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Nunavut's former chief coroner suing government for $1M over wrongful dismissal

Padma Suramala is suing the Nunavut government for $1 million, alleging she was wrongfully fired and that the Department of Justice interfered in her work as the chief coroner.

Suramala alleges Department of Justice interfered in her work as chief coroner

Nunavut's former Chief Coroner Padma Suramala is suing the government for $1 million, alleging she was wrongfully fired in April 2018. (Nick Murray/CBC)

Nunavut's former Chief Coroner Padma Suramala is suing the territorial government for $1 million, alleging she was wrongfully fired.

In a statement of claim filed in the Nunavut Court of Justice on June 22, Suramala also alleges the Justice Department interfered in her work as the chief coroner, took steps to prevent her from releasing reports, and denied her access to a lawyer throughout the firing process.

In April, CBC News learned of Suramala's sudden departure from the coroner's office.

Suramala is seeking $200,000 for wrongful pre-termination conduct of the government, which she alleges included harassment, intimidation, interference of her work, and the "intentional or negligent infliction of mental suffering." She is asking for $400,000 for breach of duty; $300,000 for defamation; and $150,000 in punitive damages. 

None of the allegations have been proven in court. Nunavut's justice department declined to comment, citing the matter is before the courts, but a spokesperson said the government will be filing a statement of defence.

Deputy Minister William MacKay, who's named in the statement of claim although his name is misspelled, also declined to comment on the allegations.

Preventing the release of a report

In her statement of claim, Suramala addresses a 2016 report she prepared with the Office of the Chief Coroner of Ontario, following several domestic violence-related deaths. The report contained 15 recommendations which, until Iqaluit-Manirajak MLA Adam Arreak Lightstone tabled them in the Legislature two weeks ago, were never made public.

Arreak Lightstone's sister, Sula Enuaraq, and her two daughters were killed in June 2011 in a widely-suspected case of murder-suicide. Suramala investigated the death.

In the statement of claim, Suramala alleges William McKay (sic), Nunavut's Deputy Minister of Justice, "expressly prohibited the chief coroner from releasing the report.

"Rather, he insisted that [Suramala] only release a benign email statement that the chief coroner was working with the Ontario Coroner Service to prevent similar deaths in the future, while offering no specifics or recommendations that would inform the public," the statement of claim reads.

After Arreak Lightstone tabled the report in the Legislature, CBC News asked the department why the report was never made public. In a statement, the department said "the arms' length Coroner's office would decide whether to make a media release including releasing recommendations. Therefore, your inquiry should be directed to the Coroner's office."

In another case, Suramala was investigating the death of a Government of Nunavut employee and ruled it a suicide.

Suramala alleges she sent her final report and recommendations to MacKay, who "expressed his opinion ... that the cause of death was accidental and he did not accept the chief coroner's finding that the cause of death was suicide," the statement of claim reads.

Accessing medical records

Suramala also says while she was chief coroner, she would obtain medical records of the deceased as part of her investigations. But she alleges Nunavut's department of health informed her that she had to follow a departmental policy which required her to obtain a warrant from a Justice of the Peace to access the records.

Suramala says she sought legal advice from her office's lawyer, who determined that while the Coroner's Act doesn't specifically address the issue, "the existing language supported the position of the chief coroner that she did not require a warrant," the statement of claim read.

Suramala alleges that the departments of justice and health "continued to disagree," and in late January 2018, she obtained medical records in Qikiqtarjuaq without a warrant.

Suramala alleges obtaining records without a warrant was one the the reasons she was fired.

The other reason Suramala was fired, she alleges, was because of "payments from outside employment with the YWCA Agvvik society in Iqaluit." Suramala says she disclosed her involvement with the YWCA to the government, and submitted the required authorization forms to her supervisors.

Audit of the Coroner's office

Suramala also says that while trying to address the alleged "continuing interference by [William MacKay]," she commissioned an audit of her office in February 2017. MacKay allegedly approved the proposal for the audit.

The audit's final report, prepared by a retired chief coroner from Saskatchewan, was allegedly submitted to MacKay in September 2017.

Suramala alleges the details in the report included the issue of her accessing medical records, in which the report's author said there should be authority in the Coroner's Act "to access and copy documents without warrant," the statement of claim read.

The firing process

Suramala alleges she received a letter from MacKay on Feb. 5, 2018, saying she was suspended pending an investigation into allegations of misconduct, but Suramala says MacKay wrote the suspension was "non-disciplinary in nature."

Suramala got a lawyer to help her respond to the suspension letter. Her lawyer asked for an overview of the allegations.

Four days later, Suramala's lawyer allegedly received an email from a Nunavut government employee relations consultant, reiterating the suspension was non-disciplinary and that the government wouldn't engage with lawyers during an investigation, nor could Suramala have her lawyer attend the "fact finding" meeting.

Suramala also alleges she was denied access to her government email, preventing her from obtaining documents that would allow her to properly defend herself.

During the fact finding meeting, Suramala alleges she also wasn't given an opportunity to respond to the allegations, "particularly with respect to the [government's] denial of [Suramala's] access to documents that would have supported her position," the statement of claim reads.

On April 25, Suramala was fired.

"As a result of the [government's] wrongful conduct, [Suramala] has experienced severe anxiety, depression, social isolation, insomnia, humiliation, mental distress, frustration, aggravation, [and] the erosion of her self-esteem and confidence," the statement of claim reads.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nick Murray is a CBC reporter, based in Iqaluit since 2015. He got his start with CBC in Fredericton after graduating from St. Thomas University's journalism program. He's also worked three Olympic Games as a senior writer with CBC Sports. You can follow Nick on Twitter at @NickMurray91.

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