B.C. ombudsman says health firings were wrong, wants to close ‘dark chapter’

By The Canadian Press
April 6, 2017 - 12:30pm Updated: April 6, 2017 - 5:37pm

VICTORIA — British Columbia’s ombudsman says seven government health workers and a contract employee who were fired five years ago because of a flawed and rushed investigation did not deserve the personal, financial and professional harm they suffered.

Jay Chalke’s report, called “Misfire,” concluded key decision makers acted on incorrect information to support the decision to fire the workers.

Roderick MacIsaac, a co-op research student working at the Health Ministry, died by suicide about four months after being fired on the grounds he jeopardized the privacy of British Columbians and the reputation of the ministry.

“Mr. MacIsaac’s death was a tragedy that has cast a dark shadow over the entire affair,” Chalke told a news conference.

MacIsaac and the other workers were part of a drug-research program in 2012 when they were fired amid allegations of inappropriate and potentially criminal conduct.

“Having carefully assessed each of the grounds the ministry relied on in terminating Mr. MacIsaac, we have concluded that most of the grounds relied on were unsupported by the evidence and not true,” the report stated. “It is our conclusion that Mr. MacIsaac’s employment dismissal was wrong.”

Chalke’s report stated the government’s investigators lacked objectivity and were closed minded in their interviews of potential witnesses and subjects, including MacIsaac.

The report said MacIsaac told investigators nine times during a two-hour interview that he did not use ministry data for his PhD and he denied five times having a flash drive with ministry data.

“The interviewers’ tones were sometimes condescending,” the report stated. “They asked Mr. MacIsaac the same questions multiple times, and despite his consistent answers, they disbelieved him.”

Chalke made 41 recommendations, including offering goodwill payments to those harmed, ranging from $15,000 to $125,000, and personal letters of apology for some of the workers.

He recommended the government honour MacIsaac’s memory by funding a $500,000 scholarship endowment at the University of Victoria.

Then-health minister Margaret MacDiarmid said at the time that there were allegations that employees inappropriately accessed sensitive medical records, but charges were never laid and media reports later showed the RCMP never investigated the claims.

The B.C. government asked Chalke to review the firings in 2015 after it rejected a growing call for an independent inquiry.

Chalke said his findings don’t establish legal fault, but are aimed at preventing similar incidents in the future.

“It is my hope that government takes the opportunity to close this dark chapter by implementing the recommendations I have made in this report,” he said.

Graham Whitmarsh, a former deputy health minister, made the decision to fire the workers, and even though Premier Christy Clark and officials in her office were aware of the investigation, they did not direct Whitmarsh to dismiss the employees, Chalke said.

Government spokeswoman Kim Henderson said the government accepts all the recommendations, including the compensation and scholarship endowment.

She did not rule out possible dismissals of those officials involved in the flawed investigation.

“I would like to offer my unqualified and comprehensive apology to all who were adversely affected by public service conduct,” said Henderson, who heads the public service and is Clark’s deputy minister.

“There’s no question the public service must use this report as the basis for significant and meaningful changes to ensure a similar tragedy cannot and does not ever happen again,” she said.

Since the firings, two employees have been reinstated and the government has settled at least three wrongful dismissal lawsuits.

NDP Leader John Horgan said pleas by Linda Kayfish, MacIsaac’s grieving sister, forced the government to shine a light on the firings.

Chalke said his 488-page report is the result of examining 4.7 million records, conducting 540 hours of interviews and taking evidence under oath from 130 witnesses.

 

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

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