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Bullying and harassment allegations made against James Bay health authority

At least seven mental health workers in northern Ontario say they have been pushed out of their jobs at the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority (WAHA) because of what they describe as bullying and harassment by supervisors.

'No one taking care of our mental health,' former worker says

Mental health workers who have been sent to help people on the James Bay Coast are burnt out and stressed by the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority, according to sources who have spoken to CBC News. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

At least seven mental health workers in northern Ontario say they have been pushed out of their jobs at the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority (WAHA) because of what they describe as bullying and harassment by supervisors.

The health organization serves patients in communities across the James Bay Coast, including Attawapiskat where a string of suicide attempts prompted chief and council to declare a state of emergency this spring.

The workers who have spoken to CBC have chosen to leave their employer or have been fired.

They say they fear for the well-being of vulnerable people on the coast because of how health professionals are being treated.

"We're supposed to be the ones taking care of their mental health, but we had no one taking care of our mental health," former psychiatric nurse Linda Taylor said.

The allegations of the workers span a period of about three years. 

Taylor started working for WAHA in 2014.

She said she used to counsel her coworkers in private once or twice a week because they suffered from stress and anxiety. 

Workers 'stressed' and 'anxious'

Staff often felt like they could not turn to their managers to get advice on cases and when they did they were often yelled at, according to Taylor.

She filed a grievance about the way she was being treated.

But she left before her complaint was heard because she learned she would have to wait one year until it could be formally addressed.

"It got to the point where I was having difficulty sleeping. I was having stomach problems," she said.

"I was feeling very stressed and anxious, and it was like you know this is crazy to stay here and fight the system and fight the fact that I'm being harassed."

Toronto therapist Noah Casey is also raising concerns about how, in his view, bureaucracy is hindering care at WAHA. 

Casey wanted to work in Attawapiskat after hearing about the ongoing suicide crisis. 
Toronto therapist, Noah Casey, was temporarily employed as a mental health worker in Attawapiskat to deal with a high number of suicide attempts in the community. (Noah Casey)

He was sent to the community in June to work for WAHA after senior levels of government responded to the emergency.

He said he found physical and sexual abuse to be prevalent, but nobody was ready to talk about the issue.

Casey said the problems need to be dealt with as part of the suicide crisis. 

He said he suggested that WAHA should offer family counselling for the people in Attawapiskat to deal with the crisis, but his supervisors pushed back. 

"I've not been berated at or yelled at or bullied like that in my professional career in a meeting with another manager present ever in the history of my 15 years in social work. Not once," he said.

"To argue that we should still have a fragmented approach to health care, mental health care in Attawapiskat is ludicrous."

Casey then vented his frustration on social media and was terminated for criticizing his managers publicly.

He admits that he made a mistake, but would welcome the opportunity to go back to Attawapiskat to help.

Workers fear repercussions

CBC is withholding the names of other mental health workers who have come forward with allegations against their supervisors at WAHA because they fear repercussions for speaking out.

They said they were overworked, and they felt like they were "walking on eggshells" every day. 

The workers said they tried to address the issues with WAHA's human resources, but nothing changed.

The union representing many of the workers is the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC).

It is aware of the bullying and harassment allegations against its members at WAHA.

​​Union encourages workers to file complaints

The Ontario executive vice president of PSAC, Sharon DeSousa, is encouraging workers who feel abused to continue filing grievances and human rights complaints. 

"They'll [WAHA] be thinking quite hard and long when they have to deal with the union," she said.

"This is something that we're not giving up on. We will be addressing the situation. And they are going to have to change how they manage."

No one from the health authority would directly address bullying and harassment allegations against supervisors.

WAHA 'confident' in employees

But in a statement written on behalf of the health authority to CBC News, WAHA CEO Bernie Schmidt specifically calls Casey's allegations "outlandish" and "untruthful."

In another email exchange about the other six mental health workers who are making allegations against supervisors, Schmidt wrote that the health authority does not "air" human resources issues in public. 

"We are confident in our staff and the dedicated individuals who are serving, and have served, the Attawapiskat Community to the best of their abilities," he wrote.

Got a story to share with CBC Sudbury? Contact: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this article stated that the Public Service Alliance of Canada has requested that the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority take part in mediation. In fact​, mediation has already taken place, but PSAC is waiting for the employer to implement its health and safety recommendations.
    Aug 31, 2016 4:52 PM ET

About the Author

Olivia Stefanovich

Reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a network reporter for CBC News based in Toronto. She previously worked in Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter @CBCOlivia. Send story ideas to olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.