Armed with a start-up budget of $750,000, B.C.'s ombudsperson is launching what he expects will be a year-long investigation into the mass firing of Health Ministry workers in 2012.
Jay Chalke said the budget, which will only cover the investigative work until the end of the fiscal year, will allow him to hire a team of nine investigators, who will begin by reviewing a massive cache of government records.
"It's a tremendously large amount of material," he said in an interview Tuesday. "The number of documents is in the six-figure range – and that is documents, not pages."
The Office of the Ombudsperson was appointed this summer to investigate the dismissal of seven ministry workers and a contractor, all of them involved in pharmaceutical research. Mr. Chalke said he could not begin the investigation until details, including the scope and the budget, were approved by the legislature's finance committee.
The government announced the firings at a news conference three years ago and maintained until recently that the RCMP were investigating the former workers for a serious breach of personal data.
One of the researchers, Roderick MacIsaac, killed himself after being interrogated by government officials and fired just two days before the end of his student co-op term.
Premier Christy Clark and her ministers have since apologized for the firings and acknowledged the government had overreacted to a data breach involving patient information. However, an independent review by an outside lawyer could not determine who was responsible for the firings or why they occurred.
The former workers, backed by the opposition New Democrats, have insisted that a public inquiry is required to determine the motivation for the firings and to identify the people responsible.
The Health Ministry staff and contractors were helping an independent agency called the Therapeutics Initiative to develop evaluations of the effectiveness and safety of prescription drugs. The information was used to determine if those pharmaceuticals should be eligible for coverage under the publicly funded PharmaCare program.
The government has consistently refused calls for a public inquiry, saying it would be an expensive and lengthy process. But it was clear on Tuesday that the ombudsperson's work will be neither cheap nor quick. Mr. Chalke said he expects to be back before the finance committee of the legislature next year to seek the funds needed to complete his review.
Mr. Chalke said he has been given wide latitude to investigate not only the firings, but the government's claims around the RCMP investigation, as well as the government's involvement with the pharmaceutical research organizations that were caught up in the affair.
And he cautioned that the investigation could easily take more than a year. "My objective is to do a thorough investigation that gets to the bottom of this, rather than to shorten the investigation to meet some arbitrary timeline."
Aside from Mr. MacIsaac, the other workers are Ramsay Hamdi, Robert Hart, Malcolm Maclure, Ron Mattson, David Scott, and Rebecca and William Warburton.