The B.C. government is looking to the provincial ombudsperson to investigate the controversial firing of eight health-care workers, one of whom died by suicide after losing his job.
On Thursday, Health Minister Terry Lake raised the scenario as he said the government continues to seek a process to balance the need to release information with the privacy of everyone involved, saying the Office of the Ombudsperson might be able to fit the bill.
"We're doing a lot of work around the statutes around that office to see if that would meet the test, if you like, of satisfying the need for more information in a cost effective and timely way, [and] keep the politicians out of it and prevent any conflict of interest of members of the public service, who have been involved to date," he told reporters during an unrelated news conference.
The B.C. government has been under intense pressure over the file which has, this week, included an open letter from the surviving health-care workers – and a relative of the deceased worker – asking for an independent review of the 2012 situation.
The workers were suspended and subsequently fired after the government raised concerns about a data breach related to their independent research to ensure quality in prescription drugs. The government has already apologized for the firings.
On Thursday, the B.C. Finance Ministry said the RCMP have advised the government that they will not be further looking into the matter, and the ministry is preparing for the release of a report by the provincial comptroller general into financial-control issues related to the case. The RCMP said, through a spokesperson, that it was not in a position to comment.
The government had earlier said they had asked the Mounties to look into the matter, but the RCMP says it never received any evidence from the government.
B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan dismissed the ombudsperson option as a new "trial balloon" from a government avoiding an independent inquiry as recommended in the open letter.
"The easy solution is to follow the lead laid out for them by the workers involved and the family of Rod MacIsaac. Let's find someone independent from government, arm's length, and make this as open and transparent as possible," said Mr. Horgan.
Current ombudsperson Kim Carter is retiring and is leaving her post effective Tuesday. Her successor, Jay Chalke, is a former assistant deputy minister of justice.
Mr. Horgan said that Mr. Chalke would not be getting off to a good start if his first job was to investigate the government he just departed. "I just think it puts him in an untenable position."
Ms. Carter said Thursday that the ombudsperson's office would certainly be equipped to look into the matter. "If there's a matter of administrative unfairness, then that's what our office deals with," she said in an interview.
The ombudsperson's office, created in 1979, is empowered by a statutory mandate from the B.C. Legislature to look into whether public authorities such as provincial ministries, provincial boards, commissions and health authorities have acted fairly.
Mr. Lake also said he is concerned about controlling inquiry costs, echoing the concerns of the B.C. Finance Minister Mike de Jong.
"We've seen some public inquiries that have taken literally five or more years at great cost to the taxpayer, some of which were never really concluded and never really accomplished the objectives that people wanted for them," Mr. Lake said.
Mr. Horgan dismissed the cost issue, saying the "narrow" issue only involves the Premiers' office, Attorney-General's office and the Health Ministry. "This should not take a lot of time or cost a lot of money. Even if it does, the cost of openness is the cost of an open society."
Mr. Lake said there is no timeline, at this point, on when the public might get more information on the case.
"It's hard for me to predict. We need to find the mechanism and I hope we will do that in the very near future," he said. "What that mechanism is and how long it takes, I can't predict."