In the fall of 2013, a year after B.C. Premier Christy Clark's government made a public show of firing eight health researchers over a data breach, bureaucrats knew their case against the workers had fallen apart. It took until Thursday, and the release of a critical Ombudsperson report on the firings, before the head of the provincial public service offered an "unqualified and comprehensive" apology.
The apology, which was delivered at a news conference by Kim Henderson, deputy minister to the Premier, extends to the family of Roderick MacIsaac, a student researcher who killed himself after enduring "badgering" interrogations by government investigators, and then being fired just two days before the end of his student co-op term. Ms. Henderson said the province accepts all the recommendations in Ombudsperson Jay Chalke's report, including a proposal to establish a $500,000 university scholarship in Mr. MacIsaac's name.
In his report, Mr. Chalke concluded that the firings were driven by a flawed and needlessly rushed investigative process prompted by a whistle-blower's complaints. He found there was no political interference in the decision to fire the researchers, but Mr. Chalke said the government misled the public about RCMP involvement, and then bungled the fallout as it slowly retreated from its initial allegations of wrongdoing.
The 500-page report, titled Misfire, says the decision to fire the health researchers was made by then-deputy health minister Graham Whitmarsh. It was only after Mr. Whitmarsh left government that the new deputy minister of health, Stephen Brown, called off the investigation.
"The ministry did not have sufficient evidentiary basis to dismiss any of the employees for just cause," the report states. But it was not until Mr. MacIsaac's grieving sister, Linda Kayfish, held a news conference in September, 2014, that the government decided to review how the unfounded firings occurred, and the Premier issued an apology to Ms. Kayfish. Even then, the Premier did not acknowledge that Mr. MacIsaac had done nothing wrong.
"There is no indication that, but for Ms. Kayfish's press conference, government would have established the review," the report noted.
That initial review into the firings was conducted by an independent lawyer, Marcia McNeil. The Premier told the legislature the McNeil investigation would be thorough and "get to the bottom" of the matter. Mr. Chalke noted that Ms. Clark's assertions raised alarm within the bureaucracy, because Ms. McNeil was never given the authority to conduct a thorough investigation.
Mr. Chalke was asked to conduct his investigation after Ms. McNeil's public report failed to answer key questions – including who was responsible for the firings – because of the limited scope of her terms of reference.
The firings were announced at a news conference in September, 2012, by newly appointed health minister Margaret MacDiarmid. At that time, Ms. MacDiarmid told reporters that the RCMP's corporate-crimes division was investigating allegations of breach of privacy and conflict of interest involving inappropriate access of medical information.
One of the more troubling aspects of the firings, Mr. Chalke found, was that decision to publicly announce that the RCMP had been called in to investigate the data breach. He noted that RCMP officials repeatedly told government – both before and long after the announcement – that they did not have enough evidence to launch an investigation. The report disclosed that within government, there was an intense debate about whether to raise the issue at the press conference – but Ms. MacDiarmid was not aware of that dispute.
"It was wrong to mention the RCMP because it failed to consider the impacts on individuals, and it was misleading. The RCMP was not investigating and never did," Mr. Chalke told reporters.
Still, the researchers remained under a cloud for years because of the inaccurate information that they were the target of a police probe. The Ombudsperson made 41 recommendations, including a scholarship in Mr. MacIsaac's name and compensation payments to the workers. The report also calls for changes to the way the public service manages investigations and dismissals.
Mr. Chalke told a news conference that Mr. MacIsaac's death "cast a dark shadow" over the entire affair, but he cautioned against meting out punishment as a result of his findings. He said he would prefer to focus on changes to ensure such an event cannot happen again.
Ms. Kayfish, in a statement on Thursday, said the vindication from the Ombudsperson comes too late for her brother, and she called on the Premier to hold those responsible for the firings to account: "There was no reason for this government to treat Roderick and the others as they did," she said. "Yet where are the investigators who cost Roderick his job and ultimately his life? Many of them have been promoted, been given raises. They have faced zero consequences."
NDP Leader John Horgan, whose party pressed consistently for a public inquiry into the firings, blasted Ms. Clark for failing to respond to the Ombudsperson's report. "On days like this, British Columbians expect leadership from their Premier," he said in a statement. "Instead, in the wake of a report showing her government completely at fault for this tragic series of events, Christy Clark refused to speak out or apologize."