How Ottawa bungled a termination

Federal government didn’t properly handle termination of VIA Rail chair following his inappropriate comments about Olympic gold medalist

Human resource practitioners can take some solace in the fact even the upper levels of the federal government don’t always know how to properly handle a termination.

Former VIA Rail chair Jean Pelletier was fired in March 2004 after making inappropriate comments about Olympic gold medalist Myriam Bedard, a former VIA worker who resigned and then blew the whistle on what she considered wrongdoing at VIA related to the sponsorship scandal that dogged the former Liberal government.

Pelletier told La Presse newspaper that Bedard was taking advantage of the scandal for her personal gain and that she was was lying shamelessly.

“I do not want to be mean,” Pelletier was quoted as saying. “This is a poor girl who deserves pity, who doesn’t have a spouse as far as I know. She is struggling as a single mother with economic responsibilities. I pity her, in the end.”

The comments sparked a political firestorm, and the federal government moved quickly to terminate his employment. But it never communicated to Pelletier why his five-year appointment, which was supposed to run until July 31, 2006, was being terminated. Pelletier only found out the exact reasons in a press release issued by the federal government on March 1, 2004, in which both the transport minister and then Prime Minister Paul Martin harshly criticized Pelletier’s comments about Bedard in the wake of her whistle-blowing attempts.

The Federal Court said the government had a duty to act fairly in terminating Pelletier and that it failed in that duty by not telling him the reasons for the termination and not giving him a chance to be heard. It said the government had a responsibility to tell a person appointed at pleasure, with complete transparency, that disciplinary action is being considered and to disclose the reasons for dissatisfaction and give the person an opportunity to answer. The court called that a “minimum requirement.”

According to law firm Sherrard Kuzz LLP, Pelletier was reinstated and then terminated again. But this time he was given actual notice of the intention to terminate and the opportunity to be heard. Pelletier has also launched a $3.1 million civil suit against the government and VIA Rail for wrongful dismissal, it said.

For more information see:

Pelletier v. Canada (Attorney General), 2005 CarswellNat 3675 (F.C.C.)

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