The Government of Nunavut’s former chief coroner is suing the territory for $ 1 million in damages, alleging she was fired after fighting back against senior bureaucrats who prevented her from doing her job.
The lawsuit was filed by a lawyer representing Padma Suramala with the Nunavut Court of Justice in Iqaluit on June 22.
The 11-page statement of claim alleged government officials meddled with and pressured the coroner’s investigations, suppressed numerous reports, prevented her from attending the death scene of a police shooting and harassed the coroner since “as early as” 2016.
The conduct of the Department of Justice “was unfair, malicious, unethical, unlawful, high-handed, arbitrary and callous,” the statement alleged.
None of the allegations have been proven in court.
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According to the statement, a deputy minister with the department, William MacKay, “prohibited” the coroner from releasing a public report on domestic violence, prompted by Nunavut’s high rate of intimate partner violence, the statement said. The report included risk factors for such deaths and recommendations to prevent similar deaths.
The report was eventually tabled in the Nunavut Legislature by MLA Adam Arreak Lightstone on June 7, 2018, the seventh anniversary of the death of his sister and her two children at the hands of her common-law partner who then killed himself. The MLA received the report in 2016 as he was a member of the family whose tragedy was included in the five-year investigation.
Nunavut has one of the highest rates of intimate partner violence in Canada, according to Statistics Canada. Its capital, Iqaluit, recorded the second-highest rate of violence against women among Canadian communities between 2008 and 2015, according to StatsCan numbers analyzed by Discourse Media.
Nunavut’s Department of Justice is the sole plaintiff named in the lawsuit.
The Department of Justice said in an email it could not comment on the specifics of the statement of claim at this time, however the government will be filing a statement of defence in due course.
The response “also represents the response of Deputy Minister William MacKay,” the Department of Justice spokesperson said.
Suramala began work with the government in 2005 as a registered nurse, eventually rising to chief coroner in 2010 — a position she held until her termination on April 25 of this year, according to the statement of claim.
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The court document lists a number of ways the Department of Justice allegedly “unduly influenced” the coroner’s office. The allegations include:
- The Department of Justice supported police in preventing the coroner access to the death scene of a 2017 police shooting, which the RCMP commissioned the Ottawa police to investigate;
- Deputy Minister MacKay rejected the coroner’s 2017 conclusion that a government employee committed suicide while suspended from work, saying the death was accidental instead; and,
- The departments of Health and Justice regularly denied the chief coroner timely access to health records in the course of her death investigations.
Health department protocol requires the chief coroner to obtain a warrant from a justice of the peace in order to access health records, the statement said. But an independent audit conducted in 2017 by former Saskatchewan chief coroner Kent Stewart said the coroner should have access to the records without a warrant. Legal counsel for the chief coroner’s office, Sheldon Toner, said the current Nunavut Coroner’s Act did not require Suramala to obtain a warrant.
“One of the necessary steps prior to conducting an autopsy is for the coroner to obtain a copy of the deceased’s medical records,” according to the statement of claim.
In early 2018, the departments of Health and Justice rejected this finding, according to the statement of claim.
On Feb. 5, the government suspended Suramala “pending investigation into the allegations of misconduct.” Suramala was not told of any specific allegations but was told the investigation was “nondisciplinary in nature,” according to the statement of claim.
On Feb. 13, the government told Suramala she was being investigated for unapproved outside employment with the YWCA in Iqaluit, which runs the local women’s shelter, and for obtaining medical records without a warrant.
But Suramala’s statement of claims said she “consistently disclosed … her involvement with the YWCA … and submitted the requisite authorization forms.”
The government held a “fact-finding investigation” into the allegations, including interviewing Suramala. The chief coroner “did not have the right to be accompanied by legal counsel” during the investigation, Nunavut’s director of legal and constitutional law, Adrienne Silk, is alleged to have told Suramala. This is despite the Department of Justice enlisting its own lawyer to conduct the investigation, the statement of claim said.
On April 25, Suramala received a termination letter that said she breached government policy “regarding outside activity” and had not followed the direction of her supervisors when accessing medical records without a warrant.
The statement alleged the government failed to follow its own disciplinary policies when it did not provide Suramala with a chance to respond to the allegations, did not give her fair warning and denied her access to legal representation.
The statement alleges $ 1 million in damages and special damages to be determined at trial.