There is a situation going on right now in my home province of British Columbia that is deeply distressing to me as a researcher, as an instructor who teaches courses about employment, and as a citizen. I’m writing this blog post to join the calls for a public inquiry into this situation.
I have been told that this situation hasn’t received a lot of attention outside of BC, so I’ll explain what has happened.
In early September of 2012, Margaret McDiarmid, at the time the health minister in BC’s provincial government, held a news conference to announce that four employees had been fired and three employees had been suspended from the ministry’s pharmaceutical services division. (Subsequently, the suspended employees were fired, and a student researcher on a co-op term was also fired.) The health ministry’s pharmaceutical services division, among other responsibilities, assesses medications to determine whether they will be approved for sale in BC, and/or whether the cost of purchasing the medications will be subsidized by the BC government’s PharmaCare program.
McDiarmid stated at the news conference that the reason for the suspensions and dismissals was an alleged privacy breach involving confidential patient-related data. She also stated that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) were investigating the allegations.
Some of the dismissed and suspended employees were employed through contracts with the ministry, and some were permanent employees. Several of them filed wrongful dismissal and defamation lawsuits; others pursued grievances through their unions. One of the lawsuits alleged that the BC Liberal party – which held a majority of the seats in BC’s Parliament – had received donations from pharmaceutical companies, including some whose products were included in the PharmaCare program.
In January of 2013, Roderick MacIsaac, the co-op student who was fired, committed suicide.
In June of 2013, the BC office of the information and privacy commissioner released a report stating that the health ministry did not have adequate data security measures in place. Terry Lake, who by then was (and still is) the health minister, responded to the report by saying that “(w)e have been sharing information with the RCMP….So it will be up to the RCMP to determine next steps based on their conclusions from the investigation.”
By the end of 2013, two of the fired employees’ grievances were settled with confidential outcomes. By the fall of 2014, two of the fired employees had been reinstated, and one had reached an out-of-court settlement with the government. In October 2014, the government formally apologized to Roderick MacIsaac’s family.
Also during that October, the BC government’s public service agency commissioned Marcia McNeil, a labour lawyer, to conduct an independent analysis of the firings. Her report, released in December 2014, stated that the health ministry investigation which preceded the firings was “flawed from the outset, as it was embarked upon with a pre-conceived theory of employee misconduct”. McNeil’s report also indicated that it was impossible to identify who in the ministry or in the government authorized the employee firings, or what factors were considered in the firing decision.
And that was where things stood until this month, when the Vancouver Sun newspaper received a set of documents from a freedom-of-information request it made to the government. The documents indicated that, in fact, the government had not given the RCMP evidence to investigate the allegations of wrongdoing, even though the RCMP had repeatedly requested that evidence. In other words, although the government publicly claimed that there was a police investigation related to the firings – and even though some government officials had cited the investigation when refusing to comment on the situation – there was no investigation, and there had never been one.
This week, the seven fired employees, along with MacIsaac’s sister, released an open letter to the health minister requesting a “thorough and independent inquiry” into the firings. A provincially-mandated public inquiry would have powers, such as the ability to call witnesses to give testimony, that other forms of investigation might not have.
Additionally, this week the RCMP revealed that in April the government had asked it to review a report from the provincial comptroller-general’s office about financial issues allegedly associated with the firings, specifically around allegations of irregularities in contract procurement and awarding. The RCMP stated that, based on the information in the report, it would not be pursuing the allegations further.
The call for a public inquiry into the firings has come not only in the open letter from the fired employees, but also in a front-page editorial in the Vancouver Sun and in several other media outlets. And although these events took place in BC, they should be of concern to anyone anywhere who cares about integrity in research, who cares about fair treatment for employees, or who cares about good government.
As a researcher, I know the importance of confidentiality of data involving human participants – and I also know how vigilant researchers are expected to be in protecting that confidentiality. Misusing or mishandling data is not only unethical, but it also potentially has major consequences for a researcher’s credibility and employability. (Look at the current uproar in the US around the researchers who may have faked data in a study of public attitudes toward same-sex marriage.) Mishandling data is an extremely serious accusation to make against a researcher, especially when it’s used as the reason for terminating their employment. As an employer of professionals conducting research, the BC government should understand the gravity of accusing a professional employee of data mishandling, and should have evidence to support those accusations. The fact that the government can’t or won’t produce such evidence, even when requested to do so by the RCMP, is extremely troubling.
The government’s conduct as an employer in this situation also deserves more detailed examination in other contexts. The information that has emerged about what happened prior to the September 2102 announcement of the firings and suspensions indicates that concerns about contracts were raised by a whistleblower within the ministry. However, it is still not clear how or whether those concerns were linked to the firings. Marcia McNeil’s analysis indicates that the government did not follow its own public service terms of reference in investigating those concerns; McNeil’s report states that “[the] theory [of alleged employee misconduct] became the lens through which documents were reviewed and interviews were conducted”. Such a biased investigation is unacceptable employer conduct by any standard, but especially by the standards of basic fairness and due process – and there needs to be more investigation to find out why this conduct was permitted to happen.
The BC government’s responses to the call for a public inquiry have expressed concern about the potential cost of an inquiry. However, Premier Christy Clark stated last year, “One of this government’s core values is respect for the taxpayer’s dollar. We received a mandate to control government spending and ensure the best possible use of government resources.” The information that has emerged about this situation doesn’t indicate “respect for the taxpayer’s dollar” or “the best possible use of government resources” in the decisions that were made about these employees, or in how those decisions were carried out. A public inquiry would be a responsible and transparent way to identify what went wrong where, and to assess the costs that resulted from those mistakes – and that information could be the basis for better, more cost-effective practices in the future.
But beyond the financial issues, this situation also involves moral issues that deserve a public inquiry. The BC government – any elected government, for that matter – is given a great deal of responsibility in its authority to govern, and citizens have the right to expect that their government uses that authority appropriately. It’s appalling that a government employee was treated so poorly that he committed suicide; BC’s citizens deserve to know why that happened. And hopefully the outcomes of such an inquiry will help ensure that such a tragedy never happens again.