Hay River mom says employer revictimized her after violence at home

A Hay River mother was fired from her job at the Hay River Chamber of Commerce a day after telling her bosses she had been assaulted by her partner.

Employer denies firing had anything to do with woman’s personal life

A former employee of the Hay River Chamber of Commerce says she was fired from her job a day after telling her bosses she had been assaulted by her partner. (Hay River Chamber of Commerce )

A Hay River mom was fired from her job at the Hay River Chamber of Commerce a day after telling her bosses she had been assaulted by her partner.

Patricia Lafferty says before going to work last Monday, April 11, she told members of the chamber's executive she had been beaten up by her partner a day and a half earlier.

"[I told] one of the people I contacted, a director, I had a fractured rib and bruises and bumps on my body and face," said the 29-year-old mother of five. "I was going to come in to enter all of the money we raised at the [annual business awards] gala. But I asked if I could go after that because I wasn't feeling well and wanted to be with my kids."

Lafferty says she and another person in the house were taken to hospital for treatment. Her partner was also medevaced to Yellowknife for treatment of a knife wound that, Lafferty says, was self-inflicted.

Lafferty's partner appeared in Yellowknife court Friday afternoon. (Chantal Dubuc/Yellowknife)

On Friday he appeared briefly in court in Yellowknife, charged with assault causing bodily harm on Lafferty, assaulting another person in the same incident, and carrying a weapon — a knife — for a purpose dangerous to the public peace. He is also charged with breaching release conditions to stay away from Lafferty and to not be out of his mother's house if drinking or intoxicated.

None of the allegations have been tested in court.

Went to work despite injuries

Despite her injuries, Lafferty did go into work on Monday. She says while there she saw an email chamber president Jane Groenewegen had sent to board members and the gala organizing committee. It mentioned that one of the people at the gala had been stabbed and was recovering after being medevaced to Yellowknife.

A publicly distributed poster for the Hay River Chamber of Commerce's gala awards dinner. (Hay River Chamber of Commerce )

Lafferty believes the guest the email referred to was her partner. She texted Groenewegen saying that she thought it was inappropriate to mention that a guest had later been injured in an email about the gala, and said that she and another person were assaulted in the incident.

Lafferty said she was pleased when she saw Groenewegen arriving at the office less than five minutes later, thinking it would be an opportunity to talk about what had happened to her at home.

"What happened next was completely unexpected," Lafferty said.

"Jane came flying into the office, she pointed her finger in my face and said, 'If you think you're going to intimidate me you've got another think coming. You're nothing to me.'"

Lafferty said Groenewegen then demanded that she turn over the office cellphone she had taken home after attending the gala. Lafferty says she refused, saying she had used the phone to take photos of the incident that she wanted to turn into the RCMP.

"She then got up, came around the desk, grabbed me by my left wrist and pulled the phone out of my hand."

President calls Lafferty's version of events 'total fabrication'

Groenewegen refused to do an interview about the incident, saying it is a personnel matter. The former MLA and Minister Responsible for the Status of Women said she "probably" would not talk about it even if Lafferty authorized her to do so. She did not deny taking the phone from Lafferty.

Chamber president Jane Groenewegen, a former longtime N.W.T. MLA, called Lafferty's version of events 'total fabrication.'

Lafferty later left the office in tears. She says the next day chamber directors Kelly Schofield and Heather Coakwell showed up at her house and handed her a letter notifying her she was fired.

Groenewegen called Lafferty's version of events "total fabrication." She and director Schofield said the firing had nothing to do with what was going on in Lafferty's personal life.

Schofield said Lafferty was fired because she took the chamber-issued cellphone home from the office and for "insubordination." He said Lafferty had been warned several times not to take the phone out of the office.

Lafferty refutes that. She said she was told once to leave the phone in the office after hours, but also told she could take it if she was doing chamber business outside of the office, such as working at the gala she had helped to organize.

Termination letter speaks of no wrongdoing 

Schofield would not elaborate on the insubordination allegation, but said the chamber received legal advice and checked with the labour board to make sure the termination was legal. Lafferty was still within her 90-day probationary period in her job, which meant that she had fewer rights than a worker who had completed probation.

Chamber director Kelly Schofield said Lafferty was fired for taking the chamber-issued cell phone home from the office and for 'insubordination.' Lafferty's termination letter mentions no wrongdoing.

Schofield also refuted Lafferty's assertion that she had not been given a chance to explain herself or even been given a clear explanation of why she was fired.

"It's all in the (termination) letter," said Schofield.

Lafferty provided a copy of the termination letter she says she was given. It's signed by Coakwell. It's three sentences long and includes no allegations of wrongdoing.

Another director, Joe Melanson, also refused to talk about the incident

"I have to follow the decision of the board, whether I like it or not," said Melanson.

Chamber's response 'about as bad as we can get': expert

Barbara MacQuarrie, who studies the relationship between domestic violence and the workplace, described the Hay River chamber's handling of Lafferty's situation as "about as bad as we can get" from employers.

"Women who have been assaulted, generally their job is extremely, extremely important to them," said MacQuarrie, a director with Western University's Centre for Research and Education on Violence against Women & Children.

"Having economic independence is actually a pathway out of abusive relationships."

According to the N.W.T. Status of Women Council, the N.W.T. has one of the highest rates of domestic assault in Canada — nine to 12 times higher than provincial averages.

Only one province has labour laws that give victims of domestic violence the right to take time off work. Last month, the Manitoba provincial government passed the law that allows victims to take up to five days of paid workplace leave, and up to an additional 17 weeks of unpaid leave with a right-to-return to the job guaranteed.

Safety planning key for workplaces 

MacQuarrie says a lot of her work now involves trying to create workplace cultures that are more supportive of victims of domestic violence.

"For the most part, that doesn't exist, so what we have is this societal stigma around being a victim of domestic violence. We still have a lot of victim blaming that happens."

MacQuarrie says employers can support victims by offering them time off to deal with the aftermath of violence at home, including trauma counselling, meetings with prosecutors and police.

A more supportive workplace also includes safety planning.

"When someone has left an abusive relationship, if they're still at work, the ex-partner knows where to find them — they're right there. So it's extremely important to do safety planning for the workplace."