Her husband took his own life after he was bullied on the job
Robert Duhaime’s employer denies bullying, but Workers’ Compensation Board has ruled differently
By Alicia Bridges
Brenda Duhaime tries to avoid spending the night in her own home.
She's been staying with family off and on since August 2017.
That's when her husband, Robert Duhaime, was found unconscious on their living room floor.
He had taken his own life.
"I can't live at my house anymore, it makes me so incredibly sad," says Brenda.
My husband died in our living room.- Brenda Duhaime
For months leading up to her husband's death, Brenda says Bob was being bullied at work.
In January, an investigation by the Workers' Compensation Board concluded that "there is now sufficient information to attribute Robert's mental health issues and his subsequent passing on August 31, 2017, to his employment."
The investigation found that Bob "experienced interpersonal incidents that were excessive and unusual in comparison to pressures and tensions experienced in normal employment."
Bob's employer, the Rural Municipality (RM) of Parkdale, Saskatchewan, has denied it is at fault in his death and, in March, it appealed the WCB decision.
In May, the WCB rejected the RM's appeal. But five other former employees and councillors have told CBC they were bullied at the RM. The reeve of the RM says there is no culture of bullying.
Allegations of workplace bullying
Brenda and Bob lived in Vawn, Saskatchewan, a hamlet about a two-hour drive northwest of Saskatoon, with a population of about 350.
Bob worked for the RM of Parkdale as a grader operator, keeping the local dirt and gravel roads smooth.
Brenda says Bob was the victim of repeated bullying by councillors and workers who would blame him when the roads were rough, even when the weather — snow storms, heavy rain — made it difficult to maintain the roads.
She says Bob would get phone calls from councillors berating him for the state of the roads.
"It just seemed like there was a problem probably internally, and it just seemed like it was being taken out on Bob," says Brenda.
I know Bob said to me one time, 'They don't need a grader operator, they need a frickin ' miracle.'- Brenda Duhaime
Psychiatrist advised stress leave
By July of last year, Brenda says the stress of the bullying was taking a toll on Bob's health.
Bob had been seeing a psychiatrist since 2000 for mental health issues.
Under the psychiatrist's care, he had dealt with the deaths of both his parents, a diabetes diagnosis and issues with his thyroid.
Last summer, his doctor told him to go on stress leave.
Bob took that advice and applied for disability payments through the Workers' Compensation Board. But his claim was denied.
Still, with his doctor's recommendation, Bob took the time off anyway, and the financial hit.
One month passed and Bob's psychiatrist said he still wasn't ready to go back.
A troubling phone call
Bob was planning to take his latest psychiatrist's note to the RM the morning he was due to return to work, but Brenda says a councillor called the night before, threatening to fire him for not showing up to work and following orders.
Brenda's daughter, Bernie Legaarden, says she was there when the councillor called and heard the phone call on speaker.
That councillor was speaking very, very rudely to my dad. And I just couldn't believe that.- Bernie Legaarden
"For somebody to talk to my dad like that? It was like… I was so confused and in awe," says Legaarden.
The councillor they allege made the call said, in an email to CBC, that Brenda and her daughter were "altering the truth," but this person declined to offer an alternate version of events or further comment.
Bob filed a formal complaint with the RM, and named the people he said were bullying him.
At the end of July, a mediation meeting was held with the reeve of the RM to address some of Bob's concerns.
The reeve arranged for Bob to start grading in a different division, away from the councillor he says had been bullying him. And after the meeting, Bob said he was ready to go back to work.
On Bob's first day back at work, Brenda was in Saskatoon for her grandson's hockey camp.
Brenda says Bob called to say the first day was fine.
But on his second day, Bob told her he had been accosted by a person who was angry that Bob had named them in his formal complaint.
The next day, a family member who stopped in to check on Bob found him unresponsive.
Other employees say they felt bullied
CBC spoke to five former employees of the RM of Parkdale who said that they too had felt bullied.
Connie Henning was the assistant administrator of the RM for about 13 months, ending in August 2016. She was working there when Bob was hired.
"I will tell you that I left there due to extreme, abusive bullying," says Henning.
Two other former employees described instances of verbal and emotional abuse. Both say they were called worthless and stupid, and both said their work at the RM had a lasting emotional impact.
Neither wanted to be identified due to the fear of possible legal action and professional backlash.
Bob Pylypow is the former Reeve of the RM of Parkdale. He left in 2016.
He says that, in his view, both Connie Henning and Bob Duhaime were bullied.
He calls Bob "a heck of a grader man and a good person" and says he remembers Bob telling him one morning that he'd received four text messages from a councillor before 6:00 am.
Employer denies culture of bullying
According to council meeting minutes from March 7, councillors say they weren't told about Bob's mental health issues, and the WCB should have taken that into account.
Daniel Hicks is the current Reeve of the RM and he denies that there is a culture of bullying at the RM.
I would say that unequivocally there isn't any bullying going on.- Daniel Hicks
He says the RM didn't know about Bob's mental health issues and just wanted him to do his job. "Probably the only thing we did wrong was, instead of firing the man, we kept trying to give him second chances," he says.
He says the RM plans to take the appeal to the next level, and will fight the case "all the way to the Queen's Bench."
Brenda has received an initial payment of $13,016 from the WCB to cover immediate expenses, like funeral costs.
The WCB has also offered Brenda a compensation package for a monthly income for the next five years of her life.
Brenda says she can't bring herself to accept the offer from the WCB because Workers' Comp is a no-fault insurance.
"I feel like signing [the papers] is an admission that I agree this was no-fault, and I truly believe there was fault here, so I'm not going to sign those papers," she says.
Fighting for accountability
In the months since her husband's death, Brenda has been trying to raise awareness about bullying in the workplace.
She has written to Premier Scott Moe to call for changes that would make it easier to pursue legal action against employers based on the findings of the WCB.
Brenda also wants Bob's story to mobilize change in the way rural municipalities are run in Saskatchewan.
She says councillors have too much power over employees, and there isn't any accountability when RMs fail to follow their own anti-bullying policies.
"You know, they talk so much about bullying in schools[…] and how it's not tolerated," says Brenda.
"The biggest lie that we can be told is that it's not going to be allowed at work either, because it still is. And some people don't think it's a big deal—they think it's just normal working conditions, and it's not."
Listen to the documentary "The Grader Operator" by clicking the Listen link at the top of the page, or download and subscribe to our podcast.
If you or someone you know is suffering from mental health issues or suicidal thoughts, the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention website is a good resource.
About the producers
This documentary was reported and produced by Alicia Bridges, a CBC journalist in Saskatoon.
Follow her work at @aliciaebridges.
This documentary was produced and edited by Acey Rowe, the host and producer of The Doc Project.
Follow her at @aceyrowe.