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Fired B.C. environmental officer who feared for safety given years of back pay, job back

Former Canadian environmental officer who feared for her life at work wins multi-year case. The labour board ruling raises concerns she was fired as an example to other government employees.
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An environmental enforcement officer with Environment and Climate Change Canada surveys a site. A recent ruling involving a toxic relationship at the department's Pacific branch led to fears of workplace shootings, bulletproof vests, and plans to pick up children in the event of a tragedy.

A fired government officer who investigated environmental and fisheries crimes across Western Canada has been given her job back and awarded multiple years of back pay and lost benefits, after she was found to have been wrongly terminated.

The decision, handed down by the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board in February but released to the public in recent weeks, describes a toxic work environment at the Department of Environment and Climate Change offices in Vancouver and Nanaimo.

It also raises serious concerns that the former operations manager was fired as an example to other staff at a time harassment claims had spiked across the federal department’s Pacific regional branch.

The case centred on Angela Walker, who began working in the federal public service in 1993, spent 12 years at the Canadian Border Services Agency as a customs officer and investigator, and was later appointed as an investigator at what was then known as Environment Canada.

In 2011, Walker came back from maternity leave as an operations manager, a job that required her to lead a team of enforcement officers in Vancouver and Nanaimo who conducted inspections and investigations for environmental and fisheries offences across the region.

Among the enforcement officers Walker oversaw was Ken Russell, in a relationship the board heard was “bumpy from the outset.”

‘Treated him like a child’

Three years after Walker’s return to work, Russell filed a 120-page document laying out 26 alleged incidents of harassment by the operations manager.

At the time, Chief Enforcement Officer Gordon Owen determined four harassment allegations against Walker were founded and were “intended to demean and belittle” Russell.

Walker’s actions were also found to contravene a department ethics and harassment policy, according to a 2015 letter of termination.

In one incident, Walker was alleged to have suggested to employees that Russell participated in “an underhanded, backroom, or old boys’ club deal” to get a desirable transfer to Nanaimo.

Walker was also accused of cancelling Russell’s attendance at a swift-water rescue course, and excluding him from a shooting-range session where staff were practising to defend themselves from predators.

Owen said a fourth harassment allegation was determined to be founded after Walker allegedly forced Russell to take a management course in Alberta, Saskatchewan or Quebec when it was available in Vancouver.

Walker was also accused of several acts of misconduct, including improperly accessing Russell’s electronic leave records and asking to deactivate Russell’s access card to their Vancouver offices.

At one May 22, 2013, meeting, Russell told Walker “he felt raped by her,” according to testimony. The alleged harassment campaign led Russell to take a combined nine months of sick leave, he said.

In Walker’s letter of termination, Owen said she was wrong to “impose her will” on Russell and that she “treated him like a child” in a pattern of behaviour that amounted to bullying, harassment and retaliation.

A ‘very sympathetic witness’

On Oct. 1, 2015, Walker was terminated from her position over the alleged harassment and a “targeted and continued effort” to have Russell resign.

Three years later, Walker filed a grievance with the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board. But the board considered testimony from Russell “highly credible.”

A “very sympathetic witness,” Russell was so well liked he had received a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Award. Walker’s grievance was dismissed.

In its ruling, the board said the harassment allegations against Walker were “individually very minor” but taken together, their impact on Russell was “akin to a form of water torture.”

The case was then sent to the Federal Court of Appeal, which set the board’s decision aside and referred the case to another board member to reassess the evidence and testimony.

The appeal court judges said the previous ruling failed to address Walker’s “alleged fear” of her subordinate. That fear, noted the court, played a central and fundamental role in her defence.

Fears of violence at work

In the latest decision, federal employment board member Ian Mackenzie was tasked with re-litigating the case pitting Walker against her former employer, the deputy head of the Department of the Environment and Climate Change.

Mackenzie’s decision reassessed the fear that Walker felt toward Russell and how the department ultimately decided her actions warranted termination.

The board member considered evidence from the initial investigation that suggested Walker did not want Russell at the gun range in 2013 because she feared for her personal safety, according to the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board decision.

Despite those fears, investigators determined the incident had a “significant and long lasting impact” on Russell and that Walker should have gone through “correct channels.”

That summer, Walker took notes in a meeting with Russell where he expressed a “high degree of anger,” the board decision says.

The next spring at a use-of-force training exercise, Walker said she called up another officer who lived nearby and arranged for them to pick up her daughter from daycare “if something were to happen to me during training,” it says.

And after a shooting at a Nanaimo mill in 2014, Walker testified that Russell appeared to associate himself with the shooter, saying he might have been triggered by problems with management or issues at home, it says.

Jarrett Brochez, enforcement officer in Nanaimo, testified that he “could feel an excruciating level of tension in the office” and that after the shooter incident, he felt compelled to tell Walker, the board decision says.

Russell, for his part, said he never sympathized with the shooter and was simply trying to understand his motivations.

Bulletproof vest to work

At times, Russell appeared to show paranoid behaviour — Brochez said he observed Russell moving ceiling tiles at the Nanaimo office to look for listening and recording devices, according to the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board decision.

When Russell found out management had learned that he was moving the tiles, Walker and Brochez testified, “he became visibly angry,” describing Walker as “Miss Piggy,” “bitch,” “The Devil” and saying she should be “burned at the stake,” the board decision says.

Brochez and another staff member reported Russell had a “volatile temper” and expressed concerns about retaliation from Russell because they took part in the investigation.

At one point, Walker was so fearful of her male subordinate that she wore a bulletproof vest to work, she said, according to the board decision.

“During supervision in my Nanaimo office, unlike my Vancouver office, I wear my duty belt, use of force tools, bulletproof vest and have a driving route to the local hospital and RCMP detachment printed out for quick reference,” Walker wrote to her bosses in 2015.

Walker told a disciplinary hearing that Russell had made threats against her personal safety, the board decision says. But when she received her 2015 termination letter, it stated that a workplace threat assessment had found her security was not at risk.

‘Blackballed’ from law enforcement?

After losing her position at Environment Canada, Walker tried to get a job at five local municipalities, a national police information centre and as a permits clerk, among other positions.

Walker said applications to the B.C. government were promising but that the province was advised hiring her would be “too political.” None of the applications were successful.

Her financial woes didn’t stop there. Over the coming years, she had another child but was denied employment insurance maternity benefits. In 2016, her gross income was $4,224. She started an ecological weed business, but in 2021, her tax returns showed a net loss of $10,146.

In the hearings that followed, her old employer — now the Department of Environment and Climate Change — agreed termination was the appropriate penalty for Walker, and denied that she had been “blackballed” from law-enforcement agencies.

Walker, for her part, denied several of the harassment allegations. Her grievance sought reinstatement at the department.

Department set out to make an example of Walker, suggests board member

In his review of the case, Mackenzie ultimately found that Walker’s actions constituted misconduct when it came to a few allegations, such as the deactivation of Russell’s office access card and when she disobeyed an order not to conduct a fact-finding interview. But none of those actions justified her termination, the board member found.

“In this case, the employer’s harassment policy implied that poor management practices could constitute harassment,” Mackenzie said in his decision. “I have concluded that none of the founded allegations in the harassment investigation report constituted harassment.”

Mackenzie also raised concerns that the initial findings against Walker were motivated by harassment allegations across the department, and by “a desire to show employees that the branch took harassment seriously, rather than an objective examination of the grievor’s alleged acts of harassment.”

The board member found Walker had “a genuine fear” of Russell and that the employer knew it. Mackenzie said Walker had spent 22 years in public service without any record of discipline, and that her misconduct warranted a 15-day suspension — not termination.

Walker was ultimately awarded full pay and benefits over the 17 months between when she was terminated and when her second child was born. She was also given a year of previously unpaid EI maternity benefits, plus employer top-up.

All of the money owed was to be paid with interest, and Walker was deemed to be on leave without pay for pension purposes from the end of her maternity to Feb. 14, 2024.

That’s when Walker was reinstated with full pay and benefits.