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BC Politics

What We Know So Far about the Health Ministry Firings

Long-awaited review into 'biggest ever human resources debacle' due today.

Andrew MacLeod 19 Dec

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative bureau chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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Roderick MacIsaac was the most junior of seven people fired in 2012 from the British Columbia health ministry. But following his suicide, he became the face of what some have characterized as the provincial government's biggest ever human resources debacle.

"Roderick did nothing to merit the treatment he received," MacIsaac's sister, Linda Kayfish, told reporters at the Legislature on Sept. 30. "He was bullied and accused without the bother of a decent explanation. Nothing but extremely vague details, and those have not been entirely accurate."

Kayfish demanded an explanation and an apology from the government. "This is an injustice that should not go unchallenged in our society," she said.

Days after the emotional news conference, Premier Christy Clark apologized to MacIsaac's family and said she believed the government had overreacted with the firings. She said a review, scheduled for delivery to the ministry of the attorney general by today, is intended to get to the bottom of what happened.

But others, including NDP leader John Horgan, have argued that the review is too limited to succeed and has become just another attempt to cover-up the government's mistakes. The premier initially said the review would be released to the public on Dec. 19, but later said it will need to be reviewed for privacy concerns and that it may not be possible for the government to release it immediately.

[Editor's note: The review was released this afternoon. Find Andrew MacLeod's report here.]

Finance ministry officials said this week that the deputy attorney general will forward the review to the Public Service Agency, the government's human resources branch, which will then make recommendations that the agency will release with the review.

The Tyee has reported that the agency was heavily involved in the firings and that its new head, Elaine McKnight, was an associate deputy minister in health who in 2012 supervised the people who conducted the early stages of the investigation that led to the firings.

The government has never specified why MacIsaac and six others were fired, other than that it had to do with contracts, potential conflicts of interest and data management, but it did say in 2012 the situation was serious enough that they had notified the RCMP.

Then, last summer, the government backtracked, settling wrongful dismissal and defamation lawsuits with three of the people who were fired, even welcoming two of them back to work at the ministry.

Frustrated research

By then, MacIsaac was already dead from carbon monoxide poisoning. He was found in his Saanich apartment on Jan. 8, 2013, a month after his death.

A PhD student in the University of Victoria's School of Public Administration, he was three days from finishing a co-op work term when he was suspended from the ministry in 2012. Soon, he and the others would be fired, including his thesis supervisor, Rebecca Warburton, the co-director of research and evidence development in the ministry's pharmaceutical services division, and others involved in drug evaluation.

At the time, MacIsaac had been designing a way to assess the smoking cessation program that pays for prescription drugs and other treatments to help people quit smoking. Started in 2011, the program had been one of Premier Clark's promises in her winning campaign to lead the BC Liberal Party.

Kayfish described her brother as a private person who gave straight answers, enjoyed reading and put his life on hold to care for their mother when she had cancer.

"When he talked about the work he was doing for the ministry of health, he was excited for the opportunity to participate in, and use [his] skills on such an important worthwhile project," she said. "Work that could improve lives and maybe even save lives."

MacIsaac took the firing hard, she said. "The coroner's finding was that Roderick experienced significant personal stress beginning August 2012 relating to occupational and academic matters that had arisen in his life," she said. "Roderick committed suicide not as an admission of guilt, nor financial distress, but in frustration."

Limited review

In early December, Kayfish told The Tyee that she had "become disheartened" by the review. She said at first she'd been hopeful, but it had become clear that the review lacked independence and that Marcia McNeil, the Victoria employment lawyer conducting the review, lacked the documents she would need to do a thorough job.

Also, McNeil was mainly talking to people in the government and not to the people who had been fired, Kayfish said in a written statement.

In a Dec. 4 interview, Horgan used the word "abuse" to describe how the government had treated the seven public servants. "The government's response has been completely and utterly inadequate in terms of the procedures that they put in place to review what happened," he said.

The scope of the review is too limited, Horgan said. "It strikes me that if you're going to do a review you should be doing the review to find out who did what and why they did it, and that has been expressly discounted by those that have put in place the terms of reference and by those who are going to be receiving the report."

The government is conducting the review for appearances only, he said. It's disappointing considering that when the government announced the review, they seemed serious about getting answers, he added.

"For someone who has been a part of the government process for many, many years, it was heartening to know that all of the component parts can function appropriately in the public interest," Horgan said. "That was a special day and it's been kind of downhill since then and I can well imagine that Linda feels that way as well."

Drug policy researcher Alan Cassels placed a sticky-note on his computer two years ago that asks: "Who killed Roderick MacIsaac?"

Cassels noted that MacIsaac's research was looking at the safety and effectiveness of various anti-smoking treatments, including the prescription drug Champix that is made by the company Pfizer.

"The point which we shouldn't lose sight of is that, who was so motivated to kill a research project on the dangers of one of Pfizer's biggest drugs that they'd fire a lowly student three days before his term was to end?" he said in an email. "Whoever made that decision has a name and a face… And, in my opinion, blood on his hands. Feel free to quote me on that."

A spokesperson for Pfizer has previously said the company had nothing to do with the terminations.

Raised concerns

For several years before the firings, a senior health information advisor named Alana James, who no longer works for the ministry, had been raising concerns about the legality of numerous contracts the ministry had entered, The Tyee has reported based on internal health ministry emails.

Having trouble keeping everyone involved in this story straight? Click around to learn more about them.

When the government fired the employees, James expressed surprise that they were limited to lower level employees and didn't touch people at the assistant deputy minister or associate deputy minister levels.

The emails said James repeatedly raised those concerns with senior ministry officials who failed to act to fix the alleged problems.

There has never been a public explanation of why the ministry chose to fire the employees based on James' broad concerns.

Cassels, in a 2013 article in Victoria's Focus Magazine, said the firings appeared to either be an attack on independent drug research or a Keystone Kops-style botched investigation.

Kayfish said the process in late August 2012 was traumatizing for MacIsaac. "He was interviewed for a number of hours," she said at the news conference. "During the interview, which was very intense for a non-confrontational person as my brother, they had to break because he suffered some form of physical distress."

The interviewers gave MacIsaac a short break then resumed, Kayfish said. She said she didn't know who had conducted the interview.

However, an Oct. 6, 2014 email written by Graham Whitmarsh, who was the deputy minister at the time of the firings and later fired by the government, names the lead investigators, noting the investigation was led by the Public Service Agency.

"The team that undertook the investigation was led by Sara Brownlee, a member of staff at the PSA," Whitmarsh wrote to Lynda Tarras, who retired as head of the Public Service Agency at the end of October and who wrote the terms of reference for the review by McNeil. "The other lead investigator was Wendy Taylor from the [chief information officer's office]. Sara and Wendy were, to my knowledge, the only individuals who attended every meeting and employee interview."

The pair was key, he said. "They collected all evidence and wrote all reports with respect to the entire investigation process. In addition, they drafted all the letters advising employees of disciplinary actions."

Other sources who were interviewed, speaking on condition of anonymity, have also told The Tyee that the investigation interviews were unnecessarily aggressive.

Reached by phone, Taylor would not comment. Brownlee declined to comment, saying she was not in a position to speak publicly about the investigation.

Whitmarsh had a preliminary meeting with McNeil in November, but afterwards announced he would not participate in the review since he believed it lacked independence.

Motives unclear

On Dec. 15, the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association released 440 pages of health ministry documents that it received through the freedom of information process after a lengthy battle. It took two and a half years plus an order from the information and privacy commissioner to get the records released.

The records included contracts with various researchers at the University of B.C., the University of Victoria and Bill Warburton.

The request had been for data sharing and other agreements between the ministry and four individuals FIPA named in its request. "It's hard to see why the government fought so hard to prevent the release of these records," FIPA executive director Vincent Gogolek said in a press release. "It looks like the government was attempting to prevent embarrassment more than anything else."

Adrian Dix, a former NDP health critic who continues to follow the file, said the documents show the people involved had a strong interest in privacy and great attention to detail. "We have nothing much to see here except the good work these people were doing."

At least some of the agreements were signed and extended while John Dyble was the health deputy minister and Stephen Brown was an assistant deputy minister, he said. Dyble is now deputy minister to the premier and Brown is the current deputy minister for health.

Dix said he saw nothing in the documents to justify the firings or the government contacting the RCMP. "What we see here is the opposite," he said. "The government has known for a long time it's the opposite."

The government's investigation in 2012 led to wrongful dismissals and damage to research, Dix said. It targeted a small group of people who were acting in ways that were well known and accepted in the ministry, he said.

The McNeil report will likely confirm that the people who were fired were mistreated, but it probably won't go much beyond that, given the limited terms of reference, said Dix. Nor is it likely to provide insight into what the government was thinking, he said.

"The fact is they didn't like the work this group of people were doing, at a senior level of the government," he said. "They're never going to tell us their motives. It's always going to be speculation."  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, BC Politics

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