Internal documents suggest the Northwest Territories government failed to investigate Yellowknife’s day and sobering centre as promised because the shelter’s operator “obstructed” its efforts.
In the spring of 2021, the NWT Health and Social Services Authority said it was launching an investigation in response to detailed allegations of unsafe working conditions and management failings at the day and sobering centre.
Health minister Julie Green said the claims were “being taken seriously” and, once the investigation was complete, information would be made public.
When Cabin Radio followed up in January 2022, the health authority said it had scrapped its investigation and instead allowed the NWT Disabilities Council – which ran the day and sobering centre under a contract with the authority – to conduct its own workplace review. The health authority said it was “satisfied that no further action was required.”
Minister Green declined an interview with Cabin Radio at the time, instead issuing a written statement in which she stated the disabilities council investigated itself “due to the employer-employee relationship and the nature of the concerns brought forward.”
The health authority refused to answer subsequent questions. The NWT Disabilities Council did not respond to requests for comment.
Internal documents now obtained by Cabin Radio through an access to information request shed some light on the health authority’s decision not to complete its investigation, nor publicly reveal that change of plan until pressed.
The documents show the health authority did initially intend to investigate the day and sobering centre, as announced.
The authority hired a lawyer to complete an “operational review of the service and all allegations” and had established terms of reference for that investigation by late April 2021. (While a document outlining those terms of reference was obtained by Cabin Radio, the contents were entirely redacted.)
According to a briefing document for members of the Legislative Assembly, issued during the spring 2021 session, there was no timeline for the operational review but an investigator had been told it was a priority.
Shortly after the investigation was launched, however, emails between health authority employees indicate the board of the NWT Disabilities Council had hired its own lawyer and “obstructed” the health authority’s investigation.
An email sent on May 7, 2021 states the health authority’s lawyer was having difficulty securing interviews with staff at the day and sobering centre. The lawyer suggested the disabilities council was “stonewalling” them.
In another email, sent on June 15, 2021, a health authority employee wrote that the disabilities council’s lawyer had argued the territorial government did not have the legal authority to investigate. At that time, the health authority’s lawyer was still waiting to receive day and sobering centre employees’ contact information so they could be approached for interview.
A subsequent email dated July 19, 2021 states the disabilities council “continued to raise barriers” that prevented the health authority from investigating.
Nearly seven months later, on February 15, 2022, emails between health authority staff – discussing Cabin Radio’s request for an update – indicate the disabilities council (referred to as NWTDC) had refused the NWT government’s proposal to complete a joint investigation.
The emails state the health authority instead “decided to accept the NWTDC’s assurance that appropriate measures had been taken internally to investigate the concerns brought forward and that necessary follow-up had occurred.”
The health authority did not review the results of that internal investigation as the disabilities council had deemed it a human resources matter.
The NWT Disabilities Council declined Cabin Radio’s request for comment on the claims outlined in the emails.
Withholding information from the public
While the health authority had publicly announced plans to launch an investigation, internal documents show there were no plans to correct the public record unless prompted to do so.
When deciding how to respond to Cabin Radio’s request for an update in January 2022, emails indicate some officials (their names were redacted) were loath to publicly reveal what happened.
Kimberly Riles, chief executive of the NWT’s health authority, stated in an email that the authority could not withhold that information. Riles pointed out that “when there is discordance between a previous public statement and what is currently being stated, the media will justifiably want to ask why that is.”
Other emails state the health authority’s attempts to issue a joint response with the disabilities council were “not going well.” No such statement was ever issued.
The health authority ultimately decided to tell Cabin Radio only that the disabilities council “undertook its own review” and that the health authority was “satisfied that no further action was required.”
Investigating the whistleblowers
While the territorial government did not investigate the allegations made by staff at the day and sobering centre, it did launch a separate investigation into at least one whistleblower.
Health authority staff referred the case to the RCMP. MLAs were told the NWT government would be “pursuing all avenues to ensure any breach of patient or client information is addressed.”
Police ultimately did not press any charges and now consider the case closed.
On the day that Cabin Radio’s article outlining the allegations was published, a former shelter worker shared an online dropbox of files with all members of the NWT Legislative Assembly and Yellowknife city council. The dropbox contained documents supporting complaints from staff at the day and sobering centre, some of which included private information.
The health authority worked quickly to prevent that information from spreading, newly obtained documents show, disabling the dropbox and beginning an investigation into potential privacy breaches.
The day after the dropbox was shared, the health authority advised recipients to neither read nor share the files due to privacy concerns. The authority asked the whistleblower to take down the dropbox and requested a meeting to discuss their concerns. When the whistleblower did not respond by April 1, the health authority notified RCMP and the territory’s privacy commissioner.
A review of the dropbox’s contents by privacy staff found a total of 1,248 privacy breaches under the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act and 121 breaches under the Health Information Act. Up to 1,369 names had been disclosed, staff found, including those of up to 92 staff members and 1,255 clients at the day and sobering centre.
Emails show health authority staff tried to identity the whistleblower by selecting the “forgot your password” option for the email account connected to the dropbox. Selecting that option revealed the last two digits of a phone number that health authority staff tried to cross-reference with phone numbers on file for staff at the day and sobering centre. Staff were ultimately unable to determine the whistleblower’s identity.
The full findings of the privacy investigation were redacted in documents provided to Cabin Radio.
‘I felt outrage’
One Yellowknife MLA has publicly chastised the NWT government for not investigating allegations of unsafe working conditions and mismanagement at the day and sobering centre while going after the whistleblowers.
“The minister knew we wanted the concerns investigated but looked to punish those brave enough to speak instead,” Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby told the legislature on March 3.
“This government talks about informed decision-making and change but instead chooses to punish those who raise the alarm.”
Nokleby said the Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission had failed to be proactive by only inspecting the day and sobering centre when the contractor identified issues. She said that approach placed the onus on minimum-wage employees to raise safety concerns with their employer.
Several staff members at the day and sobering centre told Cabin Radio their concerns and recommendations to management were often challenged, dismissed, or left unanswered.
“I felt outrage, a bit, for the person, because my office had actually spoken to someone that works there about the conditions that they described,” Nokleby told Cabin Radio of the territorial government’s response to the allegations.
“To just have it sort-of be played off as, yes, they were going to do what I was asking, but in reality they did nothing that I asked, it just does not seem very forthcoming or right.”
Many details still unknown
While internal documents reveal in part why the health authority failed to investigate the allegations at the day and sobering centre, the 445 pages of documents received by Cabin Radio were heavily redacted.
Privacy staff deleted information on the grounds that some sentences referred to a third party, contained legal advice, discussed a labour relations matter, or could prejudice a law enforcement matter, all of which are protected grounds under territorial privacy legislation. Many of Cabin Radio’s own emails to the health authority were redacted, and more than 100 pages were completely blacked out.
The findings of the disabilities council’s workplace investigation are private and not subject to similar information requests, as the council is a non-governmental organization.
The sobering centre is now being operated by the health authority. Earlier this year, the disabilities council declined to keep running the day and sobering centre for an additional six months while the NWT government decided on the facility’s future operator.