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Nunavut’s former coroner sues GN for $1 million for wrongful dismissal (updated)

In a statement of claim filed June 22 in the Nunavut Court of Justice, former chief coroner Padma Suramala is suing the Government of Nunavut for $1 million for wrongful dismissal.

NNSL file photo
Nunavut's former chief coroner Padma Suramala, left – seen here prior to the September 2015 inquest into the high rate of suicide in the territory with counsel for the coroner Sheldon Toner and Northwest Territories chief coroner Garth Eggenberger – is suing the Government of Nunavut for $1 million, alleging wrongful dismissal in a statement of claim filed with the Nunavut Court of Justice June 22.

Suramala was fired April 25.

Suramala told Nunavut News prior to filing with the court that she was about to release the result of a TB death in Qikiqtarjuaq when she learned she was suspended. Before she could release it, she claims "he (Justice deputy minister William MacKay) suspended me."

In April, her employment was terminated.

"They tried to negotiate with me, give me some package deal. I said I didn't want the money. I told them I don't want the package. I want my job. To hell with the money – when I die I'm not going to take this money with me. I want my job and this is not the way I should be exiting when I have done so much work," Suramala said June 15.

"I want my honour and my respect. I am not a coward. I have not done any mistakes."

Suramala said she feels betrayed.

"I'm telling the truth and Health was killing everyone with their lack of training, and they felt threatened because I kept putting those recommendations to them," she alleges.

"I did an exemplary job to the best of my ability, under stressful circumstances speaking for the deceased and supporting the families during difficult times with due diligence. All Nunavummiut are well aware that I am passionate about my role as coroner."

A nurse in the territory since 2005, Suramala was appointed acting chief coroner in 2010, and accepted the position of chief coroner in 2011.

Suramala has never shied away from advocating for the dead and the living. In January 2014 she announced an inquest into the high rate of suicide in the territory, which was held over two weeks in September 2015. That inquest led then-premier Peter Taptuna to declare suicide a crisis in Nunavut – a cabinet committee was struck and the Quality of Life Secretariat formed.

"I have worked with four different DMs (deputy ministers) and never did anybody ask me what I am doing, they haven't even questioned if I have called for an inquest. But this guy is every day … for the past two years … And, finally, I got fed up. Since 2017 I started serving him and the police, and Health, I started serving them with legal notices saying 'You people need to back off,'" said a tearful Suramala.

The statement of claim names MacKay in a long list of grievances. She alleges, for example, that MacKay suppressed a report from the office of the chief coroner which made several recommendations "to enhance risk assessment, safety planning and possible prevention of future deaths related to domestic violence."

That report came after a murder-suicide in Iqaluit in 2011.

There have been two murder-suicides in the capital in the last few months.

In another case, Suramala deemed the cause of death to be suicide, but MacKay allegedly did not accept the chief coroner's finding, being of the opinion it was an accidental death.

The statement of claim presents several other examples of confrontations throughout a two-year period between herself and MacKay, and some difficulties with the Department of Heath and the RCMP.

In her declaration, Suramala states her employer, the Department of Justice, breached their contract by failing to comply with legislation, policies and rules; intentionally inflicting mental suffering on her; and conspiring and wrongfully interfering in her work prior to her termination.


GN allegations of misconduct

According to the timeline listed in Suramala's claim, events escalated in late 2017 and early 2018.

In early February, she claims she received notice from MacKay that she was suspended pending an investigation on allegations of misconduct. Suramala retained a lawyer, who requested an overview of the allegations. Those were that she received payments from outside employment with YWCA Agvvik Society and that she was allegedly obtaining hospital records without a warrant.

"With respect to the first allegation, the plaintiff (Suramala) has consistently disclosed to the defendant (Justice/GN) her involvement with the YWCA Agvvik Society and submitted the requisite authorization form to her administrative supervisors throughout her involvement," states the claim.

As for the second allegation, this was an ongoing dispute between Suramala and government officials, and the details are laid out in the claim, including that Suramala herself commissioned an audit of her office. Retired Saskatchewan chief coroner Kent Stewart conducted the audit and submitted a report in September 2017.

"A significant issue that is apparent is access to medical records. In most cases that the coroner investigates, this is critical information. As such, there should be authority in the Coroner's Act to access and copy documents without warrant," states Stewart.

Stewart also notes "senior managers and politicians should not unduly influence the coroner's findings including recommendations as outlined in the Act," and that Suramala had "a very heavy and unsustainable workload."

Suramala further alleges that the termination process which led to her firing did not follow Government of Nunavut disciplinary policy, including that she was denied access to legal counsel throughout.

"The plaintiff further claims that the egregious, wrongful conduct of the defendant during the course of the plaintiff's employment and at the time of her termination deserves an award for punitive damages," according to the statement of claim. "The defendant's conduct as set out in this statement of claim was unfair, malicious, unethical, unlawful, high-handed, arbitrary and callous."

Suramala is seeking $200,000 for wrongful pre-termination conduct of the defendant for harassment and intimidation, the conspiracy and interference of her work, negligence, negligent misrepresentation and the intentional or negligent infliction of mental suffering. Further she seeks $400,000 for general and aggravated damages related to 24 months' employment-related compensation, and an additional $300,000 in damages for defamation and infliction of mental distress. Finally, she seeks an additional $150,000 in punitive and/or aggravated damages.

Suramala told Nunavut News she is owed 800 hours of annual leave.

"Eight hundred hours. Who has 800 hours? Apart from having 150 hours of overtime," she said.

"I'm not here for the money. If a nurse can make more than $100,000 on overtime … I never even put my overtime forward. Even my own colleagues in the office said, 'Padma, why are you not putting in for overtime.'

"I said I'm not going to make money on the deceased. If I can give, I would give everything for them."

The Department of Justice provided a written response to a request for comment.

"We cannot comment about the specifics of the statement of claim at this time. However the government will be filing a statement of defense in due course," stated acting director of policy and planning Mark Witzaney.