback is to play it safe, which has a chilling effect.

The shortcomings were revealed in the 2015 election, when an environment scientist, Tony Turner, was suspended for writing and performing the protest song "Harperman," which was posted on You Tube. Turner eventually retired and the grievance was withdrawn.

A Justice Department memo on using social media in 2015 election, which said “you are a public servant 24/7,” was interpreted as so restrictive that unions said it put a chill on public servants' using social media accounts to engage in political activities during the election.

“We’re in the same grey world as 2015, and the wide use of social media nowadays makes it more stressful for public servants to exercise their democratic right because they don’t know where the line is drawn,” Roy said.

The caretaker convention governing the conduct of ministers, political staff and public servants during the election flagged the use of social media but offered little guidance.

“Particular attention should be paid to potentially highly visible public activities, notably the use of personal social media accounts.”

The Public Service Alliance of Canada recently sent a social media directive to its members warning about the “tone and frequency” of any political expression. It cautioned against comments that could be seen as “malicious, vitriolic, false or discriminatory” and avoid engaging in a “sustained media campaign against government.”

Amanda Clarke, assistant professor at Carleton University’s school of public policy and administration, argues the government needs a legal framework to guide online political activity.

She said it should not only depend on the level and nature of a public servant’s job, but how visible the online activity is; the substance of what’s online and whether the public servant is identifiable as a public servant or not.

“My fear in election 2019 is civil servants self-censor in ways that unfairly deny their right to political expression. Or they ignore their duties to neutrally service the government of the day by engaging in inappropriate political activities. Neither outcome is good for Canadian democracy,” she tweeted when the writ was dropped.

Meet the bureaucrat candidates

Here are the names and associated federal departments or agencies of the 20 people who won their party's nominations after asking the Public Service Commission for permission:

People’s Party

Sarah Chung, case processing officer at Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada, in the Ontario riding of Markham—Unionville.

Jean-Jacques Desgranges, senior policy analyst at Canada Revenue Agency, in the Ontario riding of Glengarry—Prescott—Russell.

Mario-Roberto Lam, supervisor, planning and control officer at Public Services and Procurement Canada, in the Quebec riding of Gatineau.

Kelly Lorencz, acting correctional manager at Correctional Service Canada, in the Alberta riding of Calgary Nose Hill.

Alain Musende, manager at Health Canada, in the Ontario riding of Carleton.

Merylee Sevilla, planning and project support officer at Canada Revenue Agency, in the Ontario riding of Ottawa Centre.

Marie-Claude Lauzier, acting regional screener, Canada Revenue Agency, in the Quebec riding of Mégantic—L'Érable.

Liberal Party

Aladin Legault d’Auteuil, deputy director at Global Affairs Canada, in the Quebec riding of Montmagny—L'Islet—Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup.

Jonathan Plamondon, Industrial Relations Officer at Canada Industrial Relations Board, Administrative Tribunals Support Service of Canada, in the Quebec riding of La Pointe-de-l’Île.

Vincent Garneau, foreign service officer at Global Affairs Canada, in the Quebec riding of Jonquière.

Jason Deveau, policy analyst at Environment and Climate Change Canada, in the Nova Scotia riding of West Nova.

New Democratic Party

Justine Bell, acting senior policy analyst at Global Affairs Canada, in the British Columbia riding of North Vancouver.

Katherine Swampy, collections contact officer at Canada Revenue Agency, in the Alberta riding of Edmonton Centre.

Nicholas Thompson, collections contact officer at Canada Revenue Agency, in the Ontario riding of Don Valley East.

Green Party

Paul Bettess, environmental monitoring technologist at Environment and Climate Change Canada, in the Manitoba riding of Winnipeg South.

Elizabeth Fraser, student at Canada Revenue Agency, in the Ontario riding of Haliburton—Kawartha Lakes—Brock.

Conservative Party

Maikel Mikhael, team leader at Service Canada, Employment and Social Development Canada in the Quebec riding of Rivière-des-Mille-Îles.

Helen-Claire Tingling, integrity services investigator at Employment and Social Development Canada, in the Ontario riding of University—Rosedale.

Christian Heritage

Sean Mulligan, passport clerk at Service Canada, Employment and Social Development in the Ontario riding of Ottawa West—Nepean.

Animal Protection Party

Shelby Bertrand, program advisor at Employment and Social Development Canada, in the Ontario riding of Ottawa Centre.