I had been a Registered Nurse for 26 years when I was forced out of the profession I love despite the fact that there had never been any formal complaints made against me by any patient or family member. The quality of the care I provided to thousands of Canadians over the course of an exemplary career had never been questioned, and I had no disciplinary history.
My mistake was filing a harassment complaint in a known toxic workplace. Another target – “Valerie” – had been interviewed for Canadian Nurse Magazine regarding the conditions in a similar workplace just the year before:
My complaint was not investigated in keeping with policy and procedure, and when it was dismissed, the reprisals began. After months of inaction by the employer and union, I took medical leave. When I attempted to return to work, I learned that within days of my departure, the respondents to my harassment complaints filed complaints against me within a day of each other. I filed a complaint regarding the reprisals that was never investigated. I also informed the Ombudsman and Workplace Safety and Health, both of whom failed to act, deferring instead to the labour process.
I was summoned to a meeting with HR which my union rep attended with me at which I was told I was being terminated despite repeated assurances prior to the meeting that I wouldn’t lose my job. I was in shock. I couldn’t believe that this could be the outcome of my bringing forward a harassment complaint. In retrospect, it appeared my union rep regarded this as normal practice. They said all the “right words” before the meeting but when I was terminated, I see now they were anticipating that outcome. As we exited the boardroom and before we’d even left the building, and while I clearly vulnerable, the union rep suggested a settlement of $30,000.00, apparently the “going rate” at least at that time.
I refused the settlement offer and insisted on going to arbitration. Part-way through that process and more than a year after my termination, I was again offered an agreement which I was insistent I did not want for fear of the consequences. The agreement included an NDA and financial compensation. Over the course of several weeks, my union rep and their lawyer repeatedly pressured me to accept and to sign that agreement, suggesting the grievances could be withdrawn if I didn’t submit. At no time was I ever informed I had the right to appeal their decision, and the arbitration panel was completely excluded from the process, at least so far as I was aware. The lawyers and the union rep controlled the entire process.
When I resisted signing the agreement, the employer filed a regulatory complaint against me during arbitration. The complaint related to evidence submitted by the union that disproved allegations against me. That complaint was eventually dismissed but not before costing me several thousands of dollars to defend. The union and its counsel refused to defend or assist me even though the complaint arose during arbitration. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Exhausted and traumatized, I signed.
I knew that signing that agreement could end my career. The employer refused to provide a reference letter and because of the NDA, I could not explain why I had left my last job. I knew that other nurses and healthcare workers would be affected too. They would see what happened to me when I spoke up about bullying and harassment even though my employer acknowledged I proceeded in “good faith.” I believed that being silenced about what happened to me meant that the employer and the union would keep using NDAs (and I believe I am right about this).
In the end I signed the agreement. I was being coerced and was under duress to sign the agreement and NDA. Overwhelmed, grieving a series of significant personal losses and in moral distress, I kept thinking that if this is happening to me, it will keep happening to other nurses, most of whom are women. In the end, the employer and the union left me with no choice. I had to sign or be abandoned.
It was never my intention to still be fighting all these years later, but I am. I’ve had no choice given a pattern of reprisals against me in the intervening years. I have brought a case to the “Provincial” Labour Board regarding retaliation against me, and I won. I proved that the harassment policy relied on by the employer and regulator did not comply with provincial legislation. After years of being unable to find counsel willing to challenge these oppressive NDAs due to irreconcilable conflicts and a reasonable apprehension of bias, I was fortunate to have finally found counsel from outside this province. I advocate for and work with other nurses and healthcare workers who have been through the same painful experiences. I know there must be many, many others suffering silently in this province and around the world. Things have to change.