The new public-sector integrity commissioner takes the helm of the office charged with investigating wrongdoing. The high-profile position has not been without its critics, and the office—with its own bumpy history—was in need of a refresh. Meet the man charged with the task. He started as a journalist, became a lawyer and is now known for his finely tuned dispute-resolution skills, not to mention his love of contemporary art. We head to his home and find the output of inquisitive, critical—and sometimes cheeky—minds displayed on every wall. Being surrounded by challenging questions, it appears, Joe Friday is completely in his element.
The brain teasing starts even before you enter the 153-year-old house in Ottawa’s Sandy Hill neighbourhood. A small sign on the front-porch door has an arrow pointing left. It’s the kind of sign that would ordinarily ask you to use a different door or to stop depositing junk mail. But this sign says only “One Day.”
One day what? Will there be joy one day? Sorrow? What’s with the arrow? The possibilities are myriad. And there you are, frozen for a few seconds, trying to fathom the strange message before pressing the doorbell at the home of the federal government’s new integrity commissioner, Joe Friday, BJ/83. The experienced public-service lawyer has strong, continuing ties to Carleton University and is an art enthusiast who has been called “one of the most important, rigorous collectors of contemporary art in this country” by art dealer Catriona Jeffries of Vancouver, from whom he has bought several of the key pieces in his collection. All that, and he can cook too. His dinner parties are legendary.
You find out that the perplexing “One Day” message is an “art poem” by Australian artist Richard Tipping, whose masterworks include signs such as “Wrong Day, Go Back” and “Three-Hour Barking.” Tipping’s gotcha moment on Friday’s door is just a teaser for what is inside. The home is filled with conceptual contemporary art, much of it text-based and leavened with humour.
The first work inside the front hall is the size of a picture window. Sheets of white plywood are covered with large black letters written with sign paint. Quickly you realize that some of the words are just gibberish—then it’s clear that all the words are gibberish. The piece, called Untitled Language Painting, is by Vancouver artist Ken Lum.
The text-based art tour continues upstairs in the den. A piece by Montreal artist Reuel Dechene neatly sums up Friday’s collection of more than 100 works. Dechene has created a sign with blinking lights that spells the word “Text.”
“Joe’s a collector who likes to provoke questions, as opposed to having all the answers,” says Jeffries. And there is usually more than one answer to each question.
Friday’s new role as integrity commissioner investigating the disclosures of public-sector whistle-blowers comes with many questions, one being: Can he restore confidence in an office that has been weighed down by credibility problems ever since it was established in 2007? In a 2010 report, then auditor general Sheila Fraser found that the integrity office’s first commissioner, Christiane Ouimet, was not doing the job for which she had been hired. “In our view, [Ouimet’s] behaviour and actions do not pass the test of public scrutiny and are inappropriate and unacceptable for a public servant—most notably for the agent of Parliament specifically charged with the responsibility of upholding integrity in the public sector and of protecting public servants from reprisal,” Fraser wrote. Ouimet left well before the end of her seven-year appointment, as did her successor, Mario Dion, who left for undisclosed personal reasons.
Friday could not be coaxed into criticizing his two predecessors in March when he appeared before the Commons Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates to have his appointment approved. The NDP, the official opposition, did not support his appointment, noting that Friday is an insider who worked as general counsel under the first commissioner, Ouimet. The Liberal party did support his nomination, however, with one MP even thanking Friday, on the record, for his ongoing support for the visual arts in Canada. The Senate also approved Friday, which is a requirement because, as an Agent of Parliament, he does not report to a minister of the government of the day in the same way that heads of other departments must do. His independence means that he reports directly to both Houses of Parliament through their respective speakers.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper views Friday differently than the NDP, announcing his appointment with these words: “He brings to the position extensive knowledge and understanding of the role of the commissioner, a strong legal background and extensive experience in alternative dispute resolution.”
Friday says he understands the basis for the NDP criticism. “I don’t share it, obviously, because I applied for the position and thought very long and hard about whether I should.” He says the deciding factors in his choice to pursue the top job were his “unshakeable belief” in the importance of the mandate of the integrity office and his perseverance over the past seven years in trying to make it work, despite the challenges and the criticisms.
Upon taking the role, Friday realized that one of the biggest tasks ahead would be to ensure that more public servants are aware of the existence of his office, as well as to clear up confusion around the role of the integrity office. It is mandated to represent “the public interest, not the individual whistle-blower,” says Friday. This means that he investigates allegations that are brought to his office to determine whether “wrongdoing” occurred. This is defined to include breaking the law, misusing public funds, engaging in gross mismanagement or seriously threatening health and safety. As part of the process, he is also tasked with determining whether there is another agency that could better deal with the allegations, such as the Public Service Commission, which adjudicates many workplace issues.
The integrity office receives about 80 to 100 disclosures of wrongdoing a year. Most are whistle-blowers reporting alleged wrongdoing in their department, but the office can also act on information from members of the public. In addition, the office receives 25 to 30 complaints of reprisal from people who feel they have been retaliated against for blowing the whistle in the first place. The integrity office finds that only about three percent of disclosures constitute wrongdoing. That is a slightly higher number than the office’s American counterpart, Friday told the Commons and Senate committees.
Friday is energized by the coming challenge, and success is possible if the new integrity commissioner takes after another Joe Friday, the crusty police detective from the Dragnet radio and television series. (The Dragnet theme song is the ringtone for the flesh-and-blood Friday.) His appointment is for seven years, giving him time to develop his role and create a clear identity for his office. Will he be a headline-provoking, crusading Agent of Parliament like former auditor general Sheila Fraser and parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page? Or will Friday, like his art collection, take a more analytical approach, recognizing that complex questions often do not have easy answers?
The integrity office came about the year after Harper’s Conservatives first came to power. Its establishment was a key feature of the Accountability Act that served as a major election platform. The office was seen as a response to the Quebec sponsorship scandal during Jean Chrétien’s Liberal administration when millions of taxpayers’ dollars were spent inappropriately. It is doubtful that in this, an election year, the Conservatives are interested in having an integrity commissioner uncover juicy scandals in the public service that could reflect badly on their government. Friday’s office has no jurisdiction over MPs or senators; his domain is the public sector, which includes departments and Crown corporations and numbers around 400,000 employees. Still, that notion fuels the criticism that Friday is just a Harper mouthpiece, despite the fact that the office was created as an independent oversight body and has already tabled case reports concluding that some Harper appointees committed wrongdoing and have either resigned or been removed from their positions.
Friday and Harper seem unlikely allies. It might be difficult to picture Harper, who has not put the visual arts high on his political agenda, in Friday’s house, contemplating a large red text-based painting by Vancouver’s Ron Terada. It is actually a Jeopardy question. (Spoiler alert: The answer is Iggy Pop.) However, the painted hockey helmets above a doorway in the dining room would perhaps intrigue the hockey-loving prime minister. One is by B.C. artist Brian Jungen, the other by Peter Doig, a British artist who spent much of his childhood in Canada and became a hockey fanatic. Doig has become one of the highest-paid contemporary artists on the planet. “I could never afford him now,” says Friday, who prides himself on his ability to identify potential early in an artist’s career and on acquiring works before the increasingly cash-driven contemporary art market discovers the artist.
Friday’s fondness for text-based art is part of his love affair with words since his childhood in Timmins, Ont., when he considered a teaching career in English literature. That was long before he started collecting art and long before he fell under the spell of the late Carleton professor Natalie Luckyj. He had taken Luckyj’s Canadian art survey course as an elective while working toward a Bachelor of Journalism at Carleton. It was as if Luckyj had “flipped a switch” in Friday’s brain. Art became a passion. Later, after he graduated, he took night courses from Luckyj, who gave him the framework and the knowledge to view contemporary art with an informed, critical eye. “It is only because of Natalie’s teaching that I am a collector and continue to collect,” says Friday.
In 1983, Friday received his bachelor’s degree and soon signed on with the company Mediaday, analyzing news reports for such clients as the Prime Minister’s Office and the Governor General. He continued the work while studying law at the University of Ottawa. He graduated magna cum laude in 1988 and was called to the bar in 1990. After a brief stint in private practice, Friday joined the public service in 1992, working for the Department of Justice as legal counsel in what is now the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. He then worked his way up the bureaucratic ladder, culminating in his appointment this year as head of the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner of Canada.
Beginning in the early 1990s, the art world began to occupy most of Friday’s free time. He became the first chair of Carleton University Art Gallery’s advisory committee, serving from 1992 to 2006. Last year, he became chair again. “He is generous with his ideas and his time,” says gallery director Sandra Dyck. “His feedback is carefully considered. He is a sympathetic and thoughtful sounding board. I am constantly energized by Joe’s enthusiasm for CUAG and by his sincere desire to propel its growth and development.” Carleton even staged an exhibition of Friday’s collection in 2004.
Kitty Scott, contemporary art curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, was a regular dinner guest at Friday’s home when she lived in Ottawa and served as contemporary art curator for the National Gallery. The Jeopardy painting is Scott’s favourite work at Friday’s house. “I’ve always felt,” says Scott, “that art for Joe is a means to leave behind his world of work. It is a hobby and passion that keeps his curious mind active in all kinds of ways one’s job doesn’t allow.” But Friday does mix work and art a little: some of his art collection has been taken to the workplace, including works by Steven Shearer, who represented Canada at the esteemed Venice Biennale in 2011, and conceptual artist Ian Wallace, who had a major retrospective last year at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
Friday’s home is shared with his partner, Grant Jameson, BA/71, a lawyer in private practice. The two often travel together to international art fairs or on shopping trips to galleries. “He’s an extremely supportive partner,” says Friday. “He will tell you, ‘Yes, we have an art committee in this house, but it has a membership of one.’ ”
Their Italianate house has an official heritage designation. The plaque on the outside of the house says it was built circa 1867, although Friday’s research shows the date was actually 1862. The original homeowner was William Beattie, a master plasterer who filled the house with elaborate Victorian-era mouldings that have been preserved intact. Beattie created similar mouldings for part of Rideau Hall. On one visit to the vice-regal mansion, Friday discussed the mouldings with the then governor general, Adrienne Clarkson, and delighted in telling her: “I have the originals and you have the copies.”
The Friday home is very much an art salon in which everybody who is anybody in the Canadian art world comes to commune. A frequent visitor was the late Shirley Thomson, a former National Gallery director. On one of Thomson’s last visits, she spied a newly acquired 22-minute video called This Land Is My Land, in which Iraqi artist Bessma Khalaf proceeds to eat, most crudely, a seemingly infinitely long, thin stretch of cake made to resemble a landscape of mountains and trees. Startled, Thomson watched the video and then, according to Friday, bellowed amid a house full of guests: “Joe Friday, what on earth have you done now?”
That’s a question Friday is surely pondering these days, with his new job very much in the spotlight. The only two previous integrity commissioners left long before their terms ended. Friday is confident his tenure will be longer and, ultimately, as satisfying as his previous jobs and as satisfying as his continuing romance with words, whether on the page or on canvas.
“Language is a love, sometimes a distraction, sometimes an obsession, sometimes a mystery, always challenging,” Friday says. One day, perhaps, he will be able to look back on seven years of being integrity commissioner and employ those same powerful, enthusiastic words to describe what he calls “the ultimate opportunity for innovation in my career and the ultimate iteration of my true belief in the value of public service.”