Labor Board upholds firing of Health Canada’s head of clinical trials


Health Canada said Dr. Norman Viner’s outside work at Queensway Carleton Hospital and a long-term care home interfered with his government duties and put him in a conflict of interest.

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The Federal Labor Relations Board has upheld Health Canada’s controversial decision to fire the head of its clinical trials division – an Ottawa doctor who also worked part-time at Queensway Carleton Hospital and a nursing home in long duration.

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Health Canada has said Dr. Norman Viner’s outside work interferes with his government duties and puts him in a conflict of interest.

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Viner, however, called the investigation that led to his dismissal a “witch hunt” and said his immediate superiors were aware of his professional working conditions.

A public servant for 20 years, Viner was head of clinical trials in the clinical trials division of Health Canada’s genetic therapies directorate when he was suspended without pay in 2016 and fired for cause a year later.

He had worked in the geriatrics ward at Queensway Carleton throughout his career in public service.

Viner filed a complaint for his suspension and dismissal with the Federal Labor Relations Board, insisting he had done nothing wrong.

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Hearings in the case spanned four weeks between August 2019 and December 2020 and concluded with written submissions in February 2021.

In a recent ruling, the Labor Relations Board upheld the dismissal as a valid measure “having regard to the seriousness of the misconduct.” He revealed that Viner was performing work at the hospital during normal business hours, using government resources to support that work, taking unauthorized time off, and sending confidential government information to his personal email account.

“In this case, the plaintiff (Viner) has not admitted his misconduct,” concluded arbitrator Ian Mackenzie. “In the circumstances before me, and in the absence of any acknowledgment from him that his actions were improper, I conclude that the bond of trust between employer and employee is irreparably broken.”

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Mackenzie said Viner ignored “clear instructions” on how to handle his outside work and could have brought Health Canada into disrepute for its mishandling of confidential information.

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, which represented Viner, said it would not comment on the decision. Viner could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

The board heard that in the spring of 2016, some Health Canada employees raised concerns that Viner was late or unprepared for meetings and answered his cell phone during them. This led to an internal investigation in which Viner’s phone and computer were seized.

The investigation revealed that Viner gave his email address to Health Canada as a point of contact for the hospital, was on call during hours that overlapped with his government job, used his government phone to communicate with the hospital, hired over $4,000 in roaming and long distance. charges unrelated to government work and was absent without leave for 24 days between August 2014 and February 2016.

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The investigation also uncovered 11 unsecured emails containing protected information, plus one with a password and username.

Viner said he sent the emails to his personal Gmail account to facilitate working from home, believing them to be secure.

The board heard that Health Canada had approved Viner’s outside work on the condition that he not use government time or equipment. He also had an informal arrangement with his boss, Dr. Agnes Klein, which allowed him to perform hospital rounds on Wednesday afternoons.

Dr Klein said government doctors followed an honor system and had to make up for lost time in outside activities.

Health Canada’s code of ethics allows public servants to pursue outside employment as long as it does not create a conflict of interest or undermine the impartiality of the public service.

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Assistant Deputy Minister Pierre Sabourin testified that 29 of the 65 physicians certified at Health Canada were also practicing physicians. Many had compressed work weeks, he said, to allow time for their outside clinical work.

Norman Viner at the International Ball.
Norman Viner at the International Ball. Photo of the Ottawa sun by Shannon Bain

Viner’s government contract required him to work 37.5 hours a week. Dr. Robert Cushman, former director general of Health Canada, testified that Viner was a productive employee who frequently worked from home in the evenings. He also praised the quality of Viner’s work.

Viner said he conducted hospital activities mostly during his lunch hours or on his personal time. Council heard he was on call at Queensway Carleton Hospital from midday on Friday. Viner testified that being on call did not require him to be physically present and that he primarily conducted patient visits on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays.

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Viner’s lawyers argued that even though Health Canada knew he was a practicing physician, that did not take into account his professional obligation to patients, some of whom needed immediate help. Additionally, they argued, Viner should not be required to apologize for actions that are unfounded or condoned by management.

In her decision, Mackenzie said a rare absence might have been acceptable in Viner’s case. “However,” he said, “the evidence shows that it was not a rare occasion. His on-call schedule also shows that he made himself available regularly, and not infrequently, to carry out his duties. his duties at the hospital.

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