Nunavut failed to protect nurse from community (Legal view)

Employer did nothing to address damage done by groundless accusations

Christine Kellett had a long career in remote community nursing when, in 2001, she became nurse-in-charge in Qikitarjuaq, a small community on Baffin Island with a population of about 500. The town had a long history of social dysfunction, the results of which often fell squarely on her shoulders. She had a “can-do” attitude and a reputation for outspokenness, if not bluntness. Her practice style did not sit well with the local residents, 95 of whom signed a petition for her removal. They accused her of disclosing medical information to the public and being rude to patients.

Her employer, the Nunavut Ministry of Health and Social Services, sent in a regional director, Virginia Turner, to investigate the complaint. Turner concluded there was no substance to the complaints.

The matter should have ended there, but it didn’t. No official response was made public to the community. As a result, Kellett was often confronted by residents wondering why she was still there. To make matters worse, the local member of the territory’s legislature successfully demanded a further investigation. Judy Watts, the ministry’s regional director in charge of the town, was assigned this task but was not allowed to speak to the MLA or read Turner’s earlier report.

Kellett expected Watts’s arrival would bring the public exoneration she was anticipating. Instead, Watts said she was there to see if there were any “other issues” concerning her performance. Watts questioned Kellett’s staff and several other community members to see whether she had been doing “strange things.”

Watts concluded there were no problems with Kellett’s performance or management style. Still, concerned that Kellett was seen as abrupt at times, Watts organized a meeting with Kellett and two of her reports to allow them to “share their perceptions” of Kellett’s management style. Kellett felt humiliated and insulted during the hour-long discussion, especially after Watts assured her subordinates she would help Kellett “fix the problem.”

The final straw was Watts’ observation that Kellett seemed to lack her usual resilience and looked tired. She wondered if her fatigue might be blamed on menopause and requested permission to talk to her doctor.

Kellett subsequently applied for a transfer out of the community — which was granted — and launched a grievance accusing her employer of harassment.

The union argued the employer had done nothing to address the damage done by the groundless accusations. Furthermore, the staff meeting to address Kellett’s abrupt manner was inappropriate and humiliating. This was a direct contravention of the collective agreement, which defined personal harassment as “any unwarranted behaviour…that is directed at and offensive to an individual or endangers an individual’s job, undermines the performance of that job or threatens the economic livelihood of the individual.”

The union asked for damages to cover the cost of relocation and $1,500 for the cost of therapy after her EAP benefits ran out. It also asked for an award of general damages to compensate for suffering. The employer argued there was not sufficient evidence that harassment had occurred, it had done its best to find a short-term solution to the unhappy situation and Kellett had been sufficiently protected with a speedy transfer.

The arbitrator allowed the grievance. The collective agreement, she noted, put the onus on the employer to protect employees from harassment.

While the first investigation was appropriately called and professionally conducted, the second one was not. The arbitrator observed that Watts was sent with an “impossible and inappropriate mandate.” Her investigation of further “issues” left the impression the health department still had a cause for concern. As a result, Kellett was left to defend herself “against amorphous and indefinable attacks,” which threatened her professional effectiveness and her economic livelihood. Moreover, connecting her distress to her personal health was not only “insensitive,” it was also “unreasonable, ungrounded and demonstrated a lack of support for a vulnerable employee” –– all actions that demeaned, humiliated and embarrassed her and were a breach of the collective agreement.

Moving Kellett out of the community did not fulfill the employer’s obligations under the terms of the collective agreement. The arbitrator noted the employer did nothing to dispel the animosity in the community or lessen the likelihood of this situation occurring again. She awarded $12,500 for Kellett’s emotional suffering and $1,500 for counselling.

For more information: Government of Nunavut and the Public Service Alliance of Canada, Nunavut Arbitration Board decision. Paula Knopf –– Sole Arbitrator, dated May 19, 2006.

Lorna Harris is the assistant editor of Canadian HR Reporter’s sister publication CLV Reports, newsletters that report on collective bargaining and other issues in labour relations. She can be reached at [email protected].

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