Health Canada: What Is Your Role?

by Charlotte Hutchinson
UPdate Spring/Summer 2000

     In previous articles I covered the fiasco I experienced as an environmentally ill (EI), or environmentally hypersensitive (EH), disabled employee with the Federal Government. Not only my department, Environment Canada (EC), but the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) and other supposed protectors of my rights and well-being were rife with ignorance and insensitivity. And the immunity from accountability was startling. The duty to accommodate me as a disabled employee was laughable. William Dufty wrote, "Defiance of law and order is a game at which government can beat you."

      Health Canada (HC), Atlantic Region was a positive exception. In 1990, they accepted my illness as having a physical basis. When EC referred me for an updated assessment in 1995, Dr. Karen MacDonald sent me to an internal medicine specialist, not a psychiatrist. In 1996 Paul Moore, an Air Quality Specialist, responded to EC about the oft heard retort, "but the air quality tests say everything is fine." He explained in very simple terms why "everything is fine" doesn't necessarily mean that everything is safe and healthy. He reviewed what the standards are meant to achieve, and also what is tested and is testable.

      As Chair of Operation: Safe Office Space (Op: SOS) of the NSAEHA I took on a case in Toronto in the fall of 1999. Jan Knowles, an EI employee with Transport Canada (TC) was working at 4900 Yonge St. She first experienced "acute symptoms" from building renovations in 1992, and although back to work, was getting sicker. She was facing the same type of management and human resources staff that I encountered at EC. Meanwhile she was deteriorating not just from her physical illness, but from the stress of her situation.

      Op: SOS starting writing letters on Knowles' behalf in Sept. 1999. TC and HC were key recipients. More about the responses later.

      Knowles was referred to HC for an assessment. She wasn't as lucky as I was in the Atlantic Region. She had been diagnosed by three specialists in the field of EI. In his correspondence of Sept. 9, 1999, Dr. Jeffrey Chernin, Occupational Health Medical Officer of HC, stated, "it is known and documented that individuals with increased environmental sensitivities do exist." Yet he sent Knowles to Dr. Andrew Malleson, a psychiatrist for, "one further clinical consultation."

      Regardless of the fact that Malleson could find nothing psychiatrically wrong with Knowles, he concluded that she was "misattributing the stress of her life situation to EH." He referred to only 8 select papers written between 1982 and 1987, apparently disregarding over 500 other references on this controversial field published from 1945 to 1999. He apparently decided that a broadly and increasingly accepted physical illness, EI, is a figment of the imagination. He seemed unaware of the CHRC policy on accommodation of those disabled with EH. And he also seemed unaware of the Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC) policy "EH at the Workplace." He apparently didn't know that the Treasury Board (TB) was in the process of developing a "Guide on EH at Work."

      After receiving Malleson's report, Chernin wrote TC on Dec. 17, 1999 about Knowles' "perceptions" of the problems the building was causing her. He too wasn't aware of the PWGSC policy or the fact the TB was developing one? He stated that he did not find her to be "medically disabled." And he didn't know about the CHRC policy?

     Max Planck said, "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but, rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."

      Knowles had been pressing to be accommodated under the CHR Act as a disabled employee with EH. If TC needed an "out' to terminate her employment, the good doctors engaged by HC seemingly handed it to them.

      Why is HC allowing doctors to assess EI employees when these doctors apparently aren't current to do so? Why doesn't HC have a policy on this rapidly growing health problem? Why aren't the practices consistent from region to region? Why aren't practices consistent from one Federal department to the next?

     And what happened to all our correspondence to TC and HC, which began in the fall of 1999 and was marked URGENT in large, bold letters by mid-January 2000?

      Well the Minister of TC's Special Assistant, Atlantic, Kirk Cox wrote us twice. On Nov. 19, 1999 he wrote, "Let me assure you that Transport Canada takes the environmental concerns expressed by Ms. Knowles very seriously. To that end, regional departmental officials are working with Ms. Knowles and her union representatives, and will continue to do so until a solution satisfactory to all parties is reached." On Feb. 4, 2000 in response to a more recent letter of mine, he wrote, "Please be assured that the department is well aware of the points you have raised in your letter with respect to Ms. Knowles' situation, and continues to be optimistic that suitable employment will be secured in the very near future."  Ten days later Knowles' employment with TC was terminated. Happy Valentine's Day, Jan. Had Cox forgotten to tell someone in the bowels of TC that they shouldn't fire her? Oops!

      Eventually, in February, I talked to Pam Carson, the Chief, Executive Correspondence for Alan Rock, Minister of Health. I asked if all our correspondence had been swallowed up by some black hole. She tried the bureaucratic side-step, but finally confessed that the turn-around time for general Ministerial correspondence at HC is 5-10 days. It is not 6 months, or never, as I was starting to believe. Carson promised us an apology and a full response to all our concerns. I concluded she was a novice at the bureaucratic side-step.

      Well HC's sole response was dated Feb. 24, 2000. It was an astounding four pages signed by Rock. It only apologized for the delay in responding, not for the neglect and ignorance by HC which left Knowles hanging out to dry and eventually resulted in the loss of her job (not to mention the loss of her income, health and peace of mind). It barely mentioned her situation, and took no responsibility to intervene and help. It did say that HC didn't have responsibility for legislation, policy or directives. That was a surprise! What were they going to do about the inconsistency between HC regions? It wasn't mentioned. As for the actions of the two doctors engaged by HC? Once again, not mentioned. Op: SOS thought Rock was a proponent of progress in the field of EI and a champion of our circumstances. Now what should we think?

      The letter was a masterpiece!  It provided a great deal of tangentially related information and deftly avoided all the pertinent issues and concerns. Write me for a copy of it if you like. I guess Carson wasn't such a novice at the bureaucratic side-step as I thought.
 I wrote TC and HC one last time on Apr. 28 with clear questions and a fixed response time. I asked if they were going to do anything to help Knowles. And were they going to take any action concerning Chernin and Malleson? The 5-10 days to respond to Ministerial correspondence have long since passed.

      I also sent Rock, Carson, Chernin, Malleson, Collenette and Cox a copy of this article for review prior to publication. I asked them to correct any errors. The only response I received was a phone message. It was from Malleson, saying I was right, he hadn't "actually very much reviewed EH for some years."   He "would be very pleased to have [my] list of 500 references."

      The Public Service Alliance of Canada, Knowles' union, has been considering her for a bravery award for the courage she showed in the struggle for her rights as a disabled person with EI. She certainly deserves it. But don't you normally receive a bravery award for fighting for your country and government, not against them? I hope the bureaucrats don't get it into their heads to try her for treason.