The Whistleblower

Posted on February 25, 2015 | Stephen Kimber | 0 Comments

Sitting in the departures lounge at Phnom Penh’s international airport on a muggy early June day in 2009, his ticket punched all the way from Hong Kong through Vancouver to Toronto and Halifax, Donald Bowser couldn’t help but smile. He was the victim of his own success.

He was 42 years old. Until a few weeks before, he’d been Chief of Party/Team Leader for an organization called Mainstreaming Anti-Corruption for Equity, a four-year, $4-million, USAID-funded anti-corruption project in Cambodia. Cambodia needed all the help it could get. Two years before, Transparency International had ranked Cambodia close to the bottom of the global rotten barrel (162nd out of 179 countries) when it came to fighting corruption. And the lure of the ill-gotten was going to get worse. Oil was expected to start flowing in Cambodia in 2011, with proceeds estimated to top out at $1.7 billion a year by the time production peaks in 2021.

Bowser’s task was nothing less than to change Cambodia’s corruption climate. He was well prepared. Over the course of the previous decade, he’d emerged as a go-to freelance anti-corruption/good governance/transparency expert in any number of “bad places” (Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Macedonia, Sierra Leone), serving as a hired transparency gun for everyone from the United Nations and the World Bank to NGOs.

Not bad for a boy from the Maritimes.

To encourage Cambodians to pressure their government to get serious about corruption, one of Bowser’s first initiatives had been to launch a campaign to collect one million Cambodian thumbprints supporting implementing a new anti-corruption law. Mission quickly accomplished. To celebrate, Bowser organized what he called the “Clean Hands Concert” at Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium on May 30, 2009. He hoped for an audience of 5,000; 50,000 showed up, making it the largest anti-corruption rally in the world.

The Government of Cambodia was not amused. It denounced the event as “politically motivated.” To emphasize its displeasure, the government called in the U.S. ambassador. Someone had to take the fall. That someone was Don Bowser.

Even though “the embassy had micro-managed the whole thing down to the colour of the seating arrangements,” USAID suspended Bowser. “They took away my cellphone, my SIM card, my access to the office building.” Less than a month later, he was ordered out of the country.

Don Bowser was not nearly as upset as you might expect. During his work on the anti-corruption concert, he’d met and fallen in love with Khieu Sansana, a prominent Cambodian TV presenter, who’d hosted the show. He was going to be a father! Sansana had even offered to give up her TV gig to join him in a new life in… the Maritimes.

Bowser (who confesses that, during his years away, he occasionally listened nostalgically to Stan Rogers and Stompin’ Tom) had acquired his first chunk of real estate back in his native New Brunswick in 2006, and then another in Nova Scotia in 2008. Now seemed an especially good time to go home, build a house on one of his properties, enjoy his soon-to-be wife and child, perhaps trade his experience on the world stage for a teaching gig…

He was ready to leave the world’s “bad countries” behind.

Flash forward. It’s a sunny May 13, 2014, in Fredericton. Don Bowser stands in front a microphone speaking to 300 placard-carrying environmentalists, woodlot owners, scientists and aboriginals who’ve gathered outside the New Brunswick legislature for a rally.

Casually dressed in an Afghan sweater he’d acquired on his travels and a slightly rumpled brown spring jacket, Bowser is a shambling, friendly bear of a man who looks more like a Maritime country squire than a globe-trotting corruption fighter.

But his message hasn’t changed.

Today’s gathering is to protest a secretly negotiated 25-year deal the New Brunswick government recently signed with J.D. Irving Ltd. The Alward government says the deal will generate 500 new forestry and 1,200 construction jobs, desperately needed “boots in the woods” to goose a lagging provincial economy. But critics counter the arrangement will not only significantly increase Irving’s annual share of the forest harvest but also effectively “eliminate the role of the public in how Crown lands are managed.” There are no provisions to guarantee Irving will actually create the jobs it says it will. If it doesn’t, there are no penalties in the contract. David Bell, a contracts law specialist at the UNB law school, admits as much. “J.D. Irving’s obligations under the contract are only approximate,” he tells the CBC. “They are softened considerably.”

Don Bowser has seen this movie before.

“New Brunswick,” he tells the cheering crowd, is less accountable to its own citizens than some other countries where he’s worked. Afghanistan, for example, or Azerbaijan, or Nigeria. Ouch.

“I usually describe my work as trying to fight bad guys in bad places,” Bowser tells them. “Well, I’ve come home now and I want to fight bad guys in good places.”

How does an “eighth-generation boy from New Brunswick” end up a global corruption crusader?

To answer that, we need to go back in time to the 1970s to CFB Summerside where Bowser’s father was stationed during the height of the Cold War. At the time, the base was home to an anti-aircraft squadron, and young Donald became so obsessed with all things Soviet he informed anyone who asked that his career plan was to become a Sovietologist. “People laughed,” he recalled.

But in 1990, when he was still a “young radical” political science undergraduate at Acadia University, his professor arranged a year-long exchange program with a university in Odessa in the middle of the then-rapidly disintegrating Soviet Union.

What did he learn? “To survive, mostly,” he says. “There was corruption everywhere.” Bowser smacked up against that corruption first-hand when the university refused to send his marks back to Acadia unless he paid a $2,000 “processing fee.” “It was no longer clear who was running anything,” he remembers. As a result, his Acadia graduation was delayed by two years. (After arriving back home in the middle of the early 1990s recession, Bowser worked briefly as a debt collector in Moncton and then went out to Alberta where he ended up working at a 7/11 — “not exactly the oil patch” — while completing his undergraduate studies.)

In 1992, he returned to Europe, pursuing both a German woman he’d met in Odessa and also advanced studies. Although the romantic relationship eventually fizzled, Bowser attended language school (learning Russian, German, Czech and Hungarian) and earned a Master’s degree in International Relations and European Studies at the Central European University in Budapest in 1996. His Master’s thesis, which would turn out to be both prescient and also helpful in landing him his latest lucrative contract, was entitled: “The Failure of the Ukrainian Privatization Program and its Impact on Ukrainian Sovereignty.”

In the short term, it almost landed him a job heading up a new Kiev office for Creditanstalt, an Austrian investment bank. But the ruble collapsed and organized crime ran rampant in the city. Bowser prepared a “frank assessment” for the bank, advising employees to “keep a low profile to avoid kidnapping… The [bank] president was spooked,” he recalls, “and that was the end of that.”

After working briefly for the European Union, Bowser joined Transparency International in 1998. Its vision was “a world in which government, politics, business, civil society and the daily lives of people are free from corruption.” Bowser, no longer the “young radical” but still fascinated by the sometimes seamy and unseemly ways in which the world really worked, shared that dream. “Our goal was to get those issues out there for the international community, for international business. We wanted to make the world safe for private business.”

Three years later, in 2001, he went out on his own as a freelance consultant. His beat: bad people doing bad things in bad places. Who knew that when he finally returned home to Canada in 2009, he would find some of those bad things happening in his own good place?

Don Bowser is an eighth generation son of Atlantic Canada, a land of legendary scandals and corruption: vote-buying, voters voting from beyond the grave, “tolls” to the party in power from liquor companies that want to sell their booze in state-run monopolies, illicit trust funds, highways to nowhere, Bricklin automobiles, Sprung greenhouses, MLA expense fudges… Growing up, Bowser says he wasn’t naïve about corruption or the seamier side of political life here. What changed after he became an internationally recognized expert on corruption and transparency was that he had developed a new lens through which to analyze the world, including his home region.

During his public talks about what he sees as New Brunswick’s “great resource giveaway,” for example, Bowser will often flash up a slide on the screen that shows a side-by-side comparison of Tajikistan and what he calls “New Brunswickistan.” They’re both poor entities with economies dependent on natural resources, and both are run by a small group of families and clans (the prime minister and his cronies in Tajikistan, the Irvings and McCains in New Brunswick). Tajikistan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. New Brunswick? It’s impossible to know, Bowswer explains, because New Brunswick is one of Canada’s least open governments when it comes to freedom of information.

What is clear is that there is what Bowser calls a “myth of control” in both jurisdictions that gives those in charge unseemly power over their citizens. “In Tajikistan, it’s do what we say or we go back to civil war. In New Brunswick, it’s do what we say, or you’ll lose your job… What we see here are these very strange deals that don’t offer any benefit to the people, in which we give away our resources with only the vaguest promise of jobs, and the threat that if we say no, we’ll lose those jobs. Big employers have undue influence over the governments that should regulate them because they can always use the threat of loss of jobs to get their way.”

Part of the problem, he suggests, is that there is an unexplored, barely governed “intersection” among universities, the public and private sectors where senior people travel smoothly from one to the other with few questions asked about conflict or transparency.

Consider Paul Black, the principal secretary to Premier Darrell Dexter during Nova Scotia’s NDP government. Among the files he handled was the province’s troubled forestry industry. In 2010, the Dexter government loaned Blue Wolf Capital Management $75 million to buy land for its Northern Pulp mill. Less than a year after he left government, Black became Blue Wolf’s regional consultant and investment advisor. For his part, Black, who waited for the mandatory six-month “cooling off period” to expire before taking on Blue Wolf as a client, insists there is no conflict. It’s simply the reality that “this is a small province.”

Or take Laurel Broten. A former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister who moved to Nova Scotia with her family in 2013, she was tapped by the new McNeil government to write a report on taxation policy that favoured business, and was soon after appointed the $210,000-a-year head of Nova Scotia Business Inc., the government’s business development agency. Was that favouritism, or simply scooping up the best available talent?

Or David Wheeler, the president of Cape Breton University who headed up his province’s fracking review process, even though, as Bowser says, “CBU has interests in the oil and gas sector.” Wheeler himself has dismissed the suggestion of a conflict, but “there is a small ‘elite’ base in Atlantic Canada,” Bowser notes, “and we see the conflicts of interest that arise when universities, which are publically funded institutions, offer advice to the provincial governments. Much of the policy advice is not vetted for conflicts of interests.” 

After he returned from Cambodia, Bowser repatriated his own private non-governmental organization — Integrity Management and Promoting Transparency and Accountability (IMPACT) — to Halifax with hopes he could at least cobble together part of his consulting living at home.

He has continued to land international contracts. In 2011, he served as senior advisor to the Macedonian Anti-Corruption Commission. In 2012, he did work for the Afghanistan Independent Monitoring and Evaluation Committee. In 2013, he served as a corruption investigation specialist in South Sudan, and as an evaluator for a Rule of Law project in Tajikistan.

In Canada, however, the sledding has been slushier. While he has had a number of part-time teaching gigs at universities, “there’s no funding for [corruption and transparency project] work here,” he says simply. In 2011, for example, he tried to find financial backing for a cross-country survey about government transparency in the key construction, health and natural resources sectors. Despite the Charbonneau Commission’s shocking revelations about the extent of corruption in the Quebec construction industry — “could there be spill-over from that into the Maritimes?” — he couldn’t find funding for the project. “No one wants to talk about it,” he says. “Corruption is the ‘c’ word here.”

Bowser believes Atlantic Canada needs something many developing countries already have: its own permanent, independent anti-corruption organization. “Due to the difficulty of winning a case at the provincial level and the political risk of taking on corrupt politicos,” he suggests, “the RCMP are adverse to launching cases. The gap then has to be filled by someone, and a specialized body that can both do investigative work as well as administer administrative functions would go a long way in enhancing integrity in the public administration in Atlantic Canada.”

Given the lack of interest among those in charge politically, Bowser believes business can, and should, take on a stronger role. “All across the globe, corporations are undertaking to be more transparent and accountable, if only to do better reputation management and protect their share prices. Having a whistle-blowing mechanism or being transparent about contracts, etc., saves money down the road in scandals or lawsuits. The growth of corporate social responsibility across the planet comes out of this idea that ‘good’ business practices pay off for a company. That idea hasn’t filtered down much to Atlantic Canada.”

While he waited for it to happen, Bowser became involved (literally) in his own backyard. He saw trucks rumbling past the highway where he lived in New Brunswick, saw drilling well pads go up on nearby lands with no public discussion, saw resource companies begin prospecting for uranium with no public process or even disclosure.

“That piqued my interest,” he says, “because that kind of stuff doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world. The most surprising thing to me was not just the low degree of transparency, but the fact no one seemed all that interested in increasing it. When the feds were considering a bill back in 2009 to improve transparency in the extractive industries, an official in the New Brunswick government publicly said they’d secede from Confederation if it passed.” He stops, lets that sink in. “They wanted the right to be as opaque as they chose.”

In 2013, he and his company joined with the Conservation Council of New Brunswick and other like-minded groups to form a new Coalition for Extractive Industry Transparency and Accountability in Atlantic Canada. Its goal: “encourage citizens to hold both the provinces and extractive companies accountable to the real owner of natural resources — the citizens of the provinces.”

Although the coalition’s focus is on extractive industries, which is also his own area of expertise, Bowser is quick to make the point that the same lack of transparency and lack of accountability are common among governments across Atlantic Canada, and not just with resource industries. “Whenever anyone does do ‘report cards’ on freedom of information in Canada, New Brunswick usually ends up with an F.”

And Canada itself is not much better. In September, when federal Treasury Board officials came to Halifax to show off Ottawa’s new Open Government Action Plan, Bowser was an interested attendee. But when a reporter identified himself during one session, one of the officials hastily checked in with her betters back in Ottawa and then cancelled the meeting. Treasury Board employees weren’t allowed to speak without a media handler present.

Don Bowser, who has seen everything, was “extremely surprised. “It was essentially a road show to show how transparent they were. And as soon as a reporter shows up, they refuse to continue.” He shakes his head.

Canada and especially the Maritimes, it is clear, should be fertile ground for someone like Don Bowser.

But it isn’t.

It is early January 2015. Don Bowser has spent the day attempting to sort out how he will handle the ever-changing logistical labyrinth that is his life. A single dad since 2010 (after four months, Sansana decided the life of “a rural Maritime housewife” didn’t work for her and returned to Cambodia), Bowser has signed on to teach a new course on Russia and the Ukraine in the political science department at Dalhousie University for the winter term. But he is also supposed to be in Kiev, starting yesterday and for the unknown future, while he arranges the visa he will need to live and work in the Ukraine (which, of course, will inform his teaching if only he can figure out how to conduct classes from more than 6,500 kilometres away. “I’ll probably fly back for two days every few weeks,” he suggests.)

Last spring, the Ukrainian Government — facing down separatists in its Crimean region and menace from its Russian neighbour — asked a sympathetic Canadian government for help with its governance issues and economic development. Bowser’s newly minted company, Project EDGE (Expert Deployment for Governance and Economic Growth), won the lucrative five-year contract to do exactly that.

What does all of that mean for Bowser’s dream of bringing international-style transparency and accountability to his own home region? “If I could, I would stay here,” he tells me. “This is my home. I love it. I love the Maritimes. But…”

It should not be lost on any of us that Canada is quick to support transparency and accountability abroad — morally and financially. At home? Not so much.

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